Ten years into this grand experiment of online journalism, I've come to realize that beat reporters could be the secret weapon of newspaper Web sites.
Their potential is unrealized as long as they're working only in the print world -- and the online world needs their wisdom.
After all, covering a beat isn't just about producing an endless stream of incremental stories, punctuated by the occasional six-part series. It's about a deep, full-bodied understanding of the subject or area at hand.
But at most newspapers, readers don't get nearly enough exposure to that expertise.
Meanwhile, on the Web, we've long realized the value of FAQs, primers and timelines. They work well in newspapers, but they perform even better on the Web, where they can be enhanced with images, be made multi-dimensional with links, can be expanded, collapsed and augmented by readers and -- most importantly -- where they don't get thrown in the recycling bin after one short day of life.
Primers, FAQs and timelines may not be the newest or fanciest tools in our toolbox, but readers love them. One big reason: Deprived by these formats of the ability to hide behind incremental news pegs, anecdotal leads or flowery prose, their authors have no choice but to explain themselves forthrightly and with authority.
We just don't do them very often, because they're really hard to do. Or at least, they're really hard for online producers and editors to do.
Enter: The Beat Reporter
Only beat reporters can produce primers, FAQs and timelines with relative ease.
There are, of course, plenty of reasons why this doesn't happen more frequently. Primers, FAQs and timelines are time-consuming, even for the most knowledgeable beat reporter. They can frustrate the flow of daily, incremental copy. Lacking a news peg, they are less likely to get a front-page byline. And there are still some newsroom managers -- and some newsroom union leaders -- who frown on doing anything that is considered