Lessons from Beat Blogging

EWA: Social media for better education reporting

Wednesday, April 29, 2009 23:59 - by

Below you’ll find a post I created to go with a beatblogging presentation at the Education Writers Association conference.

For a more in-depth quick start guide on what beatblogging is, how to do it and best practices, check out my post: BCNI Philly: Why beatblog? (and why news should be social)

Best networks for education reporters

  • Facebook — Facebook is a no brainer. It originally started as a social network just for college students, then added high school students and now has expanded to allow everyone to join. You’ll find a much higher concentration of college students in particular on Facebook than you will on MySpace. Even many teachers, professors and administrators are joining Facebook these days. It’s the perfect network to find education-related people to interview and even find stories. Every education reporter should at least have a presence on Facebook.
  • Twitter — Twitter is a great social network for almost any journalist. In particular, it’s a great tool for crowdsourcing, asking questions and monitoring trends. Check out our screencast on how to use Twitter for reporting and our other screencast on how to use search.twitter.com.

Education beatbloggers to follow

  • Tawnell Hobbs/Kent Fischer | DISD Blog — The DISD blog won this year’s EWA award for best multimedia education blog and for good reason. It has been the gold standard for education beatblogs the past 1-2 years. Here are just a few of the lessons you can learn from the DISD blog: Fischer’s readers helped him uncover an A1 story, hoisting comments to build a better community, live blogging to help form a closer connection with readers, providing a public service for readers, etc, etc, etc.
  • Alexander Russo | District 299 Blog — Russo has a different kind of beatblog. He centers his blog around “hosting the conversation.” The District 299 is a place where people in Chicago can go to discuss education and the Chicago school district. Russo does original reporting, linking to others content and conversation starting.
  • Gotham Schools — This non-profit, new media startup is one to watch. They don’t have an institutional memory and aren’t beholden to how things “used to be.” Instead, they can concentrate on transforming education reporting. We’re big fans of their daily link journalism post too.
  • Khristopher Brooks — Brooks use of Facebook is one to emulate. He convinced the University of Nebraska to give him a nebraska.edu e-mail address. This allows him to see most students on the Nebraska Facebook network. Brooks does not grab students profile information without prior permission, however, and he mostly uses Facebook to find students who are studying certain majors or taking certain classes. If Brooks is doing a story where he needs to talk to a student about a controversial class, for instance, he can search the Nebraska Facebook network for students in that class, contact them and get interviews. He essentially uses Facebook as a phone book on steroids. Listen to Brooks discuss how Facebook has made his job much easier.

Best practices

  • Be transparent and accessible — Brooks is extremely accessible for Nebraska students because he has put himself on Facebook. If students want to contact him about an issue at Nebraska that he may not know about, they can easily do so via Facebook. It takes far less work on their part to send him a private message via Facebook than it does to hunt down his e-mail address or phone number. The easier you make it for people to contact you, the more likely it is that they will contact you. Get on multiple social networks (with your real name), put a bio and about page on your blog and make sure you have contact info on your blog.
  • Be social — This could be as simple as being active in the comments section after stories and blog posts. It also means being an active participant on social networks. If you’re on Twitter, just don’t ask people questions, but answer their questions too. Be social and get to know people. Social media is all about being social. The old way of doing journalism was one-way communication, but today it’s all about two-way communication. Be a part of a conversation.
  • Cultivate a community — Being social is the first part of cultivating a community. If you’re lucky enough to be given your own blog, use it to its fullest potential. A blog is a fantastic place to cultivate a community of knowledgeable sources that will send you tips, links and documents. Monica Guzman is the master community cultivator and is someone worth following for ideas on how to build a community.

GeekDad blog thrives because of awareness of audience

Monday, April 27, 2009 11:18 - by

What do Legos, standardized testing, online museums and robots have in common?

Well, for one, there’s the GeekDad blog on Wired.com. Originally the brainchild of Wired.com Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson in March 2007, GeekDad has since become one of the most popular blogs on the site. (See our recent post on Wired.com for more of the history of the GeekDad blog)

By day, the current editor of GeekDad (since September 2007), Ken Denmead, is a civil engineer. He described himself as “very much a geek and very much a father.” By combining these interests to create the tone of the blog, Denmead said, “I’ve tried to turn it into the Wired.com parenting blog.”

