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The rise of the fluid beat structure

“Just imagine having a beat not tethered to a physical place or set topic, but an abstract and ever-changing linked set of ideas that you get to explore in real-time with other curious people.”

A favorite editor of mine used to say that you can tell a news organization’s values by what it chooses not to cover.

I always liked that, especially as it applies to news judgment in a content-choked digital world. We have access to oceans of information online. For any news organization to produce meaningful journalism, it must figure out how to elevate its work above the rest of the riffraff retweeting the same things, broadcasting the same livestreams, and quoting the same press releases.

LaFranceMug_250This sort of differentiation has everything to do with clearly defined values. Not the Journalism 101 stuff like your newsroom’s commitment to accuracy and fairness — the trickier existential question of what makes your newsroom yours and how your reporters demonstrate your organization’s values through their work. I think a lot of newsrooms assume they have an answer to these questions when they actually don’t. (A good place to start if you’re not sure which camp you’re in: “What does my newsroom do better than any other newsroom?”)

In 2014, I believe we’ll see more news organizations experiment with fluid beat structures. Reporters will organize their coverage around sets of evolving ideas rather than fixed places or topics. (Quartz is the go-to example of a site that’s rethinking traditional beats along these lines. More on that in a minute.) Fluid beats will help organizations reach niche and sometimes overlapping audiences that aren’t necessarily linked by the kinds of geographic or demographic ties that once defined a pre-Internet daily’s audience. Social distribution will continue to play a major role for newsrooms cultivating and interacting with these new and engaged audiences.

Now that we all have publishing power, the mechanisms by which we share information are increasingly dictated by networked structures rather than institutional ones. And now that publishing has changed, production — including beat reporting — shouldn’t just mirror institutional structures of the past either.

Designing beats around abstract ideas is a departure for beat reporters who are accustomed to focusing on specialized topics or specific regions. C.W. Anderson explained in a piece for the Lab a year ago that journalism’s old-school beat structure amounts to “institutional homophily,” which is “just a fancy way of saying that organizations charged with interacting with large bureaucracies often become bureaucracies themselves, because it makes the interaction easier.”

Covering a bureaucracy by turning into one? Zzzzz. No wonder so many people skip all those very serious and very important public affairs stories city hall reporters write. But part of why some of those kinds of stories can seem boring today is because they’re framed in ways that made sense for newspapers 20 years ago but have become antiquated today. I’m not advocating for doing away with shoe-leather city hall reporters. I was one; I loved that beat. But I also think news organizations hoping to captivate curious and globally-minded readers need to restructure beats to reflect all of the boundaries — geographic, temporal, spatial — that have evaporated in the past 20 years of journalism.

Creating a fluid beat structure doesn’t mean you’re ignoring influential bureaucracies. It just means you’re rethinking the flow of information in a way that reflects new behaviors. Today we navigate linked networks of continuous news and information rather than diving into and out of closed systems.

Ideas and the battle for what’s real

So how do we create beats that reflect this new reality? Ideas-based beats are a way for reporters to be human-centric rather than newsroom- or bureaucracy-centric.

Here’s how Anderson, Emily Bell, and Clay Shirky put it in their 2012 paper about post-industrial journalism: “What a journalist did in the industrial age was defined by the product: a headline writer, a reporter, a desk editor, a columnist, an editor. As deadlines melt, and we are in an age where the story as the ‘atomic value of news’ is in question, what journalists do all day is more defined by the requirements of the unfolding events and the audiences consuming them.” We look for credible sources who can tell us not just what happened but what’s real, an idea that calls to mind something MIT’s Judith Donath said to me in a conversation a while back: “One of the things we see a lot now is sort of like constant war between authenticity and co-opting the appearance of authenticity…We live in a world that operates in information. You’re not out foraging for berries. You’re foraging for what is actually real, what’s authentic.”

So when readers follow individual journalists from one brand to the next — the Nate Silvers and Glenn Greenwalds of the world, for instance — it’s often because those individuals produce compelling work backed by clear value systems. This doesn’t necessarily mean strong opinions, but it must at least entail basic ideas that frame the journalist’s work. This kind of framing is essential in a more fluid and abstract beat structure.

In other words, a reporter ought to have an explicitly defined driving principle for each iteration of her beat — a premise to clarify the decision to cover any given story in the first place and help determine whom to interview and what questions to ask. Every beat reporter should be able to easily answer the question: “Why is this the idea at the center of your reporting?” Or, in Quartz’s parlance: “Why are you obsessed with this?”

At Quartz, reporters have “obsessions” that change over time rather than fixed beats. The site’s global news editor, Gideon Lichfield, characterized the approach succinctly in a blog post last year: “Beats provide an institutional structure. Obsessions are a more human one.” Quartz’s approach to obsessions hasn’t resulted in coverage that amounts to a new or different kind of journalism, but the strategy clearly influences how Quartz works. Its morning newsletter is the perfect example of how Quartz prioritizes being human over being institutional — Quartz tells you what news you missed while you were sleeping, and what you should look for in the day to come. The more bureaucratic Washington Post, for example, has an email that spits out headlines organized by sections of the paper.

So what might a fluid beat structure actually look like in practice?

Let’s say my beat is “transparency.” That’s pretty abstract and unwieldy by itself. So to make sense of it, my premise — this driving principle, this value system that informs all of my journalistic work about transparency — might be something like: The public has a right to scrutinize influential gatekeepers who handle public money, personal data, and access to pivotal information. My job would be to track how that premise holds up in the real world, the extent to which there are exceptions, where and why it gets murky, and so on.

Would I naturally gravitate toward the same topics and places in my coverage the way old-school beat reporters do? Sure. I’d probably still cover some of the same kinds of stories you might find in politics or business sections. But I would organize my reporting around a compelling idea rather than trying to extract compelling ideas from distinct places or things.

This new structure better lends itself to high-impact reporting. A reporter who covers “transparency” instead of just “media” or just “campaign finance,” for example, is poised to find connections and patterns that exist in the world but otherwise aren’t typically reported — or even identified. That reporter is then well positioned to be a trusted guide on any number of stories related to transparency issues.

Considering Greenwald’s role in the new news organization Pierre Omidyar is founding, it makes sense that Omidyar also tapped NYU media thinker Jay Rosen for the $250-million-backed venture. Rosen has long advocated that journalists be upfront about some of their perspectives and values. He has also written in detail about how we might reinvent beats for the networked world. The two ideas go hand-in-hand and in many ways reflect how Greenwald already operates as a journalist. I expect this new company to shake up conventions about how beats are designed and in turn how newsrooms are organized — beyond what Quartz has done — when it launches in 2014.

Once you get used to the idea of dreaming up abstract beats, it’s hard to stop. Imagine a news organization where reporters have beats like longevity, the changing oceans, preservation, the future, representation, global borders, worst-case scenarios, authenticity, etc., etc., etc. I asked my friend Mimi Schiffman, a videographer at CNN.com, what beat she’d choose along these line and she had an answer right away: “invisible fences,” an exploration of the boundaries in life that separate us and make life harder or easier for different groups of people.

Just imagine having a beat not tethered to a physical place or set topic, but an abstract and ever-changing linked set of ideas that you get to explore in real-time with other curious people.

The options are endless. And that’s kind of the point.

Adrienne LaFrance, a former staff writer for Nieman Lab, is a reporter and writer based in Washington, D.C.

                         
Updating regularly through Friday, December 20