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.


I am editor of Dakotafire, which is essentially based on a “networked beat” model. Weekly newspaper journalists work together to report on topics they would not have the resources to cover alone–especially topics related to rural revitalization. These newspapers have very small editorial staffs–some of them are pretty much one-person operations, with a little part-time help. They can report on what goes on in their communities, but the larger context of those events often goes unreported.

For example, many communities in the Dakotas have volunteer ambulance services, and many of them are struggling to find enough volunteers. These communities would often report on their own struggles, without recognizing that this is a regional trend. When we discussed this in a Dakotafire phone conference, we realized that nearly every community our newspapers represented struggled with this issue.

There are a variety of reasons for the difficulty in recruiting EMTs; one of them is that training takes quite a bit of time, and often can’t be done in the communities where people live. When we did a story on this topic, we were able to highlight not only the fact that the problem was regional–which might make it easier for communities to work together to find solutions–but we could also share the fact that one community was working on an online training option that could make it more convenient for volunteers to get their EMT training on their own schedules and without having to leave the community.

For each of the stories we do, Dakotafire staff members additional reporting to get state-level or expert input, and often create graphics to show data visually (which many of these journalists don’t have the training to do).

The Dakotafire project started with funding from the Knight Community Information Challenge. We’re in the third year of a three-year grant and looking for ways to keep the effort going.

I am hopeful we can do so. I think the newspapers recognize the power of the network, not only for the quality of stories that they can print in their newspapers or distribute in our bimonthly magazine, but also for the chance it gives them to regularly connect with other journalists. The animated conversations we have during our monthly story planning phone conferences are a success story in themselves.

Read more about Dakotafire at http://www.dakotafire.net/about.

Tar sands and shale gas exploitation; interaction between political, industry and corporate interests/secret pay offs. Off shore monies in accounts. Nature of current and future environmental and health problems; costs of environmental and health degradation. How corporations avoid liability by structuring activities to have taxpayers pay costs of remediation and all other social costs resulting from their activities.

Canada. The methane deposits held in place by the arctic ice. CO2 increasing, now almost 400ppm; the arctic ice melting and Canadians not aware they are on the front line if/as those deposits are released. Pleasure flying increasing, CO2 production skyrocketing, government spending $22m to sell the new pipeline. Government/business collusion. Like the trade deals – government arranges for taxpayers to pick up the tab for corporate profits. What are the symptoms of low level, long term CO2 poisoning?

Great question.

The Gazette and The Citizen are local, not national newspapers. So it would have to be a local beat.
I would propose a beat at the junction of retail and digital, based on stores in the city.

In Montreal at least, store owners are assailed by salespeople from dozens of dailies, weeklies, radio and tv stations, the Yellow pages and their competitors, all with a digital platform. Then there are the local salespeople from facebook and Google, and those of various payment systems from Canadian banks to Square.

On their own, some store owners are also trying to have a presence on social media: facebook, Twitter, tumblr, Pinterest, YouTube, flickr, etc.

Among this myriad of digital offers and opportunities, what works? What digital solutions are bringing customers into the store?
Nobody knows; or rather, bits of knowledge are acquired piece by piece, all over the city, but nobody is covering it.

The first step would be the most difficult: to identify the 1 per cent, or even the 1 per thousand of store owners who are already experimenting with digital media and platforms and who are ready to share.

And you are right, Jay, a business model for such a networked beat would not be difficult to find.

If there were such a beat, store owners and their employees would read it, but also marketing people in retail, in ad agencies, in universities.

And, who knows, the digital sales people from The Gazette might be interested too. 🙂