You’ve seen this, right? You walk into a restaurant and look at a table where you see the tops of the heads of a half-dozen millennials. They are all looking at phones, finding out what people (other than the people around the table) are doing or saying or photographing.
Now picture a newsroom like that. Is that where we are headed?
Pick your poll. Indiana University, Pew Center, Cision Media, they all say basically the same thing: Journalists are spending hours each day on the Internet doing research, searching for sources, verifying facts and keeping up with trends on their beats.
What happened to getting out of the office and working the beat by talking to people? Can walking the beat co-exist with digital reporting? I think so. But it will require discipline and the commitment to the value of both methods of gathering the story.
The Internet is the best thing that ever happened to the First Amendment. The lifeblood of reporting is information and there is more of it on the Web’s media channels than ever before. It is a good thing. You find breaking news. You find sources. You find expertise. History. As long as the information is verified (and reporters swear they do the verification before the publication), it’s all good.
Vadim Lavrusik, journalism program manager at Facebook, guides reporters through the process of setting up a Facebook page for reporting on their community. The page has dozens of good ideas and thousands of followers. One of its best recommendations suggests reporters set up a Facebook page on important ongoing stories in the community and monitor the conversation.
Editors tell me that when reporters tweet during government meetings or court hearings, they can stay in touch with the story when the reporter can’t call.
But you have to wonder what is lost when the discretionary reporting time we used to spend with people is given over to regular interaction with an electronic source that’s always on the record, but can’t respond to questions. What does a reporter miss when you can see only the top of their head?
Reporting has to change, of course, Consumers can tailor their information receiving to their tastes. Bloggers fill the desires of readers to go deep into a topic. Daily newspaper reporters flit from story to story under deadline pressure. Beat reporting is not easy. There is an avalanche of anecdotal evidence about how the greatest stories of our days came from walking a beat. Working a beat. Getting to know people with information and building trust so that they gave you the tip on the big story.
It can be as simple as asking a favorite restaurant waitress, “What’s everyone talking about?”
Becca Whitnall is one such reporter who is walking both sides of the line. While working for Patch.com (that bold experiment of a community news website that required editors to live in the cities where they did their reporting), she scheduled time at the local Starbucks and other popular places in Moorpark, Calif., a quiet suburb of 35,000 about 45 miles north of Los Angeles. She has now moved to a weekly newspaper where she recently wrote about what happened to Mary—a well-known, colorful homeless woman who frequented the parking lot and tables in front of a local grocery story in nearby Westlake, Calif.
Mary had disappeared and Becca learned that everyone in town was wondering what had happened to her.
One reader wrote in to tell that she had gotten Mary’s OK to move her into a temporary transitional living center, and that she was doing fine.
“I wrote the story and the reaction was overwhelming,” Becca said. “People were calling and emailing to say they were relieved and to tell me their stories with Mary—how they bought her food, or clothing, or got her a hotel room when the weather was bad.” It was a story that touched the community.
Oddly enough, when Becca posted her story on Facebook, even more “friends” of Mary came flooding out. They filled the post with anecdotes.
It was a real lesson for Becca and her editors about the power of social media combined with the power of basic reporting. It is a great object lesson for all on how to combine the power of social media and Internet research with the time-honored traditions of journalism.
Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.