Two weeks ago I said at Idea Lab that NewAssignment.Net’s third major project—after Assignment Zero and OffTheBus.Net—will be Beatblogging.org. My idea was to run parallel experiments to see whether “beat reporting with a social network” is a viable pro-am method in journalism— or just an attractive concept.

I said I was trying to recruit at least 12 beat reporters and get their editors on board with a simple proposition…

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.

I felt the only way to find out was to try it for a year, with different beats in different locales and different editorial settings. Now I’m back to announce that twelve beat reporters—and their editors, plus the bosses above them—have agreed to do just that. (I’m attempting to wrap up agreements for a few more to join in. If I can do so, they’ll be announced after Thanksgiving.)

So here’s the first group. It actually totals 13 editorial “shops” because one—the News-Press in Ft. Myers, FL—had a beat all picked out but the reporter suddenly switched careers. Officially signed up and in various stages of readiness are:

Houston Chronicle, with Eric Berger doing a reported blog about science.

Star-Ledger of Newark, with Ed Silverman news blogging on the pharmaceutical industry .

Wired.com, with Eliot Van Buskirk, reporter, beat blogger and columnist on digital music.

Dallas Morning News, with Kent Fischer on the Dallas public schools beat, joined by Tawnell Hobbs

Cincinnati Enquirer, with Keith Reed reporting on Procter & Gamble.

ESPN.com, with Henry Abbott covering NBA basketball, blog-style.

Education Week’s Digital Directions, with Michelle Davis on technology in the K-12 classroom.

News-Press of Ft. Myers, Florida, with a statewide child welfare beat by a reporter yet to be named.

San Jose Mercury News with Matt Nauman on energy and “green” tech.

The Patriot-News of Harrisburg, PA with Daniel Victor covering the town of Hershey, PA.

MTV News with Stephen Totilo on video games and their makers.

Chronicle of Higher Education with Brad Wolverton on the business of college sports, nationwide.

Seattle Times with Brier Dudley covering Northwest technology companies.

Scroll down for more detailed explanations of these projects.

You can follow their progress over the coming year at beatblogging.org, the compendium site that is also launching today. David Cohn of NewAssignment.Net will edit it.

Read my earlier post for a more detailed explanation of why I think the social network approach can work— and some reactions to the idea. As I said there:

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 beats will operate independently: thirteen boats steered by reporters and editors in the participating newsrooms. They will decide what course to follow.

My project, NewAssignment.Net (mission: to spark innovation in “open platform” journalism and distributed reporting) will provide the common space where the experiment as a whole can be tracked and progress can be measured. New Assignment will also bring to the project ideas and expertise from outside professional newsrooms. And it’s possible that some code will be left behind.

Here are the details on the beats, the reporters and editors involved, and why they think it can work:

Eric Berger, science writer for the Chronicle and the author of the SciGuy blog wants to involve more scientists and informed lay people in his beat. “The primary platform will be a reegineered version of my SciGuy blog, but I can envision the scientists each having a blog or some Web space for their own area of expertise,” he writes. “All of this would be interconnected. The center of gravity of my beat coverage would shift to the Web, and we would develop creative formats for displaying this networked content in the newspaper.” (See his “we’re in” letter for more.) Supervision by Dwight Silverman, interactive journalism editor (also the Chron’s tech blogger) and Sylvia Wood, deputy city editor.

Background: The Chronicle was named top blogging newspaper in the US in a 2006 study by me and my NYU students. They have a very large blogging presence.

  • Star-Ledger of Newark, NJ. (Newhouse Newspapers) Beat: Inside the pharmaceutical industry.

Ed Silverman is a pharmaceutical industry reporter with twelve years on the beat for the Star-Ledger. (And a NYU alum.) He is already doing a beat blog—Pharmalot.com—that’s quite successful. Big Pharma is a global giant centered in Northern New Jersey, so Silverman’s beat is a local story with national and international significance. “Pharmalot already has a loyal, growing and highly engaged audience, and we’re excited about finding ways to expand that audience and involve more people in the collection and distribution of news about the industry,” says John Hassell, deputy managing editor/online. “A social network built around Ed’s reporting fits perfectly with those goals.” He and T.J. Foderaro, deputy business editor, will oversee. (Their letter.)