Denmeads sons, 11-year-old Eli and nine-year-old Quinn, have enjoyed some of the perks of their dad’s online moonlighting gig, and Denmead has learned some things from his kids. He often receives free, sample video games from companies who want their products reviewed on the blog.

“I won’t necessarily play them completely myself,” Denmead said. “I’ll throw ‘em to the kids and say, ‘Hey, play this, and then let me sit with you while you play it, and you tell me how you feel about it while you’re playing.’”

As a result, both the parent’s and the kids’ perspectives are reflected in the blog post — and Denmead gets to spend some quality game-playing time with his sons. Eli and Quinn aren’t complaining.

“A new game for the Wii or the DS shows up every couple of weeks, so they’re happy about that,” he said.

GeekDad contributor Matt Blum, a software engineer, also finds inspiration for posts from his kids. Blum has a six-year-old daughter and an eight-year-old son. One day, when the whole family was in the car, Blum’s daughter asked where the first human beings came from.

“My wife and I are both staunch believers in evolution,” Blum said, and so his daughter’s question led to a discussion of evolution. “I wrote a post about that because it’s a tough question. We weren’t prepared for her to ask that sort of question.”

The comments from GeekDad readers, some with similar beliefs and some with different ones, continued the discussion online. Denmead said that the interaction with readers has contributed to the popularity of the blog — which averages 20,000 to 22,000 hits per day. He uses Google analytics to gauge the traffic.

“One of the weird things about GeekDad within the larger Wired universe is that we really do speak more directly to our readers as sort of a personal conversation, whereas most of the rest of Wired is much more about posting news articles,” he said.

In order to increase posts’ visibility on the Wired.com main page, Denmead encourages the bloggers to vary the tone of the posts between conversational and more formal news reporting because the latter have a better chance of being featured on the main website. This kind of publicity draws readers to the blog.

“It’s been a lesson in journalism and in good writing for publication,” Denmead said.

Still, the driving force of GeekDad is its awareness of its audience. Blum has utilized his readers’ knowledge when preparing questions for interviews. He has asked readers to respond via Twitter with questions they’d like to ask a particular interview subject, such as Adam Savage of the Discovery Channel’s MythBusters.

“He does tons of interviews, so I didn’t want to ask him the same questions that everybody had already asked him, because what’s the point” Blum said about interviewing Savage.

To avoid duplicating previously published information, Blum does his own research prior to interviews and said that the readers’ contributions are also helpful.

“I figure if I’m asking the readers,” he said, “not only are they helping me, but that way the end product will be that much more interesting to the readers because they’ve had some input into it.”

He said Twitter offers the perfect means of gathering information for this purpose.

For Denmead, his work as the GeekDad editor has blossomed into a book deal. He was approached by a literary agent and, after researching the agency to make sure it was legit, wrote a book proposal that got picked up by Penguin Viking. The book, which will probably be titled “The GeekDad Book,” is a collection of “geeky” projects that parents can do with their kids.

The test group for these projects? Denmead’s sons Eli and Quinn, of course. The book is scheduled to come out around Father’s Day in 2010.

This kind of family-oriented material is largely what makes the GeekDad blog so easy for its readers to relate to.

“It is very much the nature of GeekDad to try and be a community blog,” Denmead said.

All of the bloggers are unpaid and write from different parts of the country (and the world—one author lives in Australia), which provides the blog with varied and fresh perspectives. The bloggers clearly share one thing in common with each other and with their readers.

“We are literally what the title is,” he said. “We are geek dads — and a couple of geek moms.”

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

Saturday, April 25, 2009 8:42 - by

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

MinnPost lessons on building traffic and reporting on the Web

Wednesday, March 25, 2009 16:38 - by

The Nieman Lab has a fantastic post on Joel Kramer, the founder of MinnPost.com.

The parts that really stand out to me are the parts about building traffic and creating content on the Web. In general, Kramer recommends more, shorter posts. The days of piecing together several pieces of information into one summary may be over:

Even for our serious audience, we’ve learned that $600 spent on one long story produces a lot less traffic than $600 spent generating six to 12 shorter items. We still do longer stories every day, including many that combine in-depth reporting and analysis with personal voice.

