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How to build a networked beat in your community

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By AMY GAHRAN

 

People often know a fair amount about what’s going on in their local community, and now they have more tools than ever to share what they know. Collecting and synthesizing this community knowledge, and inviting the most engaged people to offer more, can be a valuable community media offering. The trick is: having a good system that makes it easy for people to participate.

For the better part of two decades, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has been talking about ways that journalists and others can create news in collaboration with a type of community — their audience. Or rather, “the people formerly known as the audience.”

Over time this evolved into his vision of networked reporting:  “When the many contribute (easily) to reporting that is completed by a few.”

In a 2013 presentation to the editors of Quartz, Rosen outlined eight steps to building a networked beat at a news organization. Recently, he elaborated on how this model could work at a hyperlocal news site or similar community media venue.

Rosen emphasized that an underlying principle to creating a successful networked beat at the community level is the 1% Rule: In a group of 100 people online, one person will create content, 10 will “interact” with it (commenting, liking, sharing, editing, etc.), and the other 89 will simply view it.

The point of a networked beat is to:

  • Create better community news and information for the 90% who will only consume it…
  • Through efficient interaction with the 10% of your community who might actively engage with it, while…
  • Recruiting the most engaged, connected or skilled 1% of your community into co-production.

Not every kind of community news is a good fit for this approach. “It makes the most sense to choose a beat where it can truly be said, ‘the readers know more than we do.” said Rosen. “There are plenty of community issues where the relevant knowledge is widely distributed.”

Generally, this involves complementing traditional journalistic reporting on agencies and institutions (where knowledge is held by a few people) with community knowledge, insight, and experience.

For example, Rosen suggested that networked community reporting might work well in situations such as:

  • Education. Networked coverage of education at the classroom and family levels, complemented with traditional reporting on the inner workings of the local board of education.
  • Community development. Networked coverage of community development needs, complemented with traditional reporting on the city planning department.
  • Transportation. Networked coverage of traffic conditions and transit issues, complemented with traditional reporting on the transportation department.
  • Big local industries or companies. “A great beat to try this on is when you have a dominant local company or industry, like Big Pharma in Northern New Jersey, or covering Microsoft for Redmond, Washington,” said Rosen.

An example of a topic that’s getting this treatment, albeit from a major news outlet, is Motherlode, a blog from the New York Times  on parenting and family issues, in which editor KJ Dell’Antonia “invites contributors and commenters to explore how our families affect our lives, and how the news affects our families — and all families.”

If your community site covers several topics, it’s a good idea to package the networked beat in a unique blog on the site with its own feed, rather than mix it in with other coverage. “It needs a home, a container, a space of some kind,” said Rosen.8 steps to building a networked community beat

Here are Rosen’s thoughts on how his eight steps to creating a networked beat might work at a hyperlocal news site:

Step 1: Define the right combination of news flows for this particular beat.

“Find all online sources of information that already exist (feeds of any kind) that tell us about, say, community development in Anytown, USA. Combine them into a river of news.”

This could include following the social media accounts of local officials, agencies, organizations and influencers, as well as feeds from their blogs and websites, or from relevant local hashtags. It also could include feeds from filtered searches of local news outlets, or from news aggregators such as Google News.

Step 2: Put an intelligent filter, made for multiple uses, on the combined flow.

Tools such as Hootsuite and Feedly can be useful for pulling the feeds from all these community news sources together into a river of local news. Then, spend time adding filters and otherwise tweaking that river so it’s easier for you to spot the kind of content, voices, and early signals that will prove valuable to your production process.

“Finding the right tools for what your local site does is part of the challenge,” said Rosen. “The point is to devise a way of filtering that river which is likely to surface the best stuff.”

This filtered river will remain for internal use only, for the time being, until you’re confident in the quality of your filters.

Step 3: From smart filters on combined streams, make a series of simple and useful products.

Creating a production routine gives structure to how you will make use of the filtered river of news.

An easy place to start is to offer a morning roundup post on the topic of your networked beat — daily, or a few times a week. This should happen on a set day/time schedule, so people know what to expect and get accustomed to incorporating your product into their daily routine.

