Viewers Guide to David Gregory’s “Hey, I’m self-aware…” segment on climate change.

I recommend that you read my guide first, then endure the ads and watch the segment, but it works fine the other way too.

17 Feb 2014 9:42 am 19 Comments

Viewer’s guide to: MEET THE PRESS, Feb. 16, 2014. Scientist Bill Nye and Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., discuss the politics of weather emergencies and climate change with host David Gregory. (Transcript, news story.)

Gregory wanted to elude a criticism he thought he could anticipate: that he would give undue forum to the climate change resistance forces by letting Marsha Blackburn do her thing on Meet the Press. He had a plan for that. He also wanted to avoid getting lost in the weeds, which is why he picked Bill Nye, a television communicator, rather than ask a climate scientist to debate Blackburn. As the Washington Post put it: “Perhaps Nye — who has perfected communicating complex subjects to children — will have more success.”

Earlier, a simple count by Media Matters showed that Meet the Press had almost entirely avoided the subject of climate change for a year. But now they had a news peg. “This extreme weather moment… is there new urgency to act?”

Embedded in that frame was the show’s design for avoiding a cartoon debate about climate change, in which the existence of any scientific consensus is disputed and the segment is overtaken by reactions and counter-reactions, with the host looking weak for not pushing back hard enough on the denialism when it appears, leading to charges of false balance.

Gregory saw all that coming. His plan was to push back hard, and insist that the discussion “move on.” Meet the Press was going to transcend the dispute over “is it happening?” by asking: what are we going to do about it? The lead-in referred to a “new focus on the need for action,” as against another fruitless exchange about whether the earth is warming and human action is the cause.

Having ignored the debate, Meet the Press figured it would step in and advance the debate. But in order to push back, as David Gregory self-consciously planned to do, you had to have someone pushing, first. You needed as a Meet the Press guest a figure whose way of flirting with denialism was to go there on camera: a show off. Only against that ground could Gregory show up as a figure of resistance.

His resistance included quotations from the Atlantic magazine about consensus in the Republican party moving off the rejection of climate science toward a focus on the costs to address it, and from a large corporation that had begun moving toward acceptance. (Message: Meet the Press is Advancing the Debate.) Other resistance moves included saying before he asked his first question, “In the scientific community, this is not really a debate about whether climate change is real. The consensus is that it is,” responding to Blackburn by reminding her of that consensus, and interrupting at one point after Blackburn tried to say, “There is not consensus there” to re-assert what the real issue is: not whether the earth is warming due to human action, but what to do about it. He also cut Bill Nye short to inject: “I want to stick to the point about what’s going to happen in the future with policy.”

Blackburn’s gambit was to smile and nod and say “that’s right” or “you’re exactly right” when David Gregory said the issue was what to do about climate change — playing along with the Advance the Debate premise — and then slip in when she could the denialist message: the science is unproven, there’s disagreement among scientists, what about the benefits of more carbon in the atmosphere? This naturally led Bill Nye to object, bringing on the very discussion that Advance the Debate was meant to transcend, which then allowed David Gregory (the adult) to continually re-focus things on “what to do.”

Gregory thought he would outwit his critics by accepting the validity of the false balance critique and becoming the enforcer of scientific consensus. Of course, there’s a simpler way to accomplish that: just don’t put on the air political figures who flirt with denialism! The problem with that: David Gregory doesn’t get to interrupt and set things right. He can’t vivify his intention to Advance the Debate and show off what he’s learned from the critics.

Finally, in his self-awareness David Gregory overlooked one big thing. Creating confusion works just fine as a mode of resistance to the scientific consensus he thought he was advancing. (See this study.) Because his Advance the Debate segment required that denialism make an appearance, so that it could be visibly gotten beyond, and because no one on Meet the Press had any intention to stick with the topic long enough to sort out the confusing things Blackburn injected (like the benefits of more carbon) the actual result was an informational mess. Which advances nothing.

That’s what I recommend you watch for. Now watch:

 

First Look Media and the personal franchise

The bet is that a news brand can be both: its own thing and the thing that talented, driven, fully-voiced individuals want to do in journalism

11 Feb 2014 8:56 am 3 Comments

First Look Media, where I’m an advisor, launched its first “digital magazine” yesterday. It’s called The Intercept. (A name I like.) The Intercept is led by Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill. It has a masthead, a mission, its own look and feel and the following URL: http://firstlook.org/theintercept.

