It started with: let’s take a beat reporter at a local newspaper with a strong online presence and develop with that reporter a beat-specific “smart mob” or social network that would help in reporting stories and doing a better job on the beat.

I would secure the cooperation of the paper and its editor, and find a willing reporter for the test. With that idea I applied to the Knight News Challenge 2006 competition.

I thought I would start with a single reporter covering a local beat in a particular place. My pilot project, NewAssignment.Net, would work with the journalist to develop the network, equip it with the proper tools (whether that means blog, forum, mailing list, wiki or something else) and demonstrate that this is a viable way to have stronger beat coverage. With the first beat reporter in the fold, I would recruit a second, and a third until we had a group of 10 or so willing to explore this approach simultaneously.

Now I think it’s better to start with ten and make a working group out of them.

What I mean by a smart mob or social network is a group of people who are knowledgeable, diverse and well-placed within the pale of the beat, and who are then organized via the Net to help in the production of new knowledge (“news”) and the telling of stories. The educated guess I want to develop is: reporter + social network = richer beat coverage.

I got the idea from this interview by Amanda Michel with Wired columnist Regina Lynn.

Beat reporters have always had sources, of course, and in a way that’s what a social network is: a network of sources. But the sources have not been organized in any productive way; they’re people a reporter calls on from time to time. “He’s really wired into country government.”

In my notion the sources would join a network because they have an interest in better news coverage from the beat reporter and because they like to inform themselves. They would participate in an on-going forum where they engage with each other and the journalist. They would furnish tips, leads, suggestions, facts, feedback and guidance to the beat reporter— and possibly write some of the coverage themselves. They would help inform, steer and refine the work that is published. Instead of a beat by one imagine a beat by, say, 41 people.

Simple examples I started with, just to illustrate the notion to myself. The beat reporter covering AT&T for the San Antonio Express-News, where the company is based, gets a network of knowledgeable people— suppliers, former executives, customers, regulators, bankers, truck drivers—all of whom know a lot about the company, talk regularly with people in it, or follow it closely. If they are co-producers of the beat and not just sources they can supplement his sources with their sources, and start building a way better beat.

Or an education reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering schools in Mecklenberg County learns to collaborate in a reporting-based column with a hand-picked network—parents, kids, teachers, administrators, tax payers, academics, vendors, local people, union people, anyone well placed and interested—who keep it real and keep it connected.

A lot of people who care about the survival of local journalism and newspaper reporting have come to the point where they genuinely believe that citizens have a lot to contribute, that readers can be content creators, as well as ‘consumers.” There’s clear interest among a vanguard for such things as crowdsourcing, where the community helps the newspaper investigate.

We can’t just say it: “a social network approach could improve local reporting.” We have to show it. The proof is in the journalism our networked beat reporters will be able to do. That may mean a reverse publishing strategy (web to print) and a bending of forms to avoid shoving the networked approach into pre-fab news holes.

There’s something happening today because of the Internet, and people in the news media are just beginning to figure out how to work with it. What’s happening is that for people who share an interest (like living in Akron, Ohio together, or upholding human rights around the world) the cost—and difficulty—of finding each other, sharing information, and collaborating is falling dramatically, whether we measure it in time, money or training and equipment required.

It seems to me this must have implications for beat reporting. I have written about this falling cost many times, especially in describing my pilot project, NewAssignment.Net. If all goes well New Assignment will undertake beat blogging with a social network as its next project.

As John Abell, a pro-volunteer in Assignment Zero’s pro-am said in the comments at PressThink: before the shift to the Web “there wasn’t really any frictionless way to include the public in the reporting enterprise.”

Now there is.

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