[Here's part three of Dan's essay on the ills facing American newspapers; you can catch up on the first two parts here. His conclusion runs tomorrow. —Josh]
If we believe our newsrooms have value, then the greatest prizes are the reporters who know and care about their beats. In 2004, not long after I stepped down as editor of washingtonpost.com, I wrote two essays in the Online Journalism Review about my hopes for online newspapers, my frustration at the pace of change and my belief that beat reporters could be our secret weapon online. I argued then — and I still believe now — that if we can better exploit and market the deep, full-bodied understanding that beat reporters have of their areas of expertise, we hugely increase our value proposition to our readers. So we should celebrate our beat reporters, and take advantage of online opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge.
Knowledgeable beat reporters aren’t just stenographers, they are translators, educators, referees and analysts. If we’ve got people in our newsroom who really understand how a certain city or county works, or who are experts in certain policy areas, they should be sharing and showcasing their expertise in live discussions and blogs; should be answering reader questions and composing FAQs, should be on Facebook and Twitter, should be publishing and allowing readers to contribute to their beat notes, and should be writing and updating primers on key players and key issues. And much of the material they create for online should end up in the paper as well — quite possibly instead of the dry incremental news stories they currently produce. They should essentially become the anchor for a community of people who share an interest in that beat. And by making it clear that our beat reporters are not faceless drones, but knowledgeable and accessible figures, we can reconnect with readers who may otherwise decide they may as well go somewhere else for their news.
A renewed emphasis on beat reporting would be good for our newsgathering efforts overall, as well. It would remind us of the value of keeping experienced, knowledgeable, well-sourced journalists covering the same communities or topics over time; and it might encourage us to revisit our beat structures for the new era, as well as create mini-beats for urgent topics that we otherwise only cover reactively.
Tomorrow: Dan’s five-point plan for reconnecting with readers.
Photo by J.D. Lasica used under a Creative Commons license.