The Pocono Record has shifted from a traditional newspaper model to a new “virtual beat” model that has few traditional newspaper roles and requires every employee to have a hand in the Web process.
“We don’t have a features editor,” online producer John Misinco said. “We don’t have a news editor. Everyone is assigned a virtual beat.”
The 20,000-circulation daily in the Poconos of Pennsylvania switched to this new model for a variety of reasons. Flexibility, however, was the main reason. The Record isn’t a large paper with a staff to match. It needed to be more efficient and flexible to be able to cover more stories on more mediums.
For about the past two years employees have managed virtual beats. This is similar to a beat reporter, except that a virtual beat manager is responsible for getting content on that beat onto several different platforms: online, print, mobile, e-mail, etc. A virtual beat manager is like a beatblogger, except a virtual beat manager will have print content, whereas many beatbloggers only produce online content.
These virtual beats encompass topics like health, local schools, local entertainment, consumer news, home and garden, Pocono outdoors and more. Virtual beat managers not only write stories, but also have a lot of autonomy over which stories they cover. A reporter might write a story, send out a text alert and shoot a video all in the same day.
“That older model where one person writes, one person edits, one person does online, etc doesn’t work,” Misinco said. “With the Web things happen all the time. In this era of the Internet, you need everyone doing it. The thinking is that you have everyone involved that it makes everything easier. It also gets people to buy into the process.”
Not every reporter is assigned to a virtual beat; there are still some traditional employees around at the record, largely focusing on hard news. These employees, however, also produce Web and print content. News has to covered as it happens, not on a print deadline.
Misinco said the Record has a “fireman” approach to news. If there is no reporter around, someone on the copy desk will prepare a brief report for the Web.
“The new doesn’t stop just because you’re not there,” he said. “You pretty much have no choice but to have everyone play a role in it.”
Misinco said, however, there were some hiccups in getting veteran reporters over to this new model. The Record is still trying to get every employee into a mindset of producing content as soon as a story breaks.
The Record also is trying hard to get employees to think of other forms of content beyond written stories. Misinco would like to see more multimedia. Part of the switch has been getting veteran newspaper employees to buy into not only producing content on a different schedule, but also to buy into thinking outside of traditional content.
Part of a virtual beat managers responsibility lies with print. Certain virtual beats like local schools have a weekly print section that a virtual beat manager must put together. Other virtual beats generate occasional print stories, but don’t have companion print sections.
The Pocono Record has three sections every day: news, sports and a rotating virtual beat section. For instance, every Tuesday there is a consumer section in print that has the best content, while Wednesday features a local schools section.
Each day of the week features a distinct newspaper. For those interested in education, the Wednesday paper might be a must have, while those interested in entertainment and nightlife might really like the Friday edition. This system creates distinct print editions for each day of the week that appeal to different audiences.
What happens though when big news happens during the week on the education beat when it’s the local sports beats turn in print? The Record places these individual stories in the news section.
There is a give and take between print and the Web. Many articles are the same between print and the Web, and some appear first online, while others appear first in print. The Web gets breaking news and time sensitive stories first, while the print edition receives second-day, in-depth analysis pieces and some feature stories first.
“We do have a print product, and we have to do something with it to make it different,” Misinco said.
Misinco said this means taking content that works best in print — in-depth analysis and feature stories — and making those the focal point on print. The center piece story in each feature section is usually a print-first story, surrounded by content that originally appeared online.
The rest of the content for a weekly feature section is composed of the most interesting content from the past week from a virtual beat. An emphasis is also placed on evergreen content.
“You don’t have to worry about it being outdated,” Misinco said about using evergreen content in print.
Web analytics improving print and Web content
Virtual beats have been proving grounds for print. If a virtual beat becomes more popular online, more of that content will begin showing up in print.
“You need to pay attention to what your readers want,” Misinco said. “It’s easy to do that online, and your print edition should reflect that. The Web has forced us to be more receptive to what our readers are telling us.”
Misinco said many papers haven’t paid enough attention to what their readers want.
“So many papers are stuck in the mindset that they know what it is best,” he said. “Maybe you don’t really know. Maybe you need to listen to what readers are saying. If more papers did that they would be in better shape.”
Content managers have access to daily analytics, detailing page views to their content and section pages. Misinco cautioned that page views alone, however, cannot drive content.
“Obviously there are stories that many not be that popular, but that are important to get out there,” he said. ”You have to use caution in not letting the numbers tell you completely what to do. But you have to recognize that they are a pretty good measure of what people want.”
