When I wrote about how a digital-first approach changes a journalist’s work, people asked for more examples.
In that initial post, I provided examples of how the approach would change the work of a court reporter, sports reporter, visual journalist, beat reporter and assigning editor. In response to a question from a colleague planning to hire a statehouse reporter, I blogged separately about how that reporter might work. On Twitter and in comments and emails, people asked me to explain how the digital-first approach might change the work of a business reporter, investigative reporter, lifestyle reporter and a reporter covering multiple beats.
Part of me wants to answer: You tell me. I haven’t been a business reporter in 20 years (though I have covered a few business stories since then). I was never a lifestyle reporter. A purpose of that blog post was to stimulate the discussion and experimentation of journalists so that you would answer those questions for yourselves and colleagues.
But more examples from me might stimulate more discussion and experimentation, so I’ll provide some answers, with this caveat: I’m not spelling out here how anyone should work. I’m suggesting things to consider as you decide how to work. Instead of going through each of the beats I was asked to address, as I’ve done with some of the others, I’ll list some questions and tasks any reporter should consider in working on any beat. I’ll answer them for some of the examples I was asked about, but the answers may be different for your beat.
If you want more help thinking through the digital-first approach to your beat, I provide suggestions by beat in my News University course, Introduction to Reporting: Beat Basics and Beyond.
What stories should you cover live?
If you’re a business reporter, you might liveblog annual meetings, product rollouts or press conferences. If you’re a lifestyle reporter, you could liveblog a community festival or a concert review (depends on the concert, venue and seating; you’re not going to liveblog from the front row of a darkened concert hall, but you could liveblog an outdoor concert or from the press box of a stadium or arena concert).
In a comment exchange on my blog post on working like a digital-first journalist, someone questioned the value of liveblogging. In my experience, liveblogging always draws some attention from readers. In the newspaper business, we have usually fallen short of providing the level of detail that the intensely interested reader wants. We provide more of the summary level of detail that satisfies the casually interested reader. But you attend events in full and take notes far beyond what you could publish in print. Liveblogging lets you satisfy the intensely interested reader without notably more work than it takes to do the summary for the casually interested reader. The liveblog in effect becomes your notebook (though I recommend actually keeping a notebook handy for things people do or say that you choose not to report immediately because you need to learn more before reporting them).
I recommend trying to report all events and breaking news stories live. Give your coverage some time to build interest, and make sure your site is promoting the event on your home page, and that you and your newsroom are promoting live coverage in social media. Monitor the traffic and engagement and determine as you go along what the interest level is (low traffic but high engagement would mean your work is worthwhile, as would high traffic and low engagement). You might learn that people are interested in live coverage of some types of events, but not others. (In which case, you also should monitor traffic and engagement on the summary coverage; the truth might be that people just aren’t interested in that type of event at all.)
When I say “liveblog” here, I mean either liveblogging directly into a program such as CoverItLive or ScribbleLive, frequently updating a story, frequently updating a curation tool such as Storify or Storyful, or live-tweeting, which you can feed into CoverItLive or ScribbleLive. Or maybe you pretty much know what is going to happen and what the big issues at a company’s product-rollout or annual meeting will be (perhaps you had an embargoed preview of a new product being announced), and you write much of the story in advance, updating with some actual quotes and description of the event. Determine the right liveblogging approach for your beat and for each individual story.
Liveblogging isn’t the only form of live coverage. You might also livestream an event, either instead of liveblogging or in addition, embedding both on the same page.
How should you use a beatblog?
You want to engage with two segments of the public: those with casual or occasional interest and those with intense and continuing interest. Your stories meet the first need. Your beatblog meets the second need. You might write a longer draft of a story for the beatblog, including more detail and covering some points that won’t interest the average reader. You invite feedback on the blog and then start cutting for the story that will run on the website and in the print edition. (This might take a little more time, but my experience is this is how many reporters write anyway, except that they don’t publish these drafts.)
Your beatblog is a place to interact with people who care the most about the community or topic you cover: Ask for story ideas or angles, seek sources, seek feedback.
Posts in your beatblog can be as brief as a link to someone else’s blog or news story (even the competition’s), with a question or comment. If the competition is following you on a story, don’t boast that you were there first. Link to their story and ask whether this angle is significant enough that you should pursue it, or whether people know of a better angle to pursue. If the competition beat you on the story, ask for suggestions for angles you should pursue.
If you get a database to analyze, you might post it to the blog, invite people to look through it and tell you what they see of significance.
Make your beatblog the place to learn everything about the topic you cover.
