A beat blog gives a newsroom a vehicle for providing in-depth coverage that the general-interest approach of a newspaper generally doesn’t allow.
I have decades of memories of arguments with editors (when I was a reporter) and with reporters (when I was an editor) about the reporters’ desire to tell stories in greater depth than the interest level of this mythical “typical” newspaper reader. A newspaper has finite space, and to tell the stories that serve this general-interest need of the masses, its reporters gather far more information that has appeal only in niches of people with keen interest in a particular topic.
Beat blogging is a way to serve that deeper level of interest, to use all the information a reporter gathers. It makes a newsroom’s content more valuable to the community, by serving the broad but shallow general interest and the narrow but deep niche interests.
I’ll be leading a workshop today for Digital First journalists in Connecticut on beat blogging. You can watch the livestream and ask questions on a live chat, starting at 3 p.m. Eastern time. You also can read about how the beat blog fits into the full work of a reporter in my earlier posts that addressed the work of reporters covering courts, sports, statehouses and other beats. Other helpful resources would be the BeatBlogging website (no longer active, but loaded with helpful advice and links), my Introduction to Reporting course for News University and my general blogging advice. I’m sure others have produced many other helpful resources. Please share some of those links in the comments.
I will try to compile a list of good current beat blogs, and I welcome your contributions to that list. Who are good reporters who blog regularly about their beats (don’t hesitate to suggest your own beat or someone on your staff)? But for now, I want to offer some basic advice for beat blogging.
A caveat: Ideal use of beat blogging will take some adjustments (or overhauls) of content management systems: Ideally, all the content a beat reporter produces would live on the beatblog, where followers of the blog would find it when they visit or when their RSS reader alerts them to a new post. When stories merit play on the home page or a section front or topic page, those headlines and links would take readers to the entry from the beat blog. If your CMS requires use of an article template for news stories, you should do a blog post linking to the story. You want readers of your blog to find all your work there.
Now, here are 13 ways a reporter should use a beat blog:
- Liveblog every meeting, hearing, game, debate, festival or other event on your beat. Even if few people care enough to follow the live coverage, some will want more detail than the summary story provides. You are spending your time in the meeting anyway. Liveblog (or live-tweet, feeding the tweets into your blog) to provide greater depth and let the liveblog become your notebook.
- Post quick tidbits. When you learn about an upcoming event, a promotion, a report, an agenda for the next meeting, post a quick item to the blog. Many of these would never make the newspaper, and they are not worth a lot of your time. But some people in your niche audience care about each of these items and together they make your beat the place to come for information about your beat. Don’t spend a lot of time on them: Usually enough time to verify your facts and write a paragraph or two is plenty.
- Link lots. If the agenda is online, don’t feel you need to repeat the full agenda in your tidbit. Cite the item or two you think will be most interesting and link to the agenda (or, if it’s not online, cut and paste it from an email into the blog as a block quote). If someone has been promoted or appointed on your beat, unless it’s a big story, just note the promotion and link to his or her bio or LinkedIn profile.
- Post source documents. When you get source documents as pdfs (or slide shows, jpegs or other digital formats), use Scribd or SlideShare to post these documents to the blog.
- Use video clips. Shoot brief clips from interviews and events to post on the blog with minimal editing. (You also should develop video storytelling abilities, which do require more extensive shooting and editing. But what I’m talking about here is the video equivalent of a pull-quote: After you’ve finished most of the interview taking notes, start shooting video and ask the subject to elaborate on a key point.)
- Use audio clips. Record your interviews (meetings are tougher to get good audio) and use audio clips from key moments. Again, keep the editing minimal: Run to the key moment(s) of the interview and grab a clip or two. You don’t need to listen to the whole interview again.
- Feed in your tweets. Make sure the blog feeds in your latest tweets (as mine does), so you have some fresh content there between posts.
- Crowdsource. Your beat blog will become a must-read for people who follow your beat closely. So it will be a great place for crowdsourcing stories. As you are seeking sources for features, daily stories and investigative projects, ask questions and expand your circle of sources as readers of your blog help you out. Be sure to credit the sources who have helped you (except those who have asked for confidentiality).
- Curate the conversation. Use Storify or Storyful to curate the online conversation about topics on your beat.
- Report unfolding stories. A beat blogger needs to follow Jeff Jarvis’ advice and regard a story as a process, not a product. As you verify a newsworthy fact, report it. Link to earlier related reports for context. Crowdsource by telling where you’re headed next on this story and what you need to find out. Ask what angles you should pursue. On rare occasions, you should be careful about competition, but for the most part, the crowd will help you stay ahead of the competition. You can follow this approach on a daily story that unfolds over a few posts in a few hours or on an enterprise story that unfolds in several posts over a week or two.
- Seek feedback. If you’re struggling with which approach to take on the lead of a story, post a couple attempts and ask your readers which one would keep them reading. (Their advice might lead you to a third approach that is better than either.)
- Post drafts of stories. The draft of your story will be rougher than the final version after an editor has polished it. But it also will have more information, because the editor will cut for space and for that general audience. Publishing the draft on your blog gives the highly interested niche the first glance and the deeper content. (Be careful, though, if you’re writing about a topic that will involve issues of fairness or legal consultation; in those cases, you should consult before publishing.)
- Post frequently. Ideally, a beat blog will be updated multiple times per day.
Time management will sometimes be an issue. Reporters generally gather all the content you would use in a beat blog and report just a small fraction of that. You won’t have time to write everything you gather. Liveblogging helps you spend your time at events more productively. Linking and uploading source documents can minimize your time quoting extensively. You will get better at beat blogging as you gain experience, but time management will be an initial challenge. Keep in mind that every post doesn’t have to be a story or a column. A paragraph with a link, source document or crowdsourcing question can be an outstanding post.
What are other tips you would add? What are problems you see in this approach? Who are some outstanding beat bloggers I should cite as examples?
Update: Some Digital First editors have already recommended some blogs (I’ll keep adding as I get recommendations; I welcome yours):
Rob Mill’s Police Line blog for the Lowell Sun.
Phollowing the Phillies by Ryan Lawrence of the Delaware County Times.
Eagles Blogger Room by Bob Grotz of the Delaware County Times.
Delco Hoops by Chris Vito of the Delaware County Times.
Connecticut State Politics by Jordan Fenster of the New Haven Register.
The Delco Delivery by Danielle Lynch of the Delaware County Times.
Heard on the Hill, Andy Hyland’s blog about the University of Kansas for the Lawrence Journal World.
Town Talk, Chad Lawhorn’s city news blog for the Lawrence Journal World.