But a careful reader of our site over the past year will note that we have a great many more short, quick hits, published all day long. So while we are spending less on news today than a year ago, our traffic has more than doubled during that time. On a three-month rolling average, we now have more than 200,000 unique monthly visitors and more than 700,000 page views — and in mid-February we enjoyed our first 31-day period with more than one million page views.

We are confident we can keep this number growing and keep quality high. Even short-form work can involve outstanding reporting and analysis — for evidence, check out David Brauer’s Braublog any day. But it does mean that we do a lot fewer ambitious investigative reports than I would like us to publish.

Tony Pierce gave us similar advice a few weeks ago. He recommends:

  • He recommends posting more than once daily. If you post once a day or less, people usually don’t come to your site daily. They’ll just come once or twice a week to catch up. Not only do you want people coming to your site daily, you want them coming multiple times a day. Having someone come to your Web site twice daily is a big difference over twice weekly.
  • Pierce also recommends group blogs, based around topics. Having multiple authors on one blog helps to ensure that there is a consistent stream of content. That consistent stream is vital to building traffic.

Kramer also talks about the delicate balance between generating page views and just producing content to get page views. Kramer and MinnPost.com seek to maximize page views by tracking what people like, while always keeping their mission in mind:

Google Analytics tells us exactly how many times each item we publish gets read. This has a powerful effect. It makes us want to do more of what gets read, and less of what doesn’t, while remaining true to our mission.

What does this mean? A glance at MinnPost lets a visitor know that it’s for serious newsreaders. Our brochure proudly declares, “NO Britney. NO Paris. NO Lindsay.” MinnPost is not a place to visit for stories about entertainment celebrities, or sex, crime, and advice for the lovelorn — even though we know that such content would bulk up our page views.

Back to Pierce for a second here. Pierce has a very simple formula for success:

Consistent content + links to the blog from other sources + SEO = increased page views.

I would combine that advice with what Kramer said, and you’ll be able to start building traffic in no time.

Ortiz’s beatblog pushes Schwarzenegger to make policy change

Wednesday, March 11, 2009 15:51 - by

Jon Ortiz’s beatblog, The State Worker, and his users helped force Gov. Schwarzenegger’s hand in making a furlough policy change.

State workers in California have to take two furlough days each month as part of an effort to save money. The governor’s office occilated between two different furlough policies and was unable to come to a decision. One policy had two Fridays of every month being furlough days, which would have forced the closing of state agencies on those days.

The other policy was self-directed furloughs that gave individual departments leeway over when to have furloughs. The lack of a concrete plan caused Ortiz to write a column that said the whole situation was a mess and that state workers deserved better:

The state’s furlough message has switched from shutting down again on March 20 to going with “self-directed” furloughs after Friday that would let state workers pick their days off with management’s OK. Offices could stay open under the second plan.

So which is it?

The shifting messages have ticked off state workers already dealing with a 10 percent furlough pay cut.

“But they don’t care about our lives or about the work we do,” state worker Stacy Garrett said in an e-mail.

The furlough message mess makes it hard to argue otherwise.

The same day the column was published, the governor’s office finally settled the furlough situation, after being prodded by The State Worker beatblog and its users. The really cool part of this story is how Ortiz’s users helped him to cover this situation. They fed him copies of departmental memos that had conflicting information and they pointed him to other discrepancies that were coming out of the governor’s office.

Ortiz took this information and fact checked it to make sure it was accurate. He said he had “hundreds of agents” helping him uncover information. Ortiz is able to get this kind of help because his beatblog is surrounded by a network of knowledgeable users, many of which work for the state of California.

“I had this network of user reporters, pointing out to me things I would have never known had they not be feeding me information,” Ortiz said.

Ortiz said the ability of his users to give him concrete examples of how the governor’s office was sending mixed signals about the furlough policy changed the quality of his reporting.

“You can tell people things or you can show people thing,” he said. “The users were allowing me to show very concrete examples of how this was out of control.”

DISD blog wins national education reporting award

Friday, March 6, 2009 12:29 - by

Two of our favorite beatbloggers, Kent Fischer and Tawnell Hobbs of the DISD Blog, were recognized by the Education Writers Association for the best multimedia education blog.

