Analysis - by on Wednesday, May 13, 2009 14:32 - 1 Comment

Creating the perfect beatblog

A cutting edge beatblog, and the sites of highest interest to Beatblogging.org, are those using the two-way, social part of the Web, to cover a beat in a networked or user-assisted way.

Here we find information and newsy items, advice and ideas regularly flowing in from readers as the blog becomes a platform for extending the network of the beat outward until hundreds and thousands of people are helping to… cover the beat.

But — truth be told — there aren’t any beatblogs that get it all right. Mostly, this is due to lack of time and resources. Where one blogger spends time on original content, another blogger spends time on two-way communication with readers/commenters.

So, let’s say that it were possible to create the perfect beatblog; that time and resources aren’t an issue. And let’s say that we created this blog using only elements from existing blogs. In other words, a mash-up.

What would this blog look like?

The Creators

First of all, it’s important to note that a beatblog does not have to be run by a large media company. It can be created by a single person or a team, a pro or an amateur journalist. The idea is that the creator(s) whoever he/she/they are, are people who care deeply about regularly covering a beat and focusing on content that is not only valuable to their readers who are interested in the niche topic, but also focus on content that their readers suggest be written or covered.

In other words, the creators “get it” — all of it. From the look and feel of their blog, to its subject to their linking ethics and social media leverage — they focus on truly becoming a “beatblog” and not just a blog that “happens to have a beat.”

They would have the reporting drive of Kent Fischer, the networking savviness of Monica Guzman, the friendly, open-mindedness of Brian Stelter and the entrepreneurial spirit of Daniel Victor.

The Design

It must be stressed that design goes a long way online. As much as “Content is King,” design can really change the way readers approach your blog and interact with it.

A beatblog that really hit the nail on the head in terms of theme and design is GothamSchools. It’s a blog focused on breaking news and analysis of the NYC public schools. If you take a look at the site, you’ll find that it’s header is properly tied in with the subject — it has the New York City skyline and the image of a public school.

picture-1

The rest of the page is very minimalist and straightforward, designed to look like the pages of a notebook. What is great about GothamSchools is that there is no way anyone can get lost or confused with where to find more information, how to contact the creators or what the site is about. Everything is neatly organized and tagged, exactly the way beatblogs should be.

I’ve stressed before that many beat blogs fail to provide enough transparency and contact information on their pages. This is because so many of the best beatbloggers are attached to legacy news organizations, and thus, their pages are not stand-alone sites but rather limbs of the main news site.

I think the proper way to run a beatblog is to make it it’s own Web site, with it’s own contact information and “about” page. It shouldn’t just be a link from a drop-down menu on a news organization. Of course, if it’s affiliated it should have the proper attributions and links, etc.

But making the beatblog it’s own page can make it more comfortable for readers, easier to find and easier to interact with. Just as a news site’s Twitter feed or Facebook page is separate from the organization and more personalized, so should a beatblog be.

The Strategy/Execution

Properly running a beatblog can be difficult if there are time constraints or not enough helping hands. For example, Pharmalot, a beatblog run by journalist Ed Silverman about the pharmaceutical industry, featured really good daily journalism and link journalism. It was a beatblog that doggedly covered its niche.

But it would have been much stronger if had the same community building as the DISD Blog. Pharmalot might have been the best beatblog from just a pure content perspectiveve, but it always lagged in the two-way communication department. Silverman spent so much time delivering incredible content by himself that he simply couldn’t do more two-way communication.

Then you take Alexander Russo’s District 299 blog, and it has great two-way communication but could be stronger in terms of original content.

Again, if time weren’t an issue, what would the proper mash-up look like?

  1. Clear beat: GothamSchools
  2. High volume of commentary: SciGuy
  3. Harvesting of comments “Here’s what you said about this…”: Come Heller High Water
  4. Inquiries/questions asked to readers: Security Fix
  5. Daily roundup: The Daily Wrap
  6. Filtering and linking: Today in the Sky
  7. Comments or e-mails from readers run as posts/used for story ideas/improve stories: Central PA NewsVote
  8. Comments hosted in blog entries: Inside Ed
  9. Reader blogs: Seattle PI
  10. Hoisting Comments: Dallas ISD Blog
  11. Live blogging: The Caucus
  12. Frequent blog posts by author, i.e. several per day, updates: Glenn Greenwald
  13. Contact info/Transparency/Accessibility/Brand identity: Security Fix
  14. Good use of Twitter: Alex Roarty of PoliticsPA
  15. Quality writing/grammar/style: Slate.com

The Results

In the end, it’s all a time and money game. There’s not enough of either. And that’s okay — for now.

Beatblogs are still in their infancy, and it’s going to take time to evolve into something powerful and profitable. It’s always important, however, to keep fresh ideas in mind and constantly try to break the mold.

Be creative. Think outside the box. Learn from the best.

Run the best damn beatblog that the Internet’s ever seen. :)


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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
Alana Taylor is a student at NYU.