Attention should properly focus on the journalism that The Intercept launched with. It’s a story by Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Schahill that essentially says: the U.S. doesn’t know who it’s killing with some of its drone attacks because the targeting is done by tracking SMS cards in phones. The article is based in part on the Snowden documents and also on the testimony of a new source: “a former drone operator for the military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) who also worked with the NSA,” and who cooperated with The Intercept without revealing his name.

Read the story. Read how it departs from consensus judgment in the press. And about the public service, troublemaking tradition it is a part of. I just want to make one point here for those who are following First Look’s development from the concept I wrote about in October, to the initial sketch of its structure, to the video where Pierre Omidyar described his intentions in more detail, to this week’s developments (“Glenn Greenwald’s new website launches with fresh NSA revelations.”)

Recently I have been writing about the “personal franchise model” in digital journalism:

There are lots of sites built around individuals, like almost every blog in the world. There are lots of born-on-the-web news companies, and they were all begun by individuals. By “personal franchise” I mean something more: a central figure or personality has given birth to a newsroom, a larger operation. But the larger operation still feels like an individual’s site.

First Look has been structured so that it can support the emergence of any number of such sites. The Intercept is just the first. It is grounded not in a topical niche as much as an editorial approach, and some convictions that three editors share, like

The prime value of journalism is that it imposes transparency, and thus accountability, on those who wield the greatest governmental and corporate power.

When Ezra Klein proposed to the Washington Post a newsroom built around his interest in explanatory journalism and the sort of background knowledge that breaking news coverage often leaves out, Katharine Weymouth, the publisher, received his proposal and concluded that it was a poor fit. Her exact words: “It seemed to be potentially a bigger distraction that would take resources without building the Post.” And so Klein left to try his idea with Vox Media.

All Things Digital was a personal franchise site and conference brand owned by the Wall Street Journal, and run by Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher, two exceptionally talented technology journalists. When their contracts were up, they negotiated with the Journal but wound up leaving, along with their staff, for a new venture: Recode.net. The Wall Street Journal then folded the All Things D site into the Journal’s souped-up technology coverage. The old URL, allthingsd.com, now forwards to WSJ: D, the Journal’s technology section.

The logic is pretty clear: why have two brands when the Wall Street Journal is such a strong name in business coverage?

But what if this conflict — between a franchise built around a few individuals’ editorial ambitions and the requirements of the larger newsroom brand — didn’t exist, because the larger newsroom brand acknowledged the strengths of the personal model from the start? This is a key feature of First Look’s design. It accepts and incorporates the personal franchise style, treating it as no threat to the editorial ambitions that First Look has for itself.

In fact, the hope is to attract others who can launch sites like The Intercept, and to offer a common core of services — data skills, design help, good publishing tools, strong legal advice, marketing muscle — that the founders will need to succeed. (And the quality of the services keeps centrifugal forces in check.) Under this model, the diverse paths that such sites may take are not a “distraction” from the core business or a subtraction from the editorial brand but a vital part of both.

First Look will also do curation (sometimes called continuous news) and it will have its own staff of investigative journalists digging and publishing under the First Look name. The bet is that a news brand can be both: its own thing and the thing that talented, driven, fully-voiced individuals want to do in journalism.

Behold how badly our political journalists have lost the freakin’ plot

I read hundreds of bylined works of journalism a week. Every so often one of them forces me to go back and read it over and over...

7 Feb 2014 9:31 am 19 Comments

This is usually because the writing contains within it a density of pressthink — my subject here — that cannot be gotten through in one or two tries. It happened this week with a post by Chris Cillizza, one of the Washington Post’s franchise players on the national politics beat: Why the CBO report is (still) bad news for Democrats.

Ordinarily I would summarize what Cillizza was writing about, quote from his piece, and try to isolate what’s screwy or revealing about it. But Dave Wiegel did that at Slate already. And I did it for a very similar piece published on Cillizza’s site in 2012. See my post: Everything That’s Wrong with Political Journalism in One Washington Post Item.