The Education Writers Association (EWA), the national professional association of education reporters and writers, today announced the winners of the 2008 National Awards for Education Reporting, the prestigious national competition for education writing. The annual contest honors the best education reporting in the print and broadcast media and is the only independent contest of its kind in the United States. Contest entries were limited to stories published or broadcast for the first time during the 2008 calendar year.

Fischer and Hobbs will find out for a few months why the judges picked them as the top multimedia education blog, but Fischer said their application focused heavily on community aspects of their blogs and the conversations they created. Fischer and Hobbs also made it clear that this was a hard news blog that regularly broke news.

“This award tells me that we’re not wrong — all of us journalists who know that blogging extends our reach into the community,” Hobbs said. “The EWA award validates that the Dallas ISD blog is a ‘multimedia’ reporting tool that can be used to help tell a story.”

The DISD blog has been a success for the Morning News when measured by a variety of metrics: content created, pageviews, user conversations and content that originates on the blog and makes it into print. Editors want to try to bottle some of the lessons and best practices from the DISD blog and share them with the rest of the newsroom.

“There is definitely here at the Morning News a growing effort to take what Tawnell and I have learned from our year of beatblogging and to spread the word, the gospel so to speak, to other reporters on other beats who are interested in dipping their toes into beatblogging,” Fischer said.

Fischer will be conducting brown bag lunches where reporters and editors can come and learn about beatblogging. He’ll be explaining what beatblogging is, examples of what he and Hobbs have done and how he approaches the art of beatblogging.

There will also be beatblogging sessions aimed at editors. Fischer said editors’ roles are changing, and because of that editors have to change their expectations for the kind of work that will produced and how much of it will be produced.

“Beatblogs aren’t successful if editors don’t change the ways they manage reporters,” Fischer said. “A beatblog is practically a full-time job in itself. You can’t have the same level of expectations on your reporters to produce for print and then sort of throw a beatblog on top of that and expect it to be a success.”

Fischer said people at his paper are beginning to realize that pageviews aren’t enough when measuring success or failure. It’s now becoming about creating niches and communities online that are highly focused. They believe these highly focused audiences will appeal much more to advertisers.

“I think what they’ve come to realize is that to be successful online, it’s not about total pageviews, it’s about creating a community in a sort of a dedicated core of community members who are going to be highly engaged and conversant with each other on niche topics,” Fischer said.

Fischer and Hobbs are still working out how to best work on two distinct products with unique audiences at once. Both work on the blog and create content for print. They still have to do a lot of duplicating content between the mediums.

“I find the print product to be frankly annoying,” Fischer said. “I don’t think about print anymore. I come in everyday, and I blog. Blog posts that blow up on me, become really popular and get lots of comments, those become candidates for print stories. If I blog all day and I don’t have anything that blows up like that than I consider myself not to have anything cooking for print the next day.”

Kent and I also discussed many other topics for this week’s podcast. Those topics include:

  • What newsroom technology hurdles do you run into? What can’t you do because of the limited Web technology you are allowed to use?
  • Who will be attending the beatblogging training sessions?
  • What do you hope reporters and editors get out of the beatblogging training sessions?
  • How has your beatblogging changed in the past year?
  • How are the beatblog and print audiences different? How does that impact content creation?

Click here to stream the interview. Or download the MP3.

Niche social networks can be a great tool for journalists

Thursday, February 19, 2009 18:11 - by

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.”

Podcast: Silverman on lessons learned from Pharmalot

Thursday, January 8, 2009 21:43 - by


Ed Silverman, one of the original and best beat bloggers, is leaving The Star-Ledger and Pharmalot.

Silverman discussed both lessons he learned from Pharmalot and the reasons why he decided to move on in this week’s podcast. You can find more information about Silverman’s decision here as well. He spent two years working on Pharmalot, but it really took him a year to really become the efficient, prolific beat blogger he was.

“It took me a year to really get a groove going in terms of how to manage my time and to develop the best routine so I could be efficient and effective,” he said. “It’s the sort of work you have to immerse yourself in and learn the hard way.”