Background: I have had conversations with the Star-Ledger about this approach going back more than a year, since before the launch of Pharmalot. John Hassell met with me at the Networked Journalism Summit and there we sealed the deal.

  • Wired.com (Conde Nast.) Beat: Digital Music.

Eliot Van Buskirk covers music technology and is the co-editor of Wired.com’s Listening Post blog. He also writes a bi-weekly column. Editor-in-chief Evan Hansen thinks “beatblogging is coming into its own” because it “offers a fundamentally different relationship with readers than traditional newsgathering.” Giving beat reporters blogs has “already helped us break news stories that we could not have gotten any other way by letting readers with knowledge find us and inform us.” (Hansen’s letter.) Wired.com’s team is Van Buskirk, Hansen, and culture editor Lewis Wallace, culture editor

Background: Wired.com was a collaborator on NewAssignment.Net’s first project, Assignment Zero. The site has gone for beat blogging in a big way— with results. Twelve blogs focused on beats from gadgetry to gaming to defense technology account for more than a quarter of daily news traffic. According to Hansen, “Unique visitors to WIRED.com have more than tripled in the past year, from about 2 million to nearly 7 million in October, thanks largely to the growth of our blogs.”

Schools reporter Kent Fischer will take the lead on the project. Tawnell Hobbs, his partner on the Dallas schools beat, will also contribute regularly. Anthony Moor, deputy managing editor for interactive, said “we have been looking for an opportunity to engage our audience in a collaborative reporting experiment.” This tuned out to be it. “We plan to build our network around a blog we’re creating to expand our coverage of the Dallas Independent School District,” writes Kit Lively, education enterprise editor. “As one of the country’s largest school systems, with 20,000 employees, 160,000 students, 220 schools, DISD comes with a ready-made community that is intensely interested in the district’s workings and, we believe, eager to weigh in on what they see.” (See full letter.)

Background: Fischer has covered education for almost 15 years in New Hampshire, Kentucky, Florida and now Texas. He’s currently vice president of the National Education Writers Association. Kit Lively has 27 years in journalism, 24 of them covering education.

Keith Reed, staff writer for the Enquirer, is moving to Cincinnati from the Boston Globe to cover Procter & Gamble, a local powerhouse and one of the largest consumer products companies in the world. He’s going to build the social network approach in from the start of his beat, and also use the network to introduce himself to Cincinnati. “P & G’s reach in this region is broad and deep,” writes business editor Carolyn Pione. “Their business hits our economy on many levels, from vendor relationships to shareholders, former employees who are now entrepreneurs, retirees volunteering in the community, spin-off industries and community development organizations.” (See letter.) Pione, Reed and new media director Chris Graves make up the Enquirer team.

Background: As part of Gannett’s new media push, the Enquirer has also been experimenting with crowdsourcing; this project seemed to fit right in. (See Jeff Howe’s piece for Wired.) Reed was a Newspaper Association of America New Media Fellow.

  • ESPN.com (Disney.) Beat: NBA basketball, blog-style.

Henry Abbott (another NYU alum) is the author of ESPN.com’s TrueHoop blog, which he started in 2005 and sold to ESPN after it became popular. (See this interview for the origins of TrueHoop.) “We’re doing a lot of this work already, but haphazardly,” he writes. “What you’re describing would be a powerful and intelligent system, and we’d like to get there quickly, with the power of some collaborative thinking, rather than inventing the wheel every step of the way. Also, I love the idea of sharing thoughts with other beat writers who are engaged in similar work.” Overseeing will be Chris Ramsay, ESPN.com’s NBA coordinator and Royce Webb, NBA editor. (”We’re in” letter.)