Instead, I wote a short reader’s guide to Cillizza’s post. Your instructions are to absorb the guide, then click the link at the end and re-read what @TheFix wrote. Got it? Alright then—

Nobody knows exactly when it happened. But at some point between Teddy White’s The Making of the President, 1960 and the Willie Horton ads in 1988, political journalism in this country lost the plot. When it got overly interested in the inside game, it turned you and me and everyone who has to go into the voting booth and make a decision into an object of technique, which it then tried to assess. We became the people on whom the masters of politics practiced their craft. Then political journalism tried to recover an audience from the people it had turned into poll numbers and respondents to packaged stimuli. Tricky maneuver.

This is what led to the cult of the savvy, my term for the ideology and political style that journalists like Chris Cillizza and Mark Halperin spread through their work. The savvy severs any lingering solidarity between journalists as the providers of information, and voters as decision-makers in need of it. The savvy sets up — so it can speak to and cultivate — a third group between these two: close followers of the game. The most common term for them is “political junkies.” The site that Cillizza runs was created by that term. It’s called The Fix because that’s what political junkies need: their fix of inside-the-game news.

Junkies are not normal, but they accept their deformed status because it comes with compensations. They get to feel superior to ordinary voters, who are the objects of technique and of the savvy analyst’s smart read on what is likely to work in the next election. For while the junkies can hope to understand the game and how it operates, the voters are merely operated on. Not only does the savvy sever any solidarity between political journalists and the public they were once supposed to inform, it also draws a portion of the attentive public into emotional alliance with the ad makers, poll takers, claim fakers and buck rakers within the political class— the people who, as Max Weber put it in his famous essay “Politics as a Vocation,” live off politics.

But we’re not done. The savvy sets up a fifth group. (The first four: savvy journalists, political junkies, masters of the game, and an abstraction, The Voters.) These are the people who, as Weber put it, live for politics. They are involved as determined participants, not just occasional voters. Whereas the junkies can hope for admission to the secrets of the game (by taking cues from Chris Cillizza and Mark Halperin and the guys at Politico) the activists are hopelessly deluded, always placing their own ideology before the cold hard facts.

If you follow the Twitter feeds of Ron Fournier of National Journal and Chuck Todd of NBC you routinely see people they call “partisans” described as silly, insane, overheated, unreasonable. Click here for Fournier doing it and here for Todd. Somewhere in their dinosaur brains those who “live off” politics understand that the people who live for it could steal their constituency and turn the savvy into the absurd creatures. Thus the constant ridicule of partisans. Thus the self-description on Ron Fournier’s Twitter bio. Political affiliation: Agnostic.

So this is what the savvy in the press do. Cultivate the political junkies. Dismiss and ridicule the activists, the “partisans.” Assess the tactics by which the masters of the game struggle to win. Turn the voters into an object, the behavior of which is subject to a kind of law that savvy journalists feel entitled to write. Here’s Cillizza, writing one:

Remember that most voters — people who don’t follow this stuff as closely as me, you or, likely, most people we know — make their decisions based on 30-second TV ads.”

I’ll remember, Chris. Your assignment: Inhale that sentence, click this link and behold how badly our political journalists have lost the plot.

Features and details of the personal franchise model in digital journalism, with 11 examples

These are my notes for a talk I'm giving today at the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno

4 Feb 2014 11:40 pm 9 Comments

What I’m calling the personal franchise model in journalism is not new. I.F. Stone’s Weekly was a personal franchise — it fit the definition I am about to give you — and he started that in 1953. Also, I’m not trying to be comprehensive in this analysis. There are instances of the personal franchise model that I am not going to mention.

There are lots of sites built around individuals, like almost every blog in the world. There are lots of born-on-the-web news companies, and they were all begun by individuals. By “personal franchise” I mean something more: a central figure or personality has given birth to a newsroom, a larger operation. But the larger operation still feels like an individual’s site.

The personal franchise model in digital journalism, simple definition:

A news and commentary site built around the talent and sensibility of an individual journalist with a unique voice and a following online.

Key features:

* Charismatic journalist — and founder — at the center, joined by a staff hand picked by the founder.

* Editorial control rests with the founder, even when ownership does not.

