People with knowledge to share, skills to lend, or time to invest should be able to join a reporter’s beat— and become a member of it. The membership model, currently under development as a path to sustainability in journalism, can be extended into beat reporting. But it won’t happen unless we get newsrooms to experiment with how to make it work. Dozens of practical problems stand in the way of this idea, which I am calling “join the beat.”
I plan to do my part with this concept paper. After it is published, the research program I direct, the Membership Puzzle Project (MPP), will recruit a test group: six to eight reporters who want to build a membership component into their beats, with the support of their editors and newsrooms. The idea is for the reporters to work in parallel with one another. MPP has hired a stellar part-time researcher, Melanie Sill, to surface lessons, connect the parts, and keep the experiment in touch with itself. She used to run newsrooms in Raleigh, Sacramento, and Los Angeles.
1. Defining the concept: what it means to “join the beat”
Almost 20 years ago, my friend Dan Gillmor, then a columnist for the San Jose Mercury News (who was also one of the first newspaper journalists to have a blog) came to this realization: “My readers know more than I do.” It was one of the discoveries he made covering the technology industry during the first internet boom. About rising companies, upcoming deals, emerging products, and simmering problems in Silicon Valley, his readers — collectively — knew a lot more than he could ever know, no matter how hard he worked.
Of course this would have been true in 1959. Gillmor was one of the first to see what was different about 1999. Because of the internet, the people who knew more than he did could reach him with that knowledge. They were more interconnected: to the reporter, and to each other. This had implications for beat coverage. For what if those people who knew more than the journalist also knew that a reporter on the beat was ready and able to make use of that knowledge?
I know what you’re thinking: they’re called sources, Jay! Reporters have always had sources. (True.) Sources know things journalists don’t. That’s why they are called sources. That’s why we take them to lunch.
Right. But consider... Collectively, readers always had enough knowledge to make their own encyclopedia. But before the internet they never did. Why is that? Because the transaction costs and practical difficulties of pooling their knowledge made such a thing nearly impossible. Similarly, a “networked beat” is possible today in a way that it wasn’t before, if we can figure out how to reduce the costs, raise the incentives, and create workflows that are effective and efficient.
So here is what I mean by a networked beat: when a beat reporter plus a knowledge community positioned around the beat work together — routinely — to produce better, richer, and more three-dimensional coverage. The hard part is “routinely.” Journalism is built on routines: producing on deadline. A networked beat goes beyond special projects that depend on contributions from readers. It incorporates knowledgeable contributors into the way the beat normally functions, with the goal of regularly broadening the pool of information available to the reporter and ultimately improving the journalism.
Let’s take an example to make this clearer. One of the most basic forms of beat coverage in the digital era is the daily roundup of the best work published on that topic in the last 12 or 24 hours. Here’s a curated roundup: the “Morning Media” newsletter from Politico. “What’s newly published that we should all be reading if we care about this subject?” is one of those questions where readers — collectively — know more than even the most wired reporter. It stands to reason that a daily roundup post that benefits from the reading and scanning of 50 or 100 or 500 people trying to inform themselves would be rounder than what a lone journalist can produce.
But that’s only true in the abstract. When we try to make it happen, problems pop up. How do people submit recommendations? What tools make this easy on both sides? How do we make it pain-free and intuitive for them to contribute? Where do the suggestions get stored? How do we give good instructions to readers about what exactly to look for? What’s the workflow for turning those tips into roundup text? How do we credit contributors, and let them know their help is valued? What about low quality or useless contributions? How do we prevent interactions with helpers from eating up so much time that their help is not actually helping?
And so on...
Practical headaches like these are at the core of the Join the Beat project. For if these problems can be solved, the result could be a big gain in beat journalism. In a fully networked beat, the round-up post (or morning tip sheet) would not only be improved by knowledge-sharing among readers, it could be largely produced by them.
Daily Kos is an online community of progressive bloggers and activists who all publish on the Kos platform. (They call themselves Kossacks.) One of the features of the site is “Community Spotlight,” explained here. It’s a thread of new and interesting things that newer members have published, produced by a group of volunteers, the Rescue Rangers, who agree to read everything newly published and “rescue” the most original and interesting stuff. It’s not identical to a roundup post, but all the elements are there: daily production of a curated product, instructions to members in how to do it, volunteers who take on this task, a workflow that works.
Of course one of the reasons it works is that people commune at Daily Kos around a cluster of shared political beliefs, which they feel very strongly about. For reporters who are primarily interested in publishing great journalism on a beat they dig deeply into, motivating those “readers who know more than I do” will be one of the challenges. Good journalism itself — better beat coverage — will have to be the “cause.” Is that motivation enough? We’ll find out.
