Nieman Foundation at Harvard
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Sept. 20, 2012, 9:30 a.m.

What happens when news organizations move from “beats” to “obsessions”?

The structure of newsrooms reflects how journalists think about their work. As those conceptions change, it makes sense that the structures would change with them.

I’ll be honest: There aren’t a lot of “future of news” meta-posts these days that get me to stop the other things I’m doing and read them, closely, from beginning to end. One recent exception, though, was this very smart analysis of the journalistic beat structure (and how to move beyond it) penned by Gideon Lichfield, a global news editor at the new business startup from The Atlantic, Quartz. I noticed Lichfield’s essay because it speaks to some of the questions Clay Shirky, Emily Bell, and I are wrestling with as we finish up our report on what we’re calling “post-industrial journalism.” I also noticed it because it is just really insightful, and very well done.

In the essay, entitled “On Elephants, Obsessions, and Wicked Problems,” Lichfield argues that the journalistic “beat” structure, that mainstay of modern journalism, is an anachronism that needs to be rethought:

Yet the beats aren’t so much an objective taxonomy as a convenient management tool, devised for an old technology. When news came in a sheaf of pages it made sense to divide them into sections — domestic, foreign, business, and so on — with an editor and a team of writers for each one, and make each writer responsible for a slice of that section: a beat. Matching people to pages made managing the newspaper easier, and covering all the news in each beat allowed it to be comprehensive — which was how it could appeal to the most readers and get the most sales.

Lichfield argues that, in order to truly understand the world, we need to replace “beats” with “obsessions”: “the patterns, trends, and seismic shifts that are shaping the world our readers live in…as the world changes, so will they.” Beats existed for technological reasons, Lichfield argues, as well as economic ones. The technology and economics of news have changed, so it stands to reason that the patterned ways journalists collect and verify information would change as well.

The thing is, though, that beats exist for sociological reasons as well as economic and technological ones. There’s something to the structure of the modern organizational form that makes the beat structure seem both efficient and natural — but there’s also something about the way journalists have thought about their roles in society that makes the beat structure appealing to the normative stories journalists tell about what they do. If other organizations were to eventually follow Quartz’s lead, it would be a fundamental sea change in the structure and purpose of modern journalism.

Lichfield correctly notes that one of the reasons beats have emerged in modern journalism is that institutions tend to produce specialization, and that therefore reportorial specialization is needed to understand them. Another reason why journalism has embraced the beat structure, though, goes by the name institutional homophily. This 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. In other words, because so much of journalism has been dedicated to covering the activities of bureaucracies and bureaucrats, it made organizational sense for news companies to be bureaucratic as well.

Why? Because the standardized, routine production of information requires a standardized, routine-driven organization to process, analyze, and monitor that information. If the FCC holds regular public hearings, produces reports at regular intervals, and produces them in a routined, bureaucratic way, it stands to reason that a reporter operating in a routined, bureaucratic structure is the best person to keep an eye on that other bureaucracy. Or at least, that’s one form of the argument.

Of course, one problem with this argument is that not all public issues — what causes them, what the conflicting perspectives on them are, how they might be best resolved — can be reduced to the actions of institutions. As Lichfield correctly notes, so-called “wicked problems” “often cut across beat boundaries, taking in politics, economics, technology, and other issues.” You can’t understand climate change, or help point toward solutions to climate change, just by covering the EPA.

Another aspect of the beat structure has less to do with institutional homophily than it does with the way that journalists understand how what they do adds value to the democratic public sphere. This is a type of “value added” that often gets overlooked in discussions about the future of news, where value is often seen in a strictly economic sense. But one of the things that makes journalists “professionals” is their belief that what they do has a public value that can’t be measured solely in terms of dollars. Its’ the idea, common in many lines of work, of a higher calling.

As Jay Rosen (and before him, my old mentor James Carey) have argued, this “higher calling” usually consisted in the journalistic belief that news organizations monitored centers of power in order to keep corruption at bay and inform the public about the doings of government (and occasionally businesses and civil society organizations). This idea of “keeping an eye on those in power” is usually what we’re talking about when we mention things like “the iron core of news” or “accountability journalism.” This belief had a corollary: the argument that because the public couldn’t keep an eye on government all the time (except during elections, and only then for a minute), the press had to stand “as a substitute” for the public, informing that public about what they couldn’t see but occasionally acting in the public’s stead.

In this case, journalism (as a profession) convinced itself that what was largely an sociological, technological, and economic requirement — the beat system — was also a great democratic service. I think the idea of the beat structure as a democratic force is what David Simon is getting at in this excellent piece on “why beat reporters matter.”

Beat reporting — and the beat structure of a metropolitan daily — is what is dying here. Absent a fresh online revenue stream, newspapers can no longer sustain veteran reporters on institutional beats the way they once did; not in the numbers necessary to keep bureaucracies honest. And the blogosphere? Good luck. The day that a citizen journalist can summon the sources, patience, clarity and tenacity to uncover such backroom machinations, to sort and filter the implications and then land a careful critique of the dynamic — well, that will be the day that he or she has spent two or three or four years covering that institution or agency.

Here the thing: the argument for moving from beats to obsessions implies, at its root, that this David Simon notion of public accountability is now in crisis. Instead of focusing on beats, “we’ll try to fit the framework to the audience,” Lichfield writes. “We want to reach a global, cosmopolitan crowd, people who see themselves as living ‘in the world.’ [Our audience is] keenly aware of how distant events influence one another; their lives and careers are subject to constant disruption from changes in technology and the global economy.”

In other words, Quartz is arguing that a well-educated audience is capable of understanding the world as a whole and acting upon that knowledge. What this audience needs is not the “monitoring of beats” but help in “making sense of the world.” Public accountability comes not from staking out a beat, but from helping members of the public understand how complex things fit together. Because they understand how the world works, citizens will be able to act democratically in new ways. And when the important issues in the world change, than the focus of coverage will likewise shift.

The wicked problems journalism tries to understand, in short, go far beyond their institutional containers. We no longer need a monitorial press in the same way we did before. There are new accountability mechanisms and new forms of civic action, and in this new world, journalism has a new and different role. Or so goes the theory.

Let’s just end on a cautious note. The bureaucracies of government and business continue to wield tremendous power. Just because the public sphere is networked and newspapers are in financial crisis doesn’t mean that slow, grinding institutions no longer matter. What Quartz is arguing, in effect, is that democratic accountability can come from new directions, ones that aren’t tied to the accountability structure implied by the beat system. It is, in short, a gamble. A gamble that the public can rise to the occasion, figure things out, and act upon that knowledge. In today’s world of collapsing journalistic business models, new social movements, and new technologies for democratic accountability, it may be a gamble worth taking. At the least, it may be the only option left.

Photo by Roger H. Goun used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 20, 2012, 9:30 a.m.
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