One of Silverman’s biggest lessons for would-be beat bloggers is his work ethic. Silverman doggedly worked his beat, often putting in long hours many days in a row. He completely immersed himself within the world of pharma, becoming one of the leading sources of information on the industry.

“To make the kind of site that I had going, I really had to read everything I could,” he said. “It takes a lot of time to really become so intimately familiar with a subject so that you know when something pops up you can say, ‘yeah that’s old.'”

Silverman believes it takes long hours to make a successful blog because there are so many blogs available. He said that if he just worked four hours a day on Pharmalot that the site wouldn’t have gotten nearly the traffic. Pharmalot was able to garner 11,000 unique visitors a day partly because it had so much news and information on it, and the site was updated throughout the day.

“If you’re going to be a go-to-site that’s going to offer more than just selective items and to do what I did and provide a wide variety of items … you have to put in long hours,” he said. “The site has to be constantly refreshed.”

The hours he worked were considerably differently than when he was a newspaper reporter. He said writing for print was more like working bankers hours, compared with the varying and sometimes long hours of blogging. 

Despite the success of Pharmalot (plenty of visitors and page views), there was never any talk of adding additional staff onto Pharmalot. Unfortunately for Pharmalot, as the site was ascending, the Ledger was descending. The financial situation of the paper didn’t afford for an expansion of new media projects like Pharmalot.

“The paper took precendee and they had to do what they were doing to prop up revenue and keep down expenses,” he said. “The timing was both fortuitous and unfortunate. It’s sort of a sad irony.”

Silverman does believe that Pharmalot could be a viable entity on its own, without the backing of a major media organization like the Ledger. Pharma is a global beat that appeals to many people, and Pharmalot was able to capture a sizable audience in two years. 

“The economic environment has to be conducive to that of course,” he said about a site like Pharmalot trying to go it alone. “Timing is everything, right?”

Silverman may be blogging again for his new employer Elsevier, a publisher of science and health information, but his exact role has yet to be decided.

Other topics discussed:

  • The reasons why Silverman thought it was time to move on. 
  • Silverman’s role as an aggregator and how it made him more of an editor than a writer.
  • Key tips for would-be beat bloggers.
  • What is the fate of Pharmalot? Will the site be retired?
  • Can you separate Pharmalot from Silverman? Would a Pharmalot without Silverman really be the same blog? 

Click here to stream the interview. Or download the MP3.

The give and take of beat blogging

Friday, December 12, 2008 15:25 - by

Orlando Sentinel tech columnist and reporter Etan Horowitz was recently alerted by a readers of his column and blog that Bright House’s digital cable was down.

At best, many journalists would have posted a small note on their blog and then went on with their day (or a brief in the print edition the next day, after the outage had been corrected). But if a journalist wants to keep getting tips from readers, it’s a good idea to provide a service back to readers. The reason this became a big story for many of Horowitz’s readers is that Bright House’s Web site went down due to an overload of traffic, and their phone lines were perpetually busy.

Horowitz promptly put a note up on his blog and then tried to contact Bright House to find out what was going on. Horowitz’s readers began commenting when their cable went down and where they were located in the Orlando area. This began to form a picture of how widespread the problem was and when it started.

That small note that Horowitz posted was later updated five times with new information throughout the day as Horowitz was in contact with Bright House. Horowitz told readers why service was interrupted (a corrupted database) and provided updates on when Bright House thought service would be restored. He also provided readers with information on how to get some of their service restored by unplugging their cable wire from the cable box and plugging it directly into the TV (this would give most people some of their cable service but without HD).

Horowitz provided a public service to his readers and they were grateful that he did. Many readers could not get through to Bright House, while Horowitz was able to get in touch with a spokeswoman for the company and get updated information throughout the night.

The original blog post received thousands of page views, 560 comments (as of publication of this post) and spawned two print stories. And perhaps most importantly, Horowitz provided a public service to his readers after they tipped him off to the initial story.

If Horowitz simply posted a note on his blog that said, “Bright House digital cable service is down for many people in the area,” and left it at that, he might not get that many tips in the future from readers. Many of his readers already knew that cable service was already down. What they want out of a journalist like Horowitz is why is the service down, when will it be restored and is there anything that readers can do to speed up the process or get some of their service back?