The future of virtual beats
The Record would like to see more content producer engaged in audio, video and other multimedia content. The Record will still have a separate photo staff to specialize in photography and videography, but every employee will be expected to be able to shoot audio, video and photos when necessary. For breaking news stories this might mean shooting video with a cellphone or using a compact camera to quickly snap photos.
“We’ll always have a separate photo staff that does the best photos and video, but we need to get everyone involved to get more content,” Misinco said.
The Record wants to make sure it and its employees are on a variety of platforms to expand its reach. This means increasing use of services like Facebook and Twitter. Employees will also be called on to be more social and communicate with readers, and eventually, engaging in two-way communication will be a requirement of content producers.
“Many already have,” Misinco said about content producers using social media. “Like many things, it’s starting to become the norm. As some start doing it, everyone wants to get in on it.”
Here is a video from the Record explaining their new process:
Jennifer Preston was named social media editor of The New York Times today.
Yes, the Gray Lady now has someone in charge of social media. The idea and title may seem funny to some, but it’s better than what The Wall Street Journal and others have been doing lately. It remains to be seen what Preston will do exactly and if she will really help make the Times more social, but early returns have been promising.
My first suggestion to Preston and the Times would be to be social. This is a given right? Wrong.
Check out the main NY Times Twitter feed. It’s anything but social. It’s a glorified RSS feed, composed of just headlines..
That should be corrected ASAP. The Times has almost 1,000,000 followers on that account, and the paper isn’t doing anything meaningful with it. First order of business for Preston should be to figure out how to make that Twitter feed social and useful.
It’s important to understand a news org and its readers before making suggestions. The Times has a rich history which must be kept in mind, and many of its readers are older. The Times should approach social media differently than a new media startup like TechCrunch.
There are, however, a few suggestions that I think all news orgs could benefit from. Here are a few suggestions from BeatBlogging.Org to the Times and other traditional news orgs:
- Be Social — If you’re going to be on social media, you should be social. This means engaging in two-way communication from the start with all social media accounts. This also means avoiding the urge to make Twitter into a glorified RSS account.
- Transparency — Social media is a great way to humanize reporters and pull the curtain back over a news orgs. Why not Twitter page one meetings and talk about upcoming stories? This would get people excited about upcoming content. A news org like the Times might even be able to charge for this access. People and organizations that are successful with social media are almost always transparent.
- Encourage every employee to experiment with social media — I mean everyone, just not content producers. Even editors who may not use social media for their jobs should be encouraged to play around with social media in their spare time. After all, if an editor is going to be managing other people who use social media, that person should understand social media too. Every employee at news organizations needs to at least understand and appreciate social media.
- Make two-way communication a requirement of content producers — The era of one-way media is over. The era of one-way stories is over. All content producers should be required to engage in two-way communication for their jobs. Content producers should take ownership of the comments after stories, posts, videos, etc. If content producers are required to engage users, it will be much easier for news orgs to build meaningful communities around their products. This could help end comment ghettos.
- Build a bigger network of sources — Social media can help content producers build bigger networks of sources. A bigger network directly translates into more tips, more confidential documents, etc. A bigger network will mean better journalism. Social media is a great way to build a bigger network.
- Crowdsource — Working on a story? Need to find experts or people to comment? Social media is a great way to do that. Need to get people’s experiences? Social media is a great way to do that too. Social media can even be used to get people to help report on a story. Our audience is a great, untapped resource. It’s time for us to harness it.
What would you suggest the Times do with social media and Twitter?
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?
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.”
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.
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.
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?
- Clear beat: GothamSchools
- High volume of commentary: SciGuy
- Harvesting of comments “Here’s what you said about this…”: Come Heller High Water
- Inquiries/questions asked to readers: Security Fix
- Daily roundup: The Daily Wrap
- Filtering and linking: Today in the Sky
- Comments or e-mails from readers run as posts/used for story ideas/improve stories: Central PA NewsVote
- Comments hosted in blog entries: Inside Ed
- Reader blogs: Seattle PI
- Hoisting Comments: Dallas ISD Blog
- Live blogging: The Caucus
- Frequent blog posts by author, i.e. several per day, updates: Glenn Greenwald
- Contact info/Transparency/Accessibility/Brand identity: Security Fix
- Good use of Twitter: Alex Roarty of PoliticsPA
- Quality writing/grammar/style: Slate.com
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.