This is a tougher question for the reporter covering multiple beats. You won’t be able to go into as much depth on any one beat as would be ideal for a beatblog. You might want to have a separate beatblog for each beat. But I recommend a personal reporting blog. In your “about” page, you describe the beats you cover. You set up a major category for each beat, and encourage people to bookmark the category pages they are interested in.
For some beats, a Facebook page might work better than a beatblog. Or a robust Twitter presence may suffice. Discuss with your editor and experiment to find the right approach to serve people with high interest in the topic(s) you cover.
Who are the sources you should check with regularly?
You answer this question on at least two levels: duration and frequency. Some you should check with as long as you are in your beat and they are in their jobs. Some you check with for the duration of a particular story where they become important. Some you check with daily or weekly, some just occasionally.
For instance, when I was covering agribusiness for the Kansas City Star, I touched base frequently (every week or two, I’d say, though it’s been a long time) with sources such as the press aides for the Kansas and Missouri agriculture departments and the state or regional offices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Same with the public relations people for major agribusinesses based in Kansas City. I would touch base less often with those people’s bosses: The agriculture secretaries, state or regional directors of USDA agencies and CEOs of the agribusinesses.
When I covered a merger involving the Union Pacific Railroad for the Omaha World-Herald, working with our regular transportation reporter, I touched base frequently with a UP spokesman and some railroad experts and state and federal officials. But when the merger was complete, I never talked to them again. The transportation reporter stayed in touch with most of those local sources because he continued covering the railroad. But some of the national experts he used in the merger story moved to occasional contacts, if ever.
A general-assignment lifestyle reporter might not have as many regular sources as a reporter with a beat structured around agencies, industries or topics. But if you’re covering TV, you touch base regularly with local station managers (or their public affairs directors). If you’re an arts reporter, you touch base frequently with leaders of various arts agencies, managers of local galleries and venues, etc.
How do sources like to communicate?
Learn how sources like to be contacted. Get their cell phone numbers and learn whether they respond to text messages and whether it’s OK to call on evenings and weekends. Learn whether they respond more quickly to an email, voice mail or direct messages on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn. Even if they use electronic messaging of some kind, be sure to talk in person and on the phone frequently. But it’s essential to know the best way to get a quick answer.
What digital sources should you follow?
Personal contact with sources is important, but you also should set up regular (and story-specific) digital checks. Make a list (or several) of agencies and individuals on your beat using Twitter, and make that a regular column you check on TweetDeck (or Twitter lists or whatever Twitter client you use). Save routine searches for Twitter mentions of people or agencies on your beat. If appropriate, you can narrow the searches to just your community or region using Twitter’s advanced search function.
For instance, the reporter who asked me about multiple beats covers a particular community as well as a couple regional topical beats. If the community has a distinctive name, such as Torrington, you might have a search for the community name, with no geographic restriction on the search. This will turn up tweets from people outside your community talking about Torrington or from local people who have not enabled location on their Twitter accounts. But if you’re in a community with a more common name, such as Charleston or Troy, you want to use a location-narrowed search. If you work at the Oakland Press in Pontiac, Mich., it may be important to narrow the search, because you don’t want your search cluttered with tweets about Oakland, Calif., or random tweets about Pontiac automobiles (but if you’re covering the auto beat, that’s a different question).
Identify Facebook pages of organizations on your beat. You can “like” them so that their updates appear in your news feed. You may want to note in your profile or in an update that you’re doing so to monitor their news, not an endorsement. Or you can just make a point to visit their pages regularly (you may want to do that anyway, so you don’t miss their posts that don’t appear high in your feed).
Investigative reporters especially should be careful in “friending” sources who want to remain confidential. You will have some on-the-record sources who occasionally go off the record, and it’s fine to be friends with them. But if someone contacts you in complete confidence and is never on the record, avoid friending that person on Facebook and consider whether you should follow him or her on Twitter. If Facebook had been a reporting tool during Watergate, imagine how damaging it would have been in people had been able to see Mark Felt (“Deep Throat”) in Bob Woodward’s friend list.
Connect with sources on LinkedIn. On a slow news day, you might want to verify some officials’ résumés (if you catch one exaggerating or lying outright, you have a good story). If some people have synced their accounts with TripIt or SlideShare, you might monitor their travel plans or presentations. A trip to a rival company’s headquarters might be your first indication of negotiations for a partnership or merger. Slides might provide a good illustration for a story.
How should you crowdsource?
Traditional investigative reporting is often a secretive pursuit, with reporters playing cards close to their vests and spending large amounts of time trying to build networks of sources. You still need to build networks, and sometimes you may need to be secretive, but crowdsourcing can speed the process and connect you with sources you might not find the traditional way.
Use social media, your website and print to pose carefully crafted questions to the public. You want to show that you know something about the topic without publishing facts you haven’t verified yet.
