Sunday, October 5, 2014

A Beat Reporter's Digital Day

English: Morning Oregonian, Monday, January 22...
English: Morning Oregonian, Monday, January 22, 1912 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An unsigned, paper version-only memo (how ironic!) titled “Portrait of a Digital Day — Beat Reporter” is being given to Oregonian staffers as they meet with managers to discuss boosting the Newhouse newspaper’s digital efforts. The tipster who faxed it to me writes:

“It’s so wonderfully glib in describing a brave new world that some journalists would consider disturbing. It’s hard to imagine that the author ever put in much time as a reporter. And at the end, it says of enterprise work: It’s possible. It’s desired.”

Most media-watchers expect the Oregonian to eventually reduce its print publishing schedule and focus on digital.

Here is the memo:

The goal is to build audience on by being the No. 1 place the market goes for news and information.

The keys for you are time management, attitude and agility. Your work flow will be your own.
Reorient your thinking to what you can deliver for the web today. Cover your beats, push information, don’t worry about where or whether a story will play in print. Editors will worry about that for you.

Consider social media/engagement, posting of real-time information, visual storytelling.

Start with social media/engagement:

Set the table for the day with your readers/followers. Tweet early, let folks know you’re up and at ‘em. (Joe Rose’s tip: Twitter is always on via TweetDeck and iPhone notifications.) Don’t just use Twitter as an RSS feed; that’s no good for you or your readers — you need to engage. As you post during the day, Tweet. Watch for story ideas from your followers. Respond to questions. Retweet other stories of interest.

From Joe Rose, who spends maybe 10 or 15 minutes a day on Twitter, with a goal of 10 Tweets/day:
“This is where people increasingly gather to talk and share stories that I wouldn’t otherwise know about. When it comes to picking up story tips and crowd-sourcing, there’s nothing like Twitter.
“I use it to talk to readers, answer quick questions, develop sources and aggregate commuting-related stories that I think will get retweeted. Ultimately, that leads to more followers and readers.
“I see myself as a curator of a Twitter account. My hope is that followers will eventually find enough value that they will pull my account out of their catch-all home feed and give it its own column in TweetDeck.”

During the day:

Aim to post multiple times a day. How much might vary by beat, but consider a range of three to 10. Some days this will be far less, some days, more. This is not a quota, but a target to get you started as you build a new rhythm and workflow that’s digitally focused.

Start the day with an aggregation, perhaps. City Hall Watch is a great example for enterprise beat reporters. A short news item with some meat, followed by 4-6 links, some on our site, some outside. Kick off the news day with things that your readers might be interested in.

Work your beat per usual. Talk to folks. Do your thing. But instead of working through the day and saving information for a story you begin writing late in the afternoon, publish that information as you go. Make it short and punchy, and Tweet it.

If a good story pops up, write a quick version for and post it as quickly (and accurately) as possible. If that’s all it needs, be done. Move on. If it has potential as a cover story for print, update the online version as you gather new info. (If it’s enough that the hed changes, or the information is that much better, do a new post with a new headline. In the old post, link to the new post. Tell readers where they can find updated information.)

New is best — always — but here are some other kinds of posts for beat writers, to establish expertise and make you a desired read:

* If you’re working on a story and have an interesting interview, do a quick post summarizing that and teasing to a story that’s to come.

* Tell readers something about what you saw behind the scenes of interest, maybe that’s not going to fit the story A scenic detail; a personal anecdote; some tangential information that’s not on point with your reporting but is interesting nonetheless.

* Have a story that you’ve published but have extra information from an interview or your reporting that didn’t make it? Turn that into a post and link back to the full story.

* Do a profile of someone? Maybe the next day take that story and aggregate it, plus profiles in other publications of that person. Or do a post on the reaction.

* Set up interviews to come. “I’ll be talking to Gov. Kitzhaber about the CRC this afternoon. If you were me, what question should I be sure to ask?” Give a little background, link to stuff you’ve already written. And you set yourself up for another post after:

* Here are two reader questions I put to the governor yesterday and his answers… Look for my full story on this online now/later today/in the next couple of days/etc.

* Do a poll. Easy to set up, fun engagement opportunity for users. Can unscientifically measure feelings on an issue. Sports does this very effectively.

* Set up an evening meeting: The school board will be voting tonight on a bond measure. Here’s the background. Link to previous stories we’ve done on the subject.

* Often beat reporter get all kinds of information that readers might find interesting but that we don’t. Maybe it’s reports, studies, events, speakers, etc. Post it. “This study crossed my desk today, and I’m not planning a full story, but I share it with you in case you’re interested. I’ve written about this topic before, and here are links to that and a link to this study.”

* Not attending something that might be of interest to readers? Ask them to tell you what happened. Ryan White has done this, and it’s a great idea. “I couldn’t go to such and such concert, but tell me about it. Here are links to reviews of previous shows here or in other cities.” Then do a new post writing those comments through. “I’ll be at the school board meeting tonight and can’t make XX speech by XX. Write in and tell me about it, and I’ll share with readers.”

* Do quick rewriters of lesser news items off your beat that won’t compete for print.
Engage with readers, not only in the posts but also check comments. Just take a spin through every couple of hours. If you’re drowning, tell an editor or online, and we can help.

Think multimedia/have your equipment:

Whenever you go out on a story, make sure you have the equipment to gather, photograph and post a story you might stumble across. For some, that might be an entire kit with a MacBook, video camera, audio recorder and MiFi — for others, it might be just an iPhone.

If you’re talking to a person, take their photo. We should have a mug at least with our posts. If they’re particularly colorful, shooting a quick clip video would enhance a reader’s understanding of that personality.

Never let a phone interview on a big story end without asking if the person would mind a videographer coming to talk to them. Leave open the possibility of other platforms, even if we don’t end up going that route. It’s a good habit to develop.

*Important note: Everyone in the newsroom should remember that they are deputized breaking news reporters. So often, reporter or editors will call the breaking news team to say, “I just passed a gnarly traffic crash.” But when asked if they stopped to talk to witnesses or take a photo, the answer is invariably no.


It’s possible. It’s desired. Nothing digitally is designed to minimize our appetite for scoops and investigative work. But plan for it and think about it in new ways. Work with your editor so s/he knows the days you might be light online. Pick your shots and make sure they’re worthwhile. Don’t find ways to get out of doing digital work, because it’s a priority, too. Instead, find ways to use the digital platform to inform that enterprise reporting. Be bold. Engage the online and visuals team early to brainstorm ideas for digital.

Consider also:

* Documents. In the reporting process, there always are things we could post as we go, with a story or afterward that readers might dive into and offer questions about.

* Reader questions about a story, project, series. Turn those questions and your answers into a post. Other readers might share the question and appreciate the additional information.

* Minor updates. Often things happen with the subject of a story or an issue that aren’t quite enough for a full print story but make a perfect post.

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