* Stands in contrast to the more institutional news brands — like BusinessWeek, The Washington Post, NPR, or Politico — where talented people come and go while reputation attaches to the name, product (and logo!) of the institution.

* Talking Points Memo doesn’t really exist without its founder, Josh Marshall, but the Washington Post definitely exists — and persists — without Marty Baron, its current editor.

* Identifiable niche or approach. No attempt to be comprehensive or to offer “all news to all people.”

* Mix of news, opinion, analysis, data without a lot of fuss about separating these categories. Plenty of voice, attitude and style mixed in.

* Business model (or subsidy system) varies from site to site. There is no one best way to do it.

Eleven examples of the personal franchise model in news:

1. Dealbook, Andrew Ross Sorkin, New York Times
2. Grantland, Bill Simmons, ESPN
3. Five thirty eight, Nate Silver, ESPN.
4. xoJane, Jane Pratt, Say Media
5. GigaOm, Om Malik, independent
6. Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall, independent
7. Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan, independent
8. Recode.net, Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher, independent
9. Tech Dirt, Mike Masnick, independent
10. Project X, Ezra Klein, Vox Media
11. The Information, Jessica Lessin, independent

Other possibilities not included: Drudge Report, Huffington Post, MMQB.

1. Dealbook, Andrew Ross Sorkin

Copy_of_sorkincnbcBegun: 2001.

Beat: Deal making on Wall Street among the major players in finance.

Built around: The reporting skills, source network, “inside” approach and television presence of Andrew Ross Sorkin.

Founder is: A business reporter and columnist for the New York Times, book author, television pundit for CNBC.

Background: Mergers and acquisitions reporter for the Times.

Ownership: Wholly owned by the New York Times.

Business model: Email newsletter, advertising, sponsorship, conferences.

2. Grantland, Bill Simmons

bill_simmons_bs_report_espnBegun: 2011.

Beat: Sports and popular culture

Built around: The writing style, audience intimacy and editorial vision of Bill Simmons.

Founder is: Writer, columnist, podcaster, interviewer, occasional TV commentator and Boston sports guy.

Background: Local sports columnist who went national.

Ownership: Owned and operated by ESPN.

Business model: Advertising, sponsorship.

3. Five thirty eight, Nate Silver

440px-Nate_Silver_2009Begun: 2014.

Beat: Data journalism and quantitative analysis of sports, politics, economics, science.

Built around: The data literacy, writing talent, online following and nerdy charisma of Nate Silver.

Founder is: Statistician, forecaster, blogger, book author.

Background: Sports stats geek, Daily Kos diarist, New York Times beat blogger.

Ownership: Owned and operated by ESPN, which bought the fivethirtyeight.com domain.

Business model: Advertising, sponsorship.

4. xoJane, Jane Pratt

jane-pratt-051311Begun: 2011.

Beat: Women 18-49, lives and lifestyles

Built around: The editorial eye, confessional sensibility and overall charisma of the entrepreneurial Jane Pratt

Founder is: Editor, writer, publisher

Background: Founding editor of Sassy, beloved magazine for teenage girls

Ownership: Say Media

Business model: Advertising

5. GigaOm, Om Malik

Om_MalikBegun: 2001.

Beat: Intersection of business and technology, digital media

Built around: The tech moxy, analytical gifts and entrepreneurial spirit of Om Malik.

Founder is: Tech reporter, editor, investor

Background: Technology reporter and writer for Forbes and Business 2.0

Ownership: Independent

Business model: advertising, research by subscription, conferences

6. Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall

joshBegun: 2000

Beat: National politics from a left liberal perspective

Built around: The knowledge and sophistication of Josh Marhall, observer of American politics.

Founder is: Writer, blogger, editor, web publisher

Background: History PhD, writer for the American Prospect

Ownership: Independent

Business model: Advertising and premium subscription

7. Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan

Andrew_Sullivan_croppedBegun: 2000.

Beat: Politics and public debate, culture and literature seen through the lens of a gay, Catholic, British-born, lapsed conservative writer.

Built around: The live out loud voice and roving eye of Andrew Sullivan.

