Beat reporting in the digital age

Hours before their website won the Knight Award for Public Service at the 2012 Online Journalism Awards, DC Homicide Watch’s Laura and Chris Amico said it’s important to not get lost in the technology and remember that the purpose to tell a story.

Though it’s a massive database detailing every homicide from incident to sentencing (or cold case status) in Washington DC, their site’s logo echoes this sentiment:

‘Mark every death. Remember every victim. Follow every case.’

When building the site, Chris and Laura said they were aware that though the deaths were an organizing principle, or their beat,  the focus had to be on storytelling and community building.

“Beats are built for and around a community, with a clear understanding of who a beat is for, and what it’s about,” said Chris Amico.

The DC Homicide Watch founders talked about beats during a session they hosted with Politico’s Juana Summers  at this year’s ONA conference.

A beat can move  to a focus on being a resource and when there is new information for a community resource it’s timeless, he added, pointing to The New York Times’ politics page ‘538’.

“It’s important to add context, to be showing people what the state of the world really is,” he added.

Early on when they were designing DC Homicide Watch (Chris and Laura said in their acceptance speech the win was one for anyone who had worked on a similar ‘kitchen table project’), the goal was to see how it served the community.

“You need to be reflexing, thinking about how you make every decision. You need to think about why you’re doing the story; why you’re using the leade you are using; why you are using the sources you are using,” Laura said.

Laura said she continually audited  their audience and looked at who was engaging with the site, who was interacting with them and that determined how they decided to serve the community.

‘Consistency is hugely important’

Juana Summers, who has been working at Politico.com for the past two years on the presidential campaign, said that the longer a report builds their beat, the more you can offer your community.

“Consistency is hugely important, an audience will trust you as they know you’ve been around in this area,” she said.

She said her biggest challenge during the campaign has been hopping on and off a candidate’s bus and not telling the same story that the mob of reporters will produce.

“Sometimes I don’t have time to talk to people who are at the coffee shop where the candidate stops. I can’t get their reaction, So I turn to my phone or Twitter. Some of best stories I’ve gotten have been through twitter and interacting with people that way.”

“That level of multitasking adds a whole new layer to our jobs,” Summers added.

Summers agreed with Chris and Laura that the length of time spent on a beat was important.

“Get really comfortable and familiar with your subject matter,” she said.

When asked how journalism schools could do better to train beat reporters in a digital age, Summers said student should learn to dive deep into a subject.

Students need to find a subject and get a deep knowledge of it, find a way to publish as often – perhaps it’s a simple blog – and write on a beat. Students don’t need to make a lifetime commitment to a particular beat, she said, but just learn how to immerse oneself in a subject, she said.

“We also need to be teaching a mindset of consuming news and interacting with content. You have to grow into a mindset of a news consumer and a news producer.

This is harder to cultivate than how to write a nut graph.”

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