Background: Abbott created a video group at YouTube for TrueHoop readers to showcase their favorite NBA video moments; it has 500 members. He also plans to set up an on-the-ground distributed reporting network in New Orleans when the NBA all-star game comes there next year. “It’s a massive undertaking in a broken city,” he said. “I don’t want to rely on press releases to determine how the event might impact the city (last year’s event in Las Vegas featured a fair amount of mayhem). I would love to have smart people on the ground in New Orleans giving us a sense of what New Orleans is like in the lead up to the event and during.”

Education Week is a specialty site covering the K-12 landscape for teachers, administrators and other professionals who deal with the nation’s schools. It recently launched a new magazine about educational technology, Digital Directions (“trends and advice for K-12 technology leaders.”) Michelle Davis is the lead reporter for Digital Directions and will be developing a networked approach that can feed the site and the print magazine. “I envision this group of people feeling as though they have a stake in what I write,” says Davis. “The idea that district information technology directors might try new projects they picked up from our online discussion—and be able to bypass pitfalls using advice from others on the site—is something I’d love to see happen.” The team includes Davis, a veteran beat reporter for EdWeek; plus Kevin Bushweller, assistant managing editor for online news; and Jeanne McCann, managing editor of edweek.org. (See letter.)

Background: “Education Week has been searching for ways to use social networking to improve the quality of our news gathering,” writes Bushweller. He said the company is hiring Pluck to help integrate social networking tools throughout edweek.org. (Austin-based Pluck has also worked with washingtonpost.com on similar tools.) “It is likely that the work we are doing with Pluck will feed us ideas for the work we would do in partnership with you on Digital Directions.”

The beat is child abuse and neglect. The reporter who was on it quit yesterday to start a new career. But editor Kate Maymont said she and her staff are committed to the project and don’t want to miss out. So now the News-Press is going to find someone right for the job. Marymont told me, “I like the idea of seeing if we can recruit using this incentive.” Developing a social network approach will thus get incorporated into the job description, she said. “You may ask why we need a child welfare beat. It is Florida. We have serious issues with child safety,” she writes. Assistant metro editor Miriam Pereira will oversee along with Mackenzie Warren, managing editor. Hooked up with the right network can a beat reporter do a better job? “Our team here believes the answer will be a resounding yes… We are eager to test, share, test some more, shift, talk, test. That’s what we do in our laboratory here in Fort Myers.” (Her letter.)

Background: The News-Press made a name for itself with its use of crowdsourcing to investigate the huge fees being charged to connect new homes to water and sewer lines in nearby Cape Coral. (See Help us Investigate!) After that it launched Team Watchdog, a group of 20 retirees—among them former lawyers, CPAs, police officers and an ex-fighter pilot—who help reporters with research and sometimes generate story ideas.

Reporter Matt Nauman, with 20 years at the paper, is new to the beat, which covers energy and clean tech— a rising industry in the region. (Al Gore just signed up with a venture capital firm in the Valley; Nauman covered it. ) “Silicon Valley is a hub of commercial and civic activity around ‘green’ energy technology, from solar and wind power to bio-fuels and sustainable development, and the social networking movement has deep roots here,” writes Katharine Fong, deputy managing editor for convergence and new media. “Our reporter can tap into this engaged, local base of knowledge and innovation as well as cultivate contacts and sources worldwide who can help shape the issues and discussion and inform our audience.” Nauman adds that “green” tech is “rapidly joining the Prius and the iPhone as the local obsession.” The Merc already has a green energy page that it will adapt for this project. The team is Nauman, Fong, Rebecca Salner, executive business editor, and Steve Trousdale, her deputy. (See their full letter.)

Background: The Merc—with a staff about half the size it had in 2001—recently launched Rethinking the Mercury News, an effort to go to the community for ideas on what the newspaper should become. (See this report.) It says it’s prepared to question everything in the wake of a deep shift in newspaper economics— and even “blow up the newsroom.” According to Chris O’Brien, a technology reporter who is working on the re-think, this project fits right in.

  • The Patriot-News of Harrisburg, PA (Newhouse Newspapers.) Beat: Covering Hershey, PA.