Founder is: Blogger, writer, columnist, editor

Background: Editor of the New Republic, 1991-96

Ownership: Independent

Business model: Subscription, metered model, no advertising

8. Recode.net, Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher

101303934-mossberg_swisher.530x298Begun: 2014

Beat: Breaking news and views about the technology industry centered in Silicon Valley

Built around: The reviewing talents, reporting skills and industry-wide reputation of Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher

Founders are: Technology reviewers and reporters, editors, entrepreneurs

Background: Technology journalists, Wall Street Journal

Ownership: Independent

Business model: Advertising, sponsorship and industry conferences

9. Tech Dirt, Mike Masnick

1200px-Mike_MasnickBegun: 1997

Beat: Intellectual property, civil liberties, digital economics, public policy in the technology sector

Built around: The analytical skills and personal voice of Mike Masnick

Founder is: Writer, blogger, analyst, entrepreneur

Background: Business development and marketing

Ownership: Independent

Business model: Sponsorship, “insight community,” a focus group method employing knowledgable members of the user base and the Insider Shop for fans.

10.Project X, Ezra Klein

downloadBegun: 2014

Beat: Explanatory journalism and background knowledge of politics, economics, science, tech.

Built around: All around wonkery, explanatory skills and multi-platform charisma of Ezra Klein

Founder is: Writer, blogger, editor, television host and pundit.

Background: Blogging with an emphasis on public policy

Ownership: Vox Media

Business model: High value advertising plus…

11. The Information, Jessica Lessin

ad3551a78e293d565ee801a7ea79012cBegun: 2013

Beat: Tech news for “professionals in technology and in industries being upended by it.”

Built around: The reporting chops and entrepreneurial energy of Jessica Lessin

Founder is: A technology journalist

Background: Covered Silicon Valley for the Wall Street Journal.

Ownership: Independent

Business model: Subscription only, $400 per year.

Key factors in the rise of the personal franchise model

* Audiences can more easily attach themselves to individuals and “stay” with them, as with Andrew Sullivan’s travels from Time.com to Atlantic.com (2007) to Daily Beast (2011) to independence (2013).

* Users can more easily “follow” individual journalists and get alerts when they have something new to offer.

* The nature of authority and trust in journalism is changing. It’s easier to have confidence in “here’s where I’m coming from…” compared to the view from nowhere and its institutional voice.

* Institutional inertia and the need to protect the brand create a risk-adverse culture toward which the founders of personal franchise sites feel a radical impatience.

* Genre constraints, tired conventions, artificial divisions between news and opinion, top down decision-making, weak tech frustrate the ambitions of talented and entrepreneurial journalists.

* The personal franchise site is the rationalization (or in Josh Marshall’s terms, the domestication) of blogging. This is blogging, regularized and made into a sustainable business.

* Successful niche blogs become group blogs, a natural succession. Successful group blogs become businesses. The personal franchise model follows upon this path.

* It’s easier to solve the difficult and complex problems of adaptation-to-digital by letting a smart, able and “with it” person try his or her hunches, as compared to the difficulties of management-by-committee. That is what Ezra Klein is going to do.

And here’s the video of the talk:

Jay Rosen – CAMS Talk from Reynolds School of Journalism on Vimeo.

High quality audio of a different presentation I made on the same subject to the University of British Columbia School of Journalism.

Keep me informed: parsing the logic of Ezra Klein’s move to Vox Media

"We don't have a news system that keeps us informed and helps us grasp the stories we care deeply about. We have one that floods us with reports on a schedule that makes sense for the manufacturers."

30 Jan 2014 12:33 pm 32 Comments

I am going to make one point in this post and get out. Have you ever said to someone: “keep me informed?”

Of course you have. And what did you mean when you said that? You probably meant: let me know when something important happens.

Boss: Okay, keep me informed.

Employee: Will do. You’ll have three updates a day.

Boss: That’s not what I asked for…

Employee: Sorry, I could put it all into one report at the end of the day. Does that work?

Boss: No. When something big happens I may need ten updates that day. At other times: none. Can you do that?

Employee: I think so. Let me make sure I understand…

These are two different perspectives on information provision, which is the business that journalists claim to be in. These views are in tension. The writer of the reports finds it easier to send updates on some regular schedule because that organizes the act of production. The employee can predict when the boss wants the product (“…one report at the end of the day?”) and create a work routine for gathering and packaging information around that.