Don’t pose the questions in a way that people will regard this as asking them to help you do your work. Invite them to tell their stories. Appeal to their sense of justice. Sources are not interested in helping investigative reporters. But they are outraged about injustices they know about. They may be willing to help someone tell the world about the wrongdoing that is weighing on their consciences or stirring their anger.
Some traditional journalists are uneasy about crowdsourcing, feeling that a public appeal will tip off competition or the target of an investigation. Those may be valid concerns in some cases, but most of the time, a target learns pretty quickly that you are on the trail. And crowdsourcing can help you jump ahead of competition that often is working the same story, too. The most effective crowdsourcing is bold but careful. You often can address your concerns in how you word your appeal to the crowd.
Some stories do not lend themselves well to crowdsourcing. If you are investigating allegations of sexual abuse against someone, for instance, you shouldn’t crowdsource that story in the early stages, because even asking the question could unfairly damage someone’s reputation. However, when you have the allegations nailed down enough to publish, be sure to include a crowdsourcing appeal, letting other victims know how to contact you.
The value of crowdsourcing in investigative reporting has been demonstrated for several years now. The 2006 story by the Fort Myers News-Press, uncovering outrageous charges for sewer and water hook-ups in Cape Coral, Fla., and the 2007 Talking Points Memo investigation of the firings of U.S. attorneys, which eventually forced the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, were early examples of crowdsourcing. It works, and if you’re not using it in investigative reporting, you’re not as good an investigative reporter as you could and should be.
Crowdsourcing can be effective in feature stories and daily stories, too. If a new product is being released, you can ask on your Facebook or Twitter accounts who is standing in line to buy it, or what they think of it. Ask about plans for a holiday or opinions about a current issue, and you will quickly come up with sources.
An annual feature is a Veterans Day story. At TBD.com, we crowdsourced that story by inviting people, using a Google map and a #wheretheyserved hashtag, to tell the stories of their military service or service of their loved ones.
Lifestyle reporters often work stories that require finding a source in a particular circumstance – patient with a disease in the news, parent searching for the hottest toy of the holiday season, someone trying the hot diet or latest exercise device. Crowdsourcing can often save you time in finding these sources.
Similarly, business reporters often need to find employees or customers of a particular business, and can save time by crowdsourcing.
What data can help tell your coverage?
Data analysis is helpful on any beat. Regulatory agencies and national associations have valuable data on businesses. (Check out all the data provided by the National Newspaper Association.) Many investigative stories have their roots in data analysis that debunks lies or uncovers inequities or failures. Lifestyle reporters may find or support stories through analysis of data about health issues or nonprofit funding.
On every story, whatever your beat, you should ask what data might help you understand or tell your story. Monthly, quarterly or annual reports provide important business stories. Don’t simply accept the analysis (think of it as spin) that business or regulatory agencies give to the data. Acquire the data yourself and find what they are missing, omitting or misrepresenting.
If you don’t have data skills, it’s time to start learning how to access and analyze data. I hope your newsroom will provide some training for you. But, as I recounted recently in a guest post for Buffy’s World, I did my first analysis on an investigative story by entering data myself in an Excel spreadsheet and using the Excel tutorial to do some simple analysis. You can start on your own and acquire skills as you work on subsequent stories.
Work to develop your data skills, and seek ways to collaborate with colleagues who have advanced skills.
Discuss whether this data would have lasting value beyond this story. Can it be a standing database on your site (I prefer the term answerbase, because the value of data is in the answers you can provide to community questions)? What do you need to do to keep it updated? Maybe you acquire new data monthly and add it to your database. Maybe you (or a colleague) can write a script to “scrape” new data automatically from a public agency’s site.
How do you engage the community?
Of course, one of the answers here is crowdsourcing, as I’ve already discussed, but there are other ways to engage the community. You might host a live chat the day your story runs, either with one of your sources or just inviting community questions and comments. Or maybe a live chat is part of your crowdsourcing effort as you’re working on the story. You might host a live chat in advance of a holiday or big event, asking people how they celebrate the holiday or what they expect from the event. This chat might produce story ideas or sources. Or maybe it’s just an engaging part of your coverage.
Think of hashtags to use in connection with stories as you tweet about them. You can use a hashtag already in use in the community, engaging with the people who are using it. Or you can promote a regular hashtag that covers recurring news in your community: Maybe #detauto if you cover the auto industry in Detroit or #bayhealth if you cover health in the San Francisco Bay area. The hashtag will help people follow your tweets about your beat, but you also may prompt people to start using it for their own tweets, questions and news about the topic. Or you could promote a hashtag for discussion of the issue you cover in a particular story (before or after publication or during the run or a series).