Young (he’s 23) and Net-savvy reporter Daniel Victor read my post about this project and appealed to his editors, who went with the idea. David Newhouse, executive editor, writes: “We would propose to have our reporter, Dan Victor, create a social network around his regular beat of the town and schools of Hershey. This may seem like a conservative or unimaginative choice. However, we have created public blogs around topics and found that interest tends to dwindle after a while. In central Pennsylvania, people are passionate about where they live. Community is everything. It is the social network. We believe a town-and-school blog, especially in a community as tight-knit as Hershey, will generate sustained interest because it taps into a network of true stakeholders.” (See his letter.) The team is Daniel Victor, David Newhouse, managing editor Cate Barron and Alan Hayakawa, online editor.

Background: Background: Newhouse says the Patriot-News has been very successful with community forums, but it tends to be a quick back-and-forth: “argument and little else.” He’s looking to this project to generate more meaningful forms of interaction among users.

* MTV News (Viacom.) Beat: video games and their makers.

Stephen Totilo does the Multiplayer blog for MTV News and occasional on-air reports for the network. “The field I cover is extremely tech-savvy,” writes Totilo. “The gamers, game makers, publicists, marketers and even the critics of games all have strong online presences. They communicate with each other regularly on message boards, on podcasts and in comments sections of blogs and even in the midst of online games they play against each other. The online social networks of people who care about video games are already being built. But how all these close connections can improve reporting on games hasn’t really been explored. It’s something I’m eager to attempt.”

Teaming up for the project will be Totilo, Ocean MacAdams, senior vice president, MTV; Ben Wagner, executive producer, MTV News.

Brad Wolverton is senior editor of the Chronicle’s athletics section and also a reporter, whose new beat is college sports as big business. “College sports obviously gets plenty of attention in the media, but our hope is to focus more on the money: where’s it’s coming from and where it’s going to,” writes Scott Smallwood, new media editor. “We’ll be creating a new blog for Brad’s beat that will be the home for the project, but we’re also very interested in using other Web-based tools to create this network.” (Read their letters.) For Wolverton the key idea is connecting people to one another. “Reaching out to people is obviously the hallmark of great beat reporting,” he says. “But if we don’t provide a forum for our sources and readers to connect to each other, we’re missing a valuable opportunity.” The team is Wolverton, Smallwood and Jeff Selingo, editor of the Chronicle.

Background: Two years ago, the Chronicle—a pay site—won the Online News Association’s award for excellence among large specialty news sites.

  • Seattle Times (The Seattle Times Company.) Beat: Northwest technology companies.

Brier Dudley is the Seattle Times technology columnist and senior tech reporter. “I write about the technology business with a particular focus on companies in the Northwest,” he says. “My coverage includes national and global companies and trends that have a bearing on people and companies in the region.” Dudley notes that “many of my sources are active users of social networking tools (some even create social networking tools and platforms.)” He plans to “develop an interactive advisory board representing different perspectives from around the region and industry.” (His letter.) The participants for the Times are Cory Haik,senior producer, interactivity and projects; Mark Watanabe, technology editor; and Dudley.

Background: The Seattle Times has a separate reporter covering Microsoft. It also has direct competiton: The Seattle Post-Intelligencer (see for example the P-I’s staff and reader blogs). As Dudley says, “One interesting angle here will be exploring ways to use these tools in a competitive market, where you don’t want the paper across town to harvest your sources and topics.”

I was trying for a diverse group of test sites. We achieved that in a lot of ways, but not all: there’s good geographical balance, a range of beats (though still heavy on tech-related and white collar themes) and a mix of small and large sites. There’s local (Hershey) and national (technology in the K-12 classroom) reporting. Some “general” news operations (like the Star-Ledger) and some specialty journalism (Wired, Chronicle of Higher Ed.) I wanted more women reporters but the women are better represented among the editors and supervisors, which partly compensates.

Counting reporters, editors and NewAssignment folk, there’s now more than 40 people on the case for a year. At the end of it, we’ll know a lot more than we do now.