Lessons from Beat Blogging - by on Saturday, April 25, 2009 8:42 - 9 Comments

BCNI Philly: Why beatblog? (and why news should be social)

Below you’ll find a post I created to go with a beatblogging presentation at BCNI Philly.

It’s a quick start guide on what beatblogging is, how to do it and best practices.

What is beatblogging?

Beatblogging is the practice of using social media, blogs and other Web tools for beat reporting.

To be a beatblogger, a journalist must engage in two-way communication. This mean interacting with people on Twitter, in the comments after blog posts and stories, through Facebook and other social networks, by conducting live chats and liveblogs, etc.

It’s important to point out that just because a journalist has a beat and a blog doesn’t make them a beatblogger. That just makes them a beat reporter with a blog. Two-way communication and user interaction are the cornerstones to beatblogging. Conversely, a beat reporter does not need a blog to be a beatblogger.

Two-way communication and interaction can happen on social networks and or during a liveblog, for instance. The key to beatblogging is not, nor will it ever be, about having a blog, but rather it is all about user interaction. We like to call beatblogging Rolodex 2.0, because it’s a way to expand the number of sources a beat reporter has.

In an earlier post Jay Rosen defined a beatblog as:

A beatblog in the expansive sense is any blog that sticks to a well-defined beat or coverage area, whether it is the work of a single person or a team, whether it is authored by a pro or an amateur journalist. A beatblog can be part of a large site, or it could stand on its own. Normally, the beat is explicit and obvious from the home page of the blog, but it is possible for a beat blog to have an “implicit” or unusual beat that isn’t immediately apparent to a casual user.

Content-wise, a beatblog presents a regular flow of reporting and commentary in a focused area the beat covers; it provides links and online resources in that area, and it tracks the subject over time. Beats can be topical (like dot.earth, which is about natural resources and the environment) or narrowly geographic (West Seattle blog) or both (Atlantic Yards Report) or activity-related (Family Life, which is about “raising a family.”)

Why beatblog?

  • More sources — Beatblogging allows journalists to find more sources. This means better and easier reporting. Good beatblogging can allow a journalist to cover a beat easier and more in-depth. Many of these new sources will contact beatbloggers with info, documents and links. In today’s era of limited resources and cutbacks, beatblogging is a powerful way to get more out of less.
  • Crowdsourcing — Beatblogging can be an excellent way to crowdsource stories and have readers help report. These days, reporters could use all the help they can get, and why not harness the wisdom of our users? Some beatbloggers even ask their readers to be their assignment editors.
  • Conversation — Social media is really about having a conversation. Beatblogging can be a great way to get people talking, and this can become a big part of your product. Alexander Russo’s District 299 blog is all about “hosting” the conversation. His blog is designed to be a place for people to discuss Chicago education news and policy, and people come to the blog largely for the conversation. Yes, he has good editorial content too, but the conversations are a big part of what makes his blog special.
  • Users add value People add value to beatblogs. They help reporters report, they leave links and comments after posts, they share their own experiences — they become a reason to come to the site.
  • More traffic – Good beatbloggers will generate more traffic for their content, because their content will have more around it. A blog that has a strong community built around it with lots of thoughtful comments will get much more traffic because people will be checking back several times a day to see the new comments. People will come to a blog just for the conversation, because comments add value.

Here are what some beatbloggers had to say about beatblogging via Twitter:

chronsciguy – It’s fun. It’s immediate. It makes me a much, much better reporter.

mneznanski Why I beatblog? Because it’s more fun than just writing for a newspaper. Because I know what people are reading. Because I do better, more informed journalism with it than without it.

saraneufeld It’s great source-building and an opportunity to tell stories I can’t in the newspaper. Plus, it’s fun.

Top notch beatbloggers

  • Eric Berger — You can’t get much better than a Pulitzer Prize finalist, which Berger was this year because of his stellar beatblogging efforts related to his coverage of Hurricane Ike. This coverage from Berger included live, daily chats about the oncoming storm, continuous updates and coverage on Berger’s SciGuy blog and reports on Chron.com.
  • Kent Fischer — Fischer (now out of journalism) was one of the best at using his beatblog to help him report and discover new stories. His beatblog helped him uncover an A1 (and later national in the WSJ) story. His readers routinely fed him stories, documents, etc. Beatblogging simply allowed him to be a better reporter. Listen to why Fischer thought beatblogging was such a useful tool for him as a reporter.
  • Monica Guzman — Guzman is the master conversation starter and community cultivator. If you’re looking for ways to build a community around your beat, you can’t find much better than Guzman. Unlike the other beatbloggers listed here, Guzman’s main job is to start conversations with readers.
  • Brian Krebs — Krebs is an excellent example of what can happen once a community is cultivated. Many of his readers are quite knowledgeable about computer security and really add to the conversation. In fact, blog posts often pick up once the comments start rolling in. Krebs’s users have added a tremendous amount of value to his blog. Krebs discusses the power of a strong user community in this Q&A.

Best practices

  • Cultivating a community — The best way to cultivate a community is to be A) active in your community by responding to comments and B) taking an active role in comment moderation. It takes work to cultivate a community, but it provides rewards. Berger discusses how to build a community in this podcast.
  • Hoisting comments – Once a community is cultivated, a beatblogger will want to start acknowledging when people leave strong comments. Many beatbloggrs have begun hoisting comments with weekly “comment of the week” features. It’s a good way to pat readers on the back. Better yet, check out Jon Ortiz’s “blog back” concept. It’s similar to hoisting comments but more in-depth.
  • Crowdsourcing — A good beatblog has a large network of sources around it. Many of these sources are experts in in certain fields and topics. Why not ask them for help? The Buzz Out Loud crew discussed how their users know more than they do in this podcast. BOL’s listeners are a big part of the show because they are so knowledgeable, they help report and they provide in-depth knowledge that the hosts often don’t have.
  • Be accessible — Make it easy for people to contact you on your blog, Twitter, etc. Good beatbloggers are transparent. People want to interact, so it make it easy for them. Guzman even has weekly in-person office hours and meetups.
  • Learn by example — Don’t be afraid to borrow someone else’s good idea. Each week we profile innovative beatbloggers and best practices. If you see something you like, start doing it yourself.

Great examples and lessons


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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
Patrick Thornton is the editor and lead writer of BeatBlogging.Org. He is @pwthornton on Twitter.