If you’re trying to decide between two leads, publish them both on your beatblog or on Twitter or Facebook, and invite feedback. Before a big interview with a CEO or a visiting celebrity, ask the community to suggest questions.
Despite our digital-first emphasis, engagement doesn’t have to be entirely digital. Promote hashtags and live chats in the print edition (and print curated digital content). Engage with the community in person, by attending community events or announcing on social media that you’ll be working at a particular time in a particular coffee shop, interested in hearing from the public.
How should you use video?
These considerations are the same as the ones I cited for statehouse reporters. You could use video in a variety of ways, regardless of your beat:
- Coordinate with a visual journalist who works the video coverage of a story as you work the text coverage.
- Livestream events from your smartphone or laptop.
- Shoot brief video clips during interviews or events to upload with minimal editing along with text coverage.
- Use video heavily in your reporting for a story that works best as a video, with strong editing.
- Gather videos from other sources (community submissions, social media, security cameras, state agencies) to embed in your stories and/or link to.
What content should you curate?
Curation is an essential skill and task on nearly any beat. A business reporter might curate the response to a major layoff by a local business. A lifestyle reporter might curate tweets, photos and videos from a community festival, or discussion relating to nearly any holiday. As I said in the statehouse post, sometimes curation will be one of many reporting techniques you use as you pursue a story. Sometimes it will be the primary form of a story. You might use a curation tool such as Storify or Storyful or simply embed tweets or other media into a blog post.
Curation may be an especially important part of the work for the reporter with multiple beats. On those days when you have good stories to cover on multiple beats, you might cover the situation that others might be ignoring and use Storify to quickly curate blog posts, tweets and coverage by competing reporters (perhaps adding a little original reporting from a phone call or two).
How can you report unfolding stories?
Again, I described in detail in the post on statehouse reporting, an approach to reporting daily stories as you nail down the facts. The old process of gathering your facts and then publishing a completed story is not usually the right process for a digital-first newsroom. If you write a single, complete story, it often will come at the end of a process that involves several updates covering developments through the day (or over several days). The details will vary by beat and by story, but almost any beat reporter needs to work on techniques for telling the unfolding story.
What are priorities for your beat?
You should discuss with your editor(s) the priorities for your beat. How much should your coverage be event-driven and how much should be enterprise? How much enterprise should be daily and short-term and how much should you pursue long-term stories? What should be your mix of feature stories and news coverage?
These are especially important discussions for the reporter covering multiple beats. You need to discuss roughly how much of your time should be spent covering each of the beats. Discuss some possible (or actual) situations where more than one of your beats presents situations worth covering. Which of your beats is most important or which type of story is most important? You’ll have to repeat these discussions sometimes as difficult conflicts arise, but a general discussion of priorities will help guide your daily work.
If your answer from your editor is that everything is important, press for more and better guidance. If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. These decisions aren’t always easy, but they are always important.
How do you feed the print edition?
The demands of “feeding the daily beast” have been a significant obstacle in the development of digital journalism. Digital First Media makes no bones about the relative priorities of digital and print platforms: Digital comes first, print last, both in processes and in priorities.
Decide the best way to reflect those priorities in your work. If you are covering the annual meeting of a local company and liveblogging throughout the day, maybe you just write a fairly brief summary for the print edition, plugging the full coverage online for those who want more. Or maybe the print story looks forward in some fashion or provides analysis, if the meeting merits such coverage and if you can provide it.
If you’re an investigative reporter, this may mean that instead of working with an artist on an elaborate print graphic explaining a process or issue, you work on a digital interactive project to accomplish the same thing (and the print story encourages people to check out the online graphic). Instead of planning a huge Sunday story, or a series starting on Sunday, you start the project on Monday, when it can dominate office conversations, and drive web traffic, through the week. Or maybe it runs online through the week, wrapping up with a big print package on Sunday.
What’s the right approach for your beat?
I’ve raised some questions here, but your answers will vary by beat, by story and by where you are on the digital-first learning curve. I recognize that most reporters don’t yet have all the skills being discussed here, and aren’t yet fully following the processes I’ve described here. Discuss with your editor what you’re already doing well and what you need to work on next. Editors, discuss with reporters what they should do to pursue a digital-first course (and how that changes your work).
I welcome feedback from reporters and editors about the questions raised here. How are you answering them? What are other questions digital-first reporters should be asking?
Here are slides I am using for the workshops I am leading this week about working as a digital-first journalist. I use the first few slides and then may go to some other slides depending on the discussion that unfolds as I talk to the group about their jobs and how these questions might shape their work.
Update: Since leaving Digital First Media, I edited this post to refer to “digital-first” journalism, rather than capitalizing the term to refer to the company.