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.
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.