This is a good time to introduce the one percent rule of online life. It says that if you attract a thousand people to your site, 90 percent of them will only consume the content. Maybe ten percent will interact with the site at all, for example by registering for a user name or leaving a comment. And one percent (10 people) may contribute in a more substantial way, like writing a guest post, or giving detailed and ongoing feedback — if you’re lucky! A networked beat is primarily about finding and motivating that one percent, or even a fraction of it, to help create editorial work that better engages the ten percent, and better informs the 90.
So here’s the concept in this concept paper: Some beats can have not only loyal readers for the journalism they produce, but members who assist in producing it. These would be readers with knowledge to share, skills to lend, or time to invest, who want to see better coverage of, say, climate change, or internet privacy.
If these contributors were officially invited to “join the beat,” and smart participation paths were created for them; if they found it easy and intuitive to contribute their knowledge, their skills, their time; if the most motivated among them could sign up for learning modules that made them better and more trusted contributors; if the connection between their part and the published product was super clear, if they saw the difference they were making and “got” what beat journalism was all about, the result could be a force multiplier for beat reporting that could improve service, deepen loyalty and eventually (I believe) help break big stories.
But there’s only one way to find out: to start down the road of creating a networked beat, determined to solve the myriad of practical problems that are sure to arise.
2. The kinds of beats that are right for this experiment
Not every beat is suitable for this. On some, the knowledge necessary to cover the beat is widely distributed. For others, the people who really know what’s going on are just a handful, and the reporter must have sources among that exclusive group.
In the first category, where the knowledge necessary to cover the beat is widely distributed, Julia Angwin of ProPublica covers the impact of technology on society. “I’m digging into privacy, algorithms and big data and artificial intelligence,” she writes. Lots of people know about those subjects and could help with her coverage: people who work at platform companies or who consider big data or online advertising their specialty, those in the start-up world who have to keep track of the technology, privacy activists and white hat hackers who follow surveillance issues, scholars and grad students doing research, as well as ordinary users whose privacy is in peril.
It’s true that all of these people might have a stake, or a take, but this is another one of those practical problems we have to solve. (Can people with a stake recommend good links for a roundup post? They can! Besides, one of the truisms among reporters is that all sources have an agenda.)
In my second category (when the people who really know what’s going on are limited in number) covering the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election is an obvious example. A reporter on that story needs sources on Robert Mueller’s staff, or on the relevant Congressional committees, or among lawyers whose clients are implicated. That’s a limited universe of people. Not a favorable setting for a networked beat.
A few years ago I came across this ad for a reporter’s position at the Seattle Times. The job was to cover Microsoft. “One of our premier beats,” the ad said:
Seeking a hard-driving, enterprising reporter to cover one of the most influential corporations in the world: Microsoft. This reporter should have considerable experience [and] take pride at being ahead of not only local competitors, but the national media as well… Skilled at working with financial documents, understanding technology, building sources and breaking through a PR machine second to none… Skilled at anticipating events, putting together stories that connect the dots and [explaining] to our readers why these events are important.
The Seattle Times devoted to the Microsoft beat two experienced and highly proficient reporters, plus spot coverage from other desks. But when you look across the story — the life and times of Microsoft for all the people who care about its fortunes in Seattle and for all those involved with the company elsewhere — this is one massive reporting task. Even the most skilled journalist can only do so much. But reporter plus network, acting as force multiplier…?
So imagine the Seattle Times had said this in its ad: Seeking an ambitious and entrepreneurial journalist to help develop a networked approach to one of our premier beats: covering Microsoft. Different job, right?
Here are some other beats where knowledge is widely distributed and a networked approach might be effective, some of them suggested by journalists I have been talking to about these ideas.
- Gender in the military.
- Native Hawaiian issues in Honolulu.
- Getting your kid into college and paying for it.
- Dealing with monstrous health care bills and a system indifferent to them.
- Commuting and traffic.
The constraints: knowledge is widely distributed. “My readers know more than I do.” A networked approach is likely to bear fruit. We can envision how it might work. Notice: Virtually any social movement with bottom-up momentum can be — and perhaps should be — covered this way: the white supremacy movement, for example.
3. Getting started
Suppose you want to try it: “How might you begin?” With a call-out of course, a request for participants, which means sounding for the one percent.
But before you can do that, you need to determine what the people who answer the call will be doing, and how that helps the beat. Then you have to design the workflow or participation paths that shows them how to make their contributions and renders them useful to the newsroom. When you know what you want them to do, when you’re clear on how it adds to the beat, when you have systems in place to receive their contribution and turn it into something of journalistic value... then you’re ready for the initial call out: “join the beat.”
To illustrate, let me use my earlier example of the daily round-up post that members of the beat might help with:
What you want them to do… Suggest links for what’s new and interesting and worth reading in tomorrow’s newsletter.
How it adds to the beat… More eyes and ears scanning the web for good stuff. More diverse perspectives in choosing what’s new and significant. “Readers read more than we do.”