The boss defines “product” in a different way. It’s not a stream of reports arriving at regular intervals but the steady state of being kept well informed. Reasonable from the user’s point of view, this demand plays havoc with the producer’s schedule and quest for efficiency. Efficiency for the user is: don’t bother me with an update when there’s nothing new for me to know. That’s not only irregular — and disruptive — for the employee but riskier, too. Everything depends on good judgment. The “product” is essentially that.

Reader: I’m feeling overwhelmed. Help me understand this story!

Reporter: Here’s the link to my archive. It’s all in there.

Reader: That’s not really what I need…

Reporter: We have a topic page for this story. Does that work?

Nobody has that conversation, of course. And it’s true that the need for timelines and explainers (“context!”) has finally penetrated into quality newsrooms. Good journalists know they should be doing that. Meanwhile, start-ups like Circa (tag line: Save Time. Stay Informed.) try to deliver “push” updates only when there’s something important for me to know, which is smart. And I will concede the point that some of you are silently making in your head: that for some users sometimes a package of updates at regular intervals is exactly what they want.

And yet… What I don’t think we appreciate is the extent to which the news system we have is still organized around definitions of “product” and “efficiency” that assume supply side supremacy, meaning: a media universe in which we took what companies offered at the regular intervals they offered it, and a news-o-sphere in which the updates keep coming, whether or not they improve our understanding.

We don’t have a news system that keeps us informed and helps us grasp the stories we care deeply about. We have one that floods us with reports on a schedule that makes sense for the manufacturers of news. Individual journalists are aware of this problem, but they are working within a system that is not set up to address it. There’s been a power shift in media. We don’t watch TV anymore when the networks decide to put their shows on. The users are more like the boss in my “keep me informed” parable. But in news this shift has been incompletely carried through.

So why am I telling you now? Because it helps if you want to understand why Ezra Klein left the Washington Post for his new partner, Vox Media. Look at these phrases from his announcement tour. They are all signaling the same thing: a shift from supply side logic in the production of news to demand-side: Keep me informed. Help me understand this. Don’t give me updates when you have them, but when I need them to stay on top of things. Missing background often prevents me from understanding the news; solve that problem for me and I will rely on you for my information. Here’s Klein:

New information is not always — and perhaps not even usually — the most important information for understanding a topic.

We are better than ever at telling people what’s happening, but not nearly good enough at giving them the crucial contextual information necessary to understand what’s happened. We treat the emphasis on the newness of information as an important virtue rather than a painful compromise.

The news business, however, is just a subset of the informing-our-audience business  —  and that’s the business we aim to be in.

The product is not “news” but understanding and that steady state of feeling well informed. The news system that today’s journalists inherited is simply not organized that way. And so it’s no surprise to me that Ezra Klein had to leave the Washington Post to find backers who understood what he wanted to do.

If we’re investing in a “networked beat,” which beat should we invest in first?

I'm in Canada next week for Post Media Network (I'm a consultant) to conduct a discussion with the Montreal Gazette's newsroom team. The next day it's the Ottawa Citizen. This is what I am going to ask them.

26 Jan 2014 3:51 pm 4 Comments

I often try to combine blogging and public presentations. Example. Last year I published this attempt to find common ground with newsroom traditionalists: Look, you’re right, okay? But you’re also wrong. (Feb. 3, 2013.) I then presented that post in person to journalists in five Post Media cities: Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa.

This time I am bringing to Montreal and Ottawa a question, and blogging it before I get on the plane, as I did with “Look, you’re right…” So here’s my question:

I’ve been writing for some time about the concept of a “networked beat.” (Here’s a presentation and blog post I did on it, where I described some ways I thought I could work: Designs for a Networked Beat.) It all starts with the discovery Dan Gillmor made when he was covering Silicon Valley for the San Jose Mercury news in 1999. Gillmor may have been the first newspaper journalist to have a blog, and it was the experience of doing the blog that convinced him: “My readers know more than I do.”

