Below is a lightly revised version of a letter that went out last week to a number of professional news organizations—some big and famous, some small and unsung—asking if they want to participate in the figuring out. My goal is to find 12 willing beat reporters at 12 newsrooms. I have about 7 to 8 of the 12 signed up now. Interested in participating? Email me or leave a comment

This is a simple project testing a single idea:

Maybe a beat reporter could do a way better job if there was a “live” social network connected to the beat, made up of people who know the territory the beat covers, and want the reporting on that beat to be better.

That’s the entire idea—so far. Beat reporting with a social network: let’s see if we can get it to work.

This is probably best done on a blogging-style platform at an established news organization that can devote a pro reporter to work with a circle of “ams” or contributors from outside the newsroom. Thus, beat blogging with a social network is another name for the same idea. Bring knowledge, contacts and interests of many different people from around the beat into the production of news, views and information for the beat, by making use of social networking tools that lower the cost of collaboration and make it viable for dispersed groups to become an editorial force.

The tools for social networking are by now advanced enough that a live forum like that, nurtured by a clever reporter with flexible skills, could become the working heart of an online beat, which could then feed other platforms—the daily print edition, a weekly supplement or magazine, a podcasting schedule, a radio program. As Mitchel Resnick of MIT writes in an Idea Lab post, “In journalism, as in education, new technologies are facilitating a shift from a broadcast model to a more participatory model.” My idea is for a beat with lots more participants, but instead of replacing the pro journalist they enhance what a single reporter is able to do.

Let’s figure out how it’s done! For that we need to do organized proof-of-concept work. And I have a way to keep the organization to a minimum. Twelve reporters (with supporting editors) in twelve editorial “shops” build the social network that makes sense for that beat— and for that shop. They design it. They run it. They fund it. They venture into it independently but simultaneously with others trying similar combinations.

Doing your own thing when eleven other newsrooms are doing the same thing their way raises substantially the odds of succeeding. But to get the benefits there has to be a forum—a common space—where networked beat reporters, with their editors, can compare notes, share problems, test tools, “fail well,” and of course watch how others do it, so as to get ideas for one’s self.

That’s NewAssignment.Net‘s job: we’ll create the common space and make sure it works for the people whose by-lines and news brands are invested in these newfangled beats. We will also feed into the experiment the best thinking from outside professional newsrooms. I will share some of the ideas I have for how to approach beat blogging with a social network. While there may be advice, there is no consent. Participants run their beats their way.

As I announced at the Networked Journalism Summit in New York (Oct. 10) and the Online News Association conference in Toronto (Oct. 17-19) and the Journalism Leaders Forum in the UK (Oct. 16), I am pulling together a core group of practicing beat reporters to dive into this work, knowing there’s back-up available. My target number is twelve: twelve beats and twelve sites from across the editorial landscape. By “backup available” I mean….

√ The eleven other sites where beat reporters are also building social networks into their beats.

√ NewAssignment.Net’s David Cohn will be the project’s connector, compiler, human switchboard and resident journo-geek, making sure that progress is noted, lessons get circulated, common problems are spotted early, and the best tools get tried. He will also run the mailing list for reporters and editors, and the website where the results accumulate.

√ New Assignment.Net will bring intellectual capital from its network to specific problems and new knowledge needs as they arise in the doing of networked beat reporting.

√ We will try for at least one conference event where we can bring the network together terrestrially. Timed right, such meetings can solidify best practices.

√ “Philosophical backup.” Via my own writing at PressThink, Huffington Post and Idea Lab, I will explain the idea—beat blogger with a social network—and place it in the larger online journalism picture, drawing attention to what the twelve beat writers are doing. My goal would be to build an audience for the work among people who follow innovations in journalism and new media.

√ A new site, www.beatblogging.org (not operating yet) will contain tools, lessons, a group blog for reflections, and a handy way to follow all the live beats going on simultaneously in the project. It will also track, document and explain the project, what we are doing and why, so others can get it and follow progress. By subscribing to beatblogging.org’s feed, weekly email service or bookmarking the site, anyone can follow the progress at our test sites, plus the thinking, analysis and tool building going on in the project’s commons.

√ NewAssignment.Net, with partners (more likely) or on its own (possibly), can have new tools and applications built specifically for beat blogging with a social network, should the practical need arise. First option will be to use existing technology to keep new costs and delays as close to zero as possible.

The key participants and featured players in the experiment are obviously the individual reporters with beat responsibilities who want to give it a try. But the leadership of the news organization has to be in on the deal from the start and committed to trying a networked approach in one beat. In that sense the participants are the “shops” (a dozen newsrooms) that nominate a beat reporter for the project and create a home page where it lives online—a url for the beat.

There’s your minimum standard for participation. Five things: a reporter, a beat, a url for the new, networked beat home page, one supportive editor on the “web” or new media side, one supportive editor on the “news” side.

In addition to the reporters themselves, supervising editors are key participants because they have to be in on the larger scheme, fully understand it and back it with whatever resources are required. Same goes for the web division of the news organization: an active sponsor is needed.

Now for a more detailed FAQ:

Isn’t this what beat reporters already do?