Systems that need to be in place… Minimum viable way would be a Google form or Typeform screener that feeds a spreadsheet. Alternate method: Facebook group.
How to turn it into something of value… Reporter opens spreadsheet, clicks links, fills up browser tabs, moves quickly through members’ suggestions, picking the best ones for tomorrow’s newsletter.
Metrics for success: How good are the suggestions surfaced by this method? How wide a net is cast? How long it takes to create the product every day, and of course the quality of the member-assisted newsletter.
Recognize contributors! Add the names of those whose suggestions were used to the newsletter byline and you have a simple recognition system for members who helped out.
There’s no way to know if this method will work until you try it. But if it does work, it’s a routine. Recruit 100 people to the routine, and it doesn’t matter if a given reader only recommends one link per month. Streamline the workflow well enough, and it doesn’t matter if only three people participate on a given day. That could be three links you would have otherwise missed.
Building a networked beat is essentially repeating this process multiple times and learning what works.
4. Realistically, what can “members” of a beat do?
It is important not to picture members as “mini” journalists, doing what journalists already do but at a lower cost, or amateur level. Instead, ask yourself what members of a beat are actually qualified to do. Here are a few things that occur to me, but this list should be established experimentally.
- They can recommend things to read and to check out, as I have said.
- They can send documents or other originals the reporter should have.
- They can help establish relative weight among possible topics on the beat.
- They can help with story ideas and weigh in on coverage priorities.
- They can enliven the reporter’s imagination by starting in a different place.
- They can diversify a reporter’s sources and methods.
- They can share their expertise, testify to their experience.
- They can argue with each other, and thus reveal vital tensions and fault lines.
- They can comment on drafts and save you from errors small and large.
- They can critique the finished product and offer suggestions about where to go next.
- They can suggest people and organizations that will be interested in the coverage but were unknown to you.
If these are things that members of a beat can realistically do, then the job is to streamline and routinize their contributions so as to reduce transaction costs and make the beat better. That’s hard to do. If we can crack it, we can realize big gains in beat reporting: better informed, more distinctive coverage that helps develop community around the beat.
5. Obstacles: problems we can anticipate
Having listed things that members of a beat can plausibly do, I should point out what some of the problems or failure points are likely to be:
Maybe people won’t respond to your calls. Maybe you won’t be able to motivate them. If your call out is successful, you might be overwhelmed by coordination costs.
Contributions might be low quality, and not worth the trouble it takes to process them. People might be willing to contribute, able to add value, but the workflow defeats them. Members might be enthusiastic at first, but then gradually lose interest and drift away.
The beat reporter might fail to find a voice that persuades, or a style that includes. The reporter's work might not mix well with a member's expectations, or point of view, causing the member to withdraw.
6. Want to participate? Here’s what it will take.
The Membership Puzzle Project is looking for beat reporters who want to participate in our Join the Beat project and who have the necessary support of their newsrooms. By “participate” we mean that you try to get readers to join your beat as members, that you figure out what you want from them, that you attempt to routinize their contributions, and that you experiment to find out what works and what doesn’t.
Meanwhile, other reporters will be doing the same thing in parallel to your work. Melanie Sill, an experienced news executive and changemaker (former editor of the Sacramento Bee and Raleigh News & Observer and former vice president for content at Southern California Public Radio) will oversee this collaboration and make sure it operates as a learning community.
All participants agree to share what they are doing and learning as they ask readers to join their respective beats. MPP will provide advice where it can, and bring national attention to your work when there is reason to report to the journalism community about what we are learning. We will not tell you how to do it, but we will cheer you on, share important tools and connections, and provide you with colleagues in the struggle to make it work.
By newsroom support we mean editors who get what this about and understand why it is worth trying. Obviously they will have to make it possible for you to succeed, but we leave the commitment of resources up to them. We will ask you to name the editor who is “sponsoring” your participation in the project, and we will probably want to talk to that person. The Join the Beat experiment is initially planned to last six months from April 1, 2018, to September 30, 2018. We encourage inquiries from a wide range of reporters with varied experience, and we are not put off by a non-traditional beat.
To apply, send a letter to Melanie and attach your resume to it. Some things you might want to include:
- Why you’re attracted to this project.
- Your publication, its editorial approach, and its audience.
- A short description of your beat and any “networked” possibilities you see.
- How “join the beat” project fits into where your publication is headed.
- How this project fits into where you want to go as a journalist.
- Send us some links that represent the kind of reportage you do.
- Include anything else that might help us see why you want to participate.
- Include name and contact information for the editor who is sponsoring you.
We look forward to hearing from you! Let us know if you have suggestions for tools that might aid these reporters and their members, too.
We encourage inquiries from a wide range of reporters with varied experience, and we are not put off by a non-traditional beat. Sorry, we cannot accept applications from freelancers.