The morning roundup post can feature a handful of quotes, links, blurbs, commentary or context to highlight a few especially timely, important or interesting items from your filtered local news river. It should be posted to your site, and also sent out as an e-mail newsletter, and promoted via social media. “The point is to develop a regular user base for it,” said Rosen.

Having a highly structured, simple product with a regular production routine gives focus to how you filter your local news river. “The best filter is the one that helps you do that morning roundup post with the time and the people you have available,” said Rosen.

The morning roundup post also directly fuels your news cycle for the rest of the day or week. “Once you have the morning roundup down, some of those items will be worth followup, a phone call, or some additional reporting,” said Rosen. “So the morning roundup generates 2-3 short posts a day on your site about the beat. Add an afternoon check-in or roundup, and you have a publishing day.”

                Step 4: Start to register, verify and make contact with the best independent sources on the beat.

“This is where you start rolling out the ‘asks,'” said Rosen. “Where you are solicit the help of the 10% of your online community who are already engaging somehow with your content, and get them to assist with tasks directly related to your production process.”

The simplest example of this would be say (in a footer to your roundup, or to mention in social media occasionally), “See something that should be in our morning roundup? Send us the link.”

A more challenging example might be to tell your community, “There’s a ribbon-cutting ceremony today at the new pocket park. Want to take pictures?”

Or: “We’re setting our coverage priorities for the next few months. Help us out by taking a quick survey.”

                Step 5: When your filtering system is good and reliable, enough, hook your filtering tools up to the work flow for beat coverage.

Expand how you use your filtered news river internally, exposing it to more staff and trusted volunteers, to make it easier for everyone at your site to focus on the most current, relevant, and interesting content from the networked beat.

                Step 6: Launch your “inbox on steroids” to prove to the your community that it works.

This is a another way to collect and utilitize community input employed by Talking Points Memo, the Daily Dish and other sites. “They don’t have comments, but they encourage users to e-mail constantly —  tips, links, letters, something the bloggers should know about, pay attention to. Then they add a step to ‘sort through the inbox’ to their daily production cycle. By featuring incoming letters from readers you advertise to other readers that this is a way to contribute. By summarizing reader reactions you feed back to the user community a sense of what it thinks.

                Step 7: Bring key sources (from step 4) and fellow obsessives into co-production. Be prepared to compensate.

This is where recruiting and utilizing the 1% comes in, through targeted asks that are privately communicated to individuals who have already stepped up constructively through the earlier public asks.

Targeted asks elicit this higher level of community engagement might include:

  • “We need to make this a group blog. Want to be one of the authors?”
  • “We want to run a weekly informed sources poll. Are you willing to be a part of it?”
  • “We need our most engaged users to take over the roundup one day a week. Are you in?”

Step 8: Go pro-am (professional-amateur).Try some crowdsourcing campaigns focused on specific stories or issues on the networked beat, where both the 10% and the 1% collaborate with staff from your site.

How long will all this take? Rosen suggests committing to 4-6 months to try to take this process through all eight steps. “Keep going as long as you are getting enough engagement enough to warrant trying the next step.”

More tips for moving forward…

Rosen again emphasized that it’s important not just to have a clear process for your networked beat, but to focus on continually improving that process.

“In all of these steps, the thing that you have to keep driving for is not just engagement or participation, but efficiency in converting that involvement into production for the beat. The tools are there; what we need to discover is efficient practices to leverage the scarce labor of journalists. Keep engineering your tools and procedures so that they help you produce better information for the 90%.”

“Actionable” is an important part of “better.” Rosen notes, “We’re not just producing spectators here. We’re trying to equip people to become better participants in their community. That is what will motivate people to participate in your beat.”

Support your networked beat with live gatherings. “At a certain point you’ll want to convene you user community in real time with in-person meetups.” This is easier in a local community than a big metro area, and can be supported with a tool like Meetup.com, or with events posted to a Facebook group.

Who’s doing networked beats?  So far Rosen has not seen such the full approach applied to a beat at the community level, but he believes it’s viable and worth trying.

Currently Rosen is working with Deseret News wellness reporter Kelsey Dallas and editor Allison Pond to implement exactly this kind of approach. This project is due to launch within the next few months.

 

— Reprinted from the Knight Digital Media Center

 
 

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