Beat reporters have always had networks of sources, of course, but the sources haven’t been connected to one another, or able to self-publish; they haven’t been social networks at all. And we didn’t have the easy tools for Web-based collaboration that we have now, like group blogs, wikis, Facebook groups and so on.

To better understand the difference, take the Rolodex of a typical beat writer and imagine all the scattered but well connected people in it wired together. Pooling their knowledge for the good of the beat, they also get something from participating in its daily buzz; it’s river of news. We haven’t “always” had a reporting system like that.

From the reporting staff, who’s right for this project?

Reasonably Net-savvy. Committed to working in an interactive way but for the sake of real journalism. Open to doing things with different premises. They do not have to be “techies” in any sense, or citizen journalism evangelists. But they do have to believe that readers and listeners—amateurs—have a lot to contribute; they ought be interested in working closely with non-journalists to improve beat coverage.

Reporters chosen for the project should be able to handle a certain amount of uncertainty and fuzziness at the outset, since it’s not like we have a formula for doing this. It’s great to have people who are excited about learning new, social media skills, who want to be part of the solution for how journalism thrives on the open Web.

What kind of beats would work best?

Beats where it is relatively easy to identify the people “out there” who have hard won knowledge, an invaluable perspective or a network of their own, the kind of “assets” the reporter is likely to need to do a better job in covering the beat.

I picture a reporter in the Hampton Roads, VA area who is responsible for covering family life in the military for a sprawling region, with a lot of big bases. The reporter isn’t on those bases, or in the military. Getting an overview is hard because there are so many places where the story is happening.

But there are a lot of people around Hampton Roads with pieces of that story, who have built-up knowledge about it, vital glimpses into it, who might want to connect with other pieces, other glimpses, other people. They’re online and connectible. To some degree they’re already connected. What’s it going to take to get them to join your beat’s social network? What kind of contract—trust—emerges between reporter and network? These are some of the first questions participants in the project will have to answer.

Dan Gillmor, formerly of the San Jose Mercury News, put it as well as it can be put. “My readers know more than I do.” Beats where that statement is true and obvious to the reporter are probably the best.

Is there anyone doing anything like this now?

I’m sure there is. Here’s an interview with a Wired.com columnist who runs an online forum at her site that is intimately related to her beat. The forum feeds the beat and helps her keep track of stuff she might otherwise miss. That’s the kernel of the approach I am suggesting. Know of others? Let me know.

What size social network is anticipated?

This is hard to say because I think the answer is going to vary a lot, but I was imagining a reporter starting with about 20-40 people as a core group, and seeing how that worked. That figure is really a guess. Your guess is as good!

In choosing participants for the reporter’s network, what sort of criteria should apply?

Obvious criteria. They should be people with the kind of knowledge, insight, experience, perspective or contacts that are likely to be valuable to the reporter, given the issues the beat visits. They should be diversely placed across the beat: from different institutions and levels of responsibility. (In education: administrators, teachers, parents, students, alums, board members, union officers, vendors, pols.) Get lots of points on the dial, but make it a tight dial in the sense of sharply defining what is “in” the beat, and outside it.

Participants should represent the different perspectives and stakeholders normally found in news coverage on the beat, and those not normally found but needed to round out, spread out and plain ol’ improve beat coverage. They should have diverse views and opinions while at the same time sharing a common “field” of newsy interest. They should be able to get along without fisticuffs. Some might fit the category of expert, but others might not. More important than formal credentials is: they know territory that is central to the beat. The system as a whole covers the waterfront.

Let’s say we decide to join up, and we have a reporter with a challenging beat, fully briefed and ready to give it a go… what happens then?

Your mileage may vary. I see these initial tasks in the first month or two:

1.) Pull together the network by picking the right people and asking 20-40 of those people to join as “friends of the beat;” includes figuring out what to say (what terms to offer) in the letter requesting their participation. It also means working on the give-get bargain: what do participants give, what do they get out of it? (See this post, “Grok their motivations and they may contribute.”)

2.) Decide on tools: the initial methods by which the reporter will convene the network, get it running, and communicate with it: blogging platform, mailing list, online discussion forum, wiki, Facebook group, weekly conference call, or some combination of forms.

3.) Come out with an adaptable home page (with a unique url) for the newly networked beat that displays the reporting, but also other fruits of the network, as well as other beat information. News feeds, aggregation, lists and calendars, weights and measures. The beat blogging with a social network home page must be a tool in motion—versions of it keep coming out.

4.) Run a few simple trials to test how well the network works in providing concrete assistance to the beat reporter in doing particular stories, investigation or news features. The sooner these small raids can start the better for the big battles later.

If we decide we’re in, what do we need to do?

First, you need to designate a reporter and a beat. Then I need a “we’re in” letter via email stating your willingnesss to participate, and a bit about why, how this fits into what you are doing. It should include three names, with their titles, email addresses and phone numbers. 1.) The beat reporter chosen and a short description of his or her beat; 2.) an editor on the new media, digital, interactive, online, or innovation side of the operation, who will support the work, and 3.) the editor with direct supervisory responsibility over the beat reporter, who also has to be in on the deal and supportive.

Got suggestions or ideas? Put ‘em in the comments. Or, if you write for Idea Lab, make a post.