Lessons from Beat Blogging - by on Thursday, February 19, 2009 18:11 - 4 Comments

Niche social networks can be a great tool for journalists

Every journalist has at least heard of the big-shot social networks like Facebook and MySpace and many journalists have signed up for accounts.

But one of the great strengths of the Internet are all the niches it allows to flourish. These niches can be great for journalists, and sites like Ning make it easy for people to setup niche social networks. Gina Chen, family life editor at The Post-Standard in Syracuse, N.Y., has found great success leveraging niche social networks for her parenting beat. On her personal blog she gives this advice about niche social networks:

If you write about education, and you want to find people really interested in education, for example, a niche social network might help. You won’t reach as large or as broad and audience as Facebook, but a smaller audience that is super interested in your blog topics or stories is better in a way than a larger audience that isn’t.

In particular, there are two niche social networks that Chen has found really useful: Cafe Mom and Twitter Moms. Chen says they help “me connect with moms both in my geographic coverage area and throughout the world who may be interested in the parenting tidbits on my Family Life blog.”

These social networks have allowed her to connect with moms for stories and posts and have allowed her to build her network of sources. Once a journalist joins a Web site, Chen recommends they immediately let people know who she is, and Chen also recommends promoting that she is on a given social network:

You’re expanding your community two ways: widening the circle to include people outside your geographic area and engaging those people who already read you. In time, your regular readers will join the site you’re on. You’ll have access to them in a new way. You’ll be able to chat with them, find out what they think you should be writing about, even ask them to write for your blog or your newspaper. They’ll become your inner-circle of advisers.

Chen has worked hard forming connections with her readers on her Family Life blog, and that can mean off-line work too. When she first began working the family beat, she set up meetings with mothers’ groups in the area, visited local mothers’ homes and met their children.

“Nothing can take the place of that personal connection,” she said. “You’ve got to have it both face-to-face and online. Online readers want to connect to the writer, and if journalists don’t provide that, the reader will go search for it somewhere else.”

At the same time, Chen says blogging can’t be done lazily.

“You have to contribute something to the debate,” Chen said. “It’s not enough to just post a link you like and say, ‘Check this out.’ The reader will check out that link, but can forget you. Unless your blog presents an aggregation of links, or some extra commentary and reporting, readers won’t have a reason to come back.”

Chen created the blog to give more exposure to parenting issues. She and many of her readers felt that many mothers’ concerns weren’t getting enough coverage in the paper.

Last February, for example, Chen investigated a series of day-care center closings in Syracuse and found they were all related to a lack of state subsidies for child care. Along with a feature story, she also ran a blog post, which allowed her to add a ton of useful links for needy families. In addition, she gave her personal take on the story and a video looking at the crisis.

For Chen, blogging is not just a fun side job — it’s a necessity. She estimates 70 percent of her work is on her blog and in social media, (check out her daily online routine) and 30 percent is spent working outside on her beat. She’s by no means alone in blogging at the paper: Chen estimates about 50 percent of the Post staff are active bloggers.

Chen advises sticking to topic-based blogs. A general assignment reporter should avoid a blog on their daily reports, given the variety of topics that’ll come up, he said.

“A general assignment blog can easily lead to disaster,” she said. “Blogs are about targeted niche audiences.”

She recommends such reporters blog on a topic they’re passionate about, even if it has nothing to do with the job.

“You could blog about old movies and bring a readership to your paper that has never come to it before,” she said.

I mentioned my biggest concern about blogging, the fear that the more wired I get, the less time I’ll be reporting out on my beat. Chen took issue with that.

“If I’m a court reporter with wifi access on my laptop, I can be  live blogging and twittering while on site, without ever having to go back to the office,” she said.

Though aware of blogging’s complexities, Chen has little patience for reporters who resist it.

“I would ask them, ‘Have you noticed how our industry is doing lately?’ Newspapers are crumbling. If we don’t change, we will get left behind,” Chen said. “Blogging is now a matter of survival.”

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About BeatBlogging.org

BeatBlogging.org was a grant-funded journalism project that studied how journalists used social media and other Web tools to improve beat reporting. It ran for about two years, ending in the fall of 2009.

New content is occasionally produced here by the this project's former editor Patrick Thornton. The site is still up and will remain so because many journalists and professors still use and link to the content. BeatBlogging.org offers a fascinating glimpse into the former stages of journalism and social media. Today it's expected that journalists and journalism organization use social media, but just a few years ago that wasn't the case.

About the Author of this post
Daniel Marrin is a student at NYU.