newstraining

Skills for journalists in print and digital media

Beat mapping for the new year

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Heading into a new year is a time of reflection, tossing out of old files, and new goals.

Beat work is the foundation of sustained, high-quality journalism. So this is also a time for reporters and editors to reconsider the scope and focus of a beat and recalibrate.

“Beat Mapping” is a process I developed years ago to help in the creation of new beats. Over the years I’ve used it more as an ongoing process to refresh and refocus existing beats. And in recent years, it has been a tool for regrouping in the face of staff and budget cuts to make hard choices about coverage.

The process is a series of conversations between reporter and editor resulting in a shared sense of direction, priorities, and concrete objectives.

1) Map the beat: As with story mapping (a variation on the critical thinking skill called webbing), brainstorm all the possible dimensions of a beat. In cases where cutbacks force combining beats, this may involved two or more large topic areas. With all the possibilties laid out, decide what will be the focus and priority areas for beat coverage in the coming year, or even six months if the landscape changes rapidly in your shop.

2) List players and issues: List all the people, institutions or organizations, events and activities, and issues or trends cncompassed by those coverage targets selected in the first conversation. This list will likely contain famliar names and (hopefully) new names for ongoing source development and coverage. The last item — issues or trends — often become the main lines of coverage that generate momentum off breaking news and lead to a body of work.

3) Define outcomes: Break the beat down into outcomes. One list of outcomes should detail desired outcomes, usually in terms of content. How many and what type of stories will be produced, for a example, on a daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual basis. This too is about priorities. Is the beat dominated by short daily stories, or what kinds of short and long-term enterprise need to be factored in. A second list, as needed, details internal expectations on routines and communication required in the job. This might include a weekly or monthly planning calendar, weekly story discussions, regular source building not tied to a specific story. This is the piece that articulates expectations for the work, and for both the reporter and editor.

4) Source development: Borrowing concepts from the Pew Center’s Tapping Civic Life templates, list the sources that are in hand or need to be developed to achieve the content plan laid out in #3. Start at the top with the obvious officials, then move deeper into the beat. Quasi-officials (people inside an organization); Expert-On the Record (people outside the world of the beat who can provide expertise, context and direction); Expert-Off the Record (people likely closely involved or formerly involved who will provide context and background); Real people (stakeholder who live beat, who are impacted, who have something to lose or gain).

Coming out of these conversations and looking ahead to 2010, a reporter and editor should have a clear sense of purpose, of how to manage precious resources (primarily time), and be in a position to produce a body of work that is intentional rather than driven by random breaking news events.

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Written by mroberts8

12/11/2009 at 4:29 pm

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