That isn’t true for all stories. It isn’t true for all beats. Sometimes only four or five people know what’s going on, and the reporter’s job is to find those people and turn them into sources. But if your job is to cover, say, traffic and transportation in a metropolitan region like Montreal, the people using the system often know more than the “insiders” running it. Covering public education is like that. So is covering a “scene” like the music scene in Austin, Texas, or covering military families in Norfolk, Virgina, where there are a lot of them.

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. You can see why. The Seattle Times has to excel at Microsoft coverage for people in the Puget Sound area and for the community of interest in Microsoft news that is scattered around the world. If the Times cannot distinguish itself on this beat, with Mircosoft in its back yard, then the whole value proposition for that newsroom goes soft. You can hear these facts in the job posting:

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. Writing abilities must be sharp and wide-ranging enough to appear regularly on A1, the Business section cover and above the fold online….He or she will be principally responsible for daily and enterprise coverage of Microsoft’s corporate affairs, strategies, core products, personnel and workplace issues, and software industry trends…

Whew! That is a hard job. The most the Seattle Times can devote to it is two experienced and highly proficient reporters dedicated to the Microsoft story, 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 those involved with the company elsewhere — it is a massive reporting task. Even the most skilled reporter can only do so much. But reporter plus network, acting as force multiplier…?

I don’t think we know as much about that as we should. We should be much further along than we are in building out a networked beat. Quick definition: A networked beat is when many people with useful knowledge can easily contribute and add value to a reporting pattern that is the ongoing responsibility of a few.

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.

The Times identifies the key user groups for its Microsoft coverage as 1.) MS employees and those who work in the larger Microsoft ecosystem, 2.) buyers and users of Microsoft products, and 3.) investors who need to know how MSFT is doing. According to this study published in 2010 by an economist at the University of Washington, Microsoft accounted for 28.5% of total jobs added in the state of Washington since 1990. It employed 41,000 people in the state. Its multiplier effect as an employer is large: 6.81 jobs created for every Microsoft employee. That’s about 282,000 jobs directly and indirectly tied to Microsoft, according to the 2010 study.

The holders of those jobs are all potential readers, sources and contributors. They are the people Dan Gillmor was talking about. (“My readers know more than I do.”) Likewise with the heaviest users of Microsoft products, the Windows fans and Xbox freaks. Total it up, that’s a lot of people who know more than the Seattle Times does.

Still, getting them to contribute is another story. We need a source of realism for what we can expect from readers if reader-assisted beat reporting is going to work. Fortunately I have one. It’s called the one percent rule in online participation. It says that:

…if you get a group of 100 people online then one will create content, 10 will “interact” with it (commenting or offering improvements) and the other 89 will just view it.

Here a design rule we can incorporate into plans for a networked beat, thusly:

* Assume that 90 percent of the users attracted to the Seattle Times Microsoft coverage will be “read only.” Meaning: they are just consumers of it. For them, the beat makes news and information products. These products have to do the job they were “hired” for, especially: save the user time in trying to keep up with Mircosoft news.

* Assume that ten percent maximum will interact with the beat on any level. For them, we need easy, efficient systems for commenting, contacting, suggesting, referring links, speaking up. Of course the ten percent is a ceiling, not a guarantee. If you’re successful at engaging and enticing them, maybe 10 percent of the users will interact with the beat in some useful way.

* One percent at most will contribute ideas or material that actually improves the products for other 99. For this group we need to worry about the give-get bargain and their incentive to share knowledge with journalists, but also about compensation if they become regular and valuable contributors. Ultimately there has to be a business model for the networked beat, but I think we can find that.

Let’s review: When the many contribute (easily) to reporting that is completed by a few, that’s networked reporting. Lots of journalists practice this in one way or another, from finding sources on social media to using web forms to gather knowledge. When networked reporting is fully incorporated into a beat — by design — that’s a networked beat. The best kind of beat to try it with is one where “the readers know more than we do,” where knowledge of what’s really happening on that beat is widely distributed, not closely held by a few inside sources, and where succeeding with the beat is critically important to the newsroom we’re trying to improve.

Now I’m ready to ask the question I came here to ask: suppose we were to invest in a networked beat in Montreal at the Gazette, or in Ottawa at the Citizen, which beat would be the smart one to start with… and why?

I look forward to our discussion.