ON THE MEDIA: The Join the Beat project wants to tease out better ways of working with an audience directly and regularly on stories

March 30, 2018

By Shan Wang, March 15, 2018, for Nieman Lab

“We want to find people who recognize the potential of the audience, and are looking to capitalize on this potential and pull together a learning group to try some things and see what emerges.”

Think of the reporting done by David Fahrenthold of The Washington Post around Donald Trump’s charitable giving (or lack thereof) — done in public, in direct engagement with readers and sources, in a way that made thousands of people feel involved in the fact-finding process.

What if we could translate that kind of journalism to make it work in many more places — across different news outlets, across different beats? What if “membership” — a popular buzzword among news executives these days — was less about the publication and more about the individual reporter?

The Join the Beat project wants to do just that, teasing out for beat reporters and their newsrooms new and better ways of working with an audience directly, closely, and regularly on stories.

This Join the Beat research is part of the broader Membership Puzzle initiative, which New York University professor Jay Rosendirects, to conduct research on membership strategies for American news organizations, while also working with Dutch journalism darling De Correspondent on its American expansion. It aims to be a practical attempt to “figure out how to reduce the costs, raise the incentives, and create workflows that are effective and efficient,” Rosen writes in an introduction of the project.

“People tend to look at this from the perspective of, how do they help us do what we do now? Part of the potential with this project is to look at how the audience help us do things we don’t already do, that can help advance the cause of strong sources of news and information,” said Melanie Sill, who will oversee the research for the Join the Beat project. Sill, a former Nieman fellow, has previously worked in newsrooms from KPCC to the Sacramento Bee to the News and Observer in North Carolina. “Journalism and reporting has always tried to find information from people who have it and share it with people who don’t. We don’t go into this saying, ‘this is how this should work, and these are the tools you should use.’ We want to find people who recognize the potential of the audience, and are looking to capitalize on this potential and pull together a learning group to try some things and see what emerges.”

Join the Beat is currently accepting applications from beat reporters — with newsroom buy-in, so unfortunately no unattached freelancers — who either want to advance the audience-focused reporting they’re already doing or build new ways of sourcing and expertise-sharing from scratch. The Membership Puzzle is hoping to bring on up to eight reporters who will commit to sharing ideas with each other and receive guidance from the Membership Puzzle team during the six-month experiment, starting April 1.

Other than the freelancer rule, there are no other restrictions for who might participate. A reporter working at a large news organization who’s never had an opportunity to build a network around the beat is welcome to apply, as is a reporter at a tiny digital outfit with limited resources who’s already smartly worked with a knowledgeable group of readers throughout their work, as is a reporter from a paywalled, niche outlet with a small but engaged audience to begin with. Reporters can also be doing their journalism primarily in a non-English language and can be based anywhere in the world (though the group expects to communicate in English and share what they learn in English).

“I think there could be other people in this project who are starting from zero, who don’t have any such network. The idea is to have a mix of people who are far along and people who are just starting,” Rosen said. “You could start by trying to build a network first and then figuring out what you want, or you could start the other way by beginning with a project and saying, we want you to join our network. There are a zillion ways to approach this; we don’t want to be prescriptive.”

If you’re still looking for more specifics on how to go about the work, Rosen’s 3,000-plus word explainer expands the universe of possible types of reporting a person could do as part of this project. (The “concept paper” was deliberately written to be “empty” as possible, he said. “You have to fill out the journalism part. The work is going to be shaped by the peculiarities of your beat, the interests of the reporter, the mission of their site, and the social context the experiment is unfolding in.”)

Rosen actually worked with a handful of reporters on a version of this idea a decade ago. Some remember the benefits of a “socially networked” beat, pre-Twitter, early Facebook.

“As reporters, we’re always looking for resources. We’ve been conditioned that the best way is to pound the pavement, to look for them on our own, to pan for gold. What if we could make all those undiscovered sources easier to find? What if we could mine them without having to get to them one by one?” said Brad Wolverton, who participated in the early beat-blogging experiment, covering the business issues surrounding the NCAA at the Chronicle of Higher Education. (Wolverton is now an investigative reporter at the personal financial startup NerdWallet; he’s looking to participate in the Join the Beat project this time around as well.) Wolverton recalls creating private discussion groups with a few dozen people he’d call on frequently for everything from breaking news to source suggestions. “You can do this in one-off conversations, but the group effect can be powerful. I started sharing early-stage work in that group — the first time I’d ever done anything like that. I got invaluable feedback that led stories in better directions.”

Rosen and Sill will be the first to tell you that the ideas in Join the Beat have plenty of predecessors — and current company. Many working groups have formed looking for ways to improve how reporters work directly with readers to surface information to use in their journalism engagement. There are initiatives like the Public Insight Network. Individual bloggers have long done this type of work successfully. Many more organizations have done crowdsourced reporting out in public (a prominent recent example: ProPublica and WNYC with their “open investigation” podcast on Trump’s business interests and conflicts). Facebook Groups for newsgathering have mushroomed. Tested tools already exist that can facilitate this work: Hearken, GroundSource, The Coral Project, and more.

“Part of this is helping them know what’s available to them — if there are costs involved getting those tools, if they’re trying to do something using commenting, or if they’re trying to solicit questions from community and using that for the basis of their reporting, and if there are already enterprises out there that suit their needs — that might be something the cohort or I can suggest to each other,” Sill said. (Join the Beat won’t try to provide or subsidize specific tools to participating reporters; those resource decisions stay with individual newsrooms.) “One of the first things we’ll do is find out what problems the people in the group are trying to solve, and what the needs of the group are starting out.”

How eager readers will be to participate with each beat reporter is an open question. How to balance extremely active participants and casual ones so discussion isn’t dominated by a few of the loudest members is yet another. These are all up to the participating beat reporters to experiment with.

“I think there are tons of problems. In a way, there’s nothing but problems,” Rosen said, laughing a little. “That’s what this work is. You try to do something, you start with a clear idea of what you’re trying to do, you run into problems, and solving the problems is the payoff. That’s the essence of it.”

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