Beat blogging really is a give and take. It’s not about marketing the same old content in new ways or pushing old content onto new platforms. Beat blogging is about expanding ones network of sources. Many of these new sources are not the traditional insiders, but they can help reporters do their jobs better and easier.

But a journalist isn’t going to get a lot of tips if it’s always just take, take, take. Beat bloggers and readers help each other out. Success on social media requires a give and take, and that can be a tough concept for many journalists accustomed to one-way communication to understand. 

Writing about cable outages might not be the sexiest story or win awards, but I can guarantee you that many people are very thankful that Horowitz gave them this information. This kind of coverage probably gave both Horowitz and his employer some good will. Without Horowitz’s coverage (and sounding board for angry customers), Bright House customers might not have gotten a credit.

Horowitz also used Twitter to update people about the Bright House situation. Many people had questions on Twitter about the situation and about getting a credit for lost service.

Here are a sample of some of the questions that readers left for Horowitz on his blog:

“I live by the Orlando Airport. Cable has been out since 3. Phone and internet still working. Stopped trying to call Bright House and customer care. How many busy signals can one person take? Thanks for the update!!” – Kathy

“Thanks OS for keeping us better informed then our cable operator!” – Todd

“And THANK YOU ETAN for posting this article and linking to it from your Twitter! Your article was the ONLY PLACE I could find any information!! The phone number’s been busy for hours, the website was super slow (understandably).. Thanks so much!!” – Jen

Interview with Schumacher about conducting newsroom social media training

Wednesday, December 3, 2008 1:01 - by

Mary Louise Schumacher, art and architecture critic with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, was recently tasked with teaching her newsroom about social media and beat blogging.

What worked? What didn’t work? What did her peers think about all this fancy social media?

And most importantly, how can social media and beat blogging improve their reporting and make their jobs easier?

“There has been a lot of buzz in the newsroom about [social media], and people don’t know how to use these tools,” she said about why her paper started offering training. 

The Journal Sentinel has come out as an early leader in giving social media training to its employees. Rather than just encourage its employees to use social media, the Journal Sentinel decided to discuss how to use social media to improve their journalism. Schumacher and her colleagues also had discussions about the ethical dilemmas that arise for journalists from social media. 

The sessions were limited to 6-8 people per training session. This allowed Schumacher to spend the last 45 minutes of each two hour training session talking to individual reporters about how they could use these tools for their beats. Different social media tools work better for different beats, but the idea of beat blogging and expanding a journalist’s network can strengthen any beat.

“Of course what works for me as the art critic is going to be very different than what works for a political reporter,” Schumacher said.

Carefully considering which tools to use and how to use them for each beat and each reporter could lead to less frustration, more success and better results. When dealing with people who are often new to these technologies, more guidance tends to yield better results and also avoid some of the missteps can happen with social media. For instance, Schumacher said that many of the people who came into her training sessions never thought of using social media for beat blogging.

“A lot of people came expecting something very different than what they got,” she said. “But I think people were coming expecting to hear more about how to get our content out into the click stream, so to speak, and how to get our stories out where people are looking at them on the Web.”

While it’s not a bad idea to disseminate content onto new platforms, that’s hardly the best way to use social media. The best journalists and news organizations use social networks to be a part of a larger conversation — to connect with people. Just using social media to bring in more Web traffic would be wasting the vast potential that social media offers for journalism and beat reporters.

“What we focused on in the training sessions is how to use networks and how to build communities around your beats to be better reporters, to actually improve your journalism,” she said. “That came as a little bit as a surprise to people, and I think a pleasant surprise.”

Listen to this podcast to hear why your newsroom should conduct beat blogging and social media training.

Also, don’t miss the fantastic conversation that Schumacher started about which online tools are best for reporters.

Some other topics discussed:

  • Why does beat blogging make journalism better?
  • What concerns arise with social media and journalistic ethics?
  • Has anyone found stories using social media since the training?
  • How did the training go over with the newsroom?
  • Are certain social media tools going over better with your newsroom than others? Are some easier to pick up?
  • What kinds of tips would you offer to people who want to conduct social media training in their news organization?

Click here to stream the interview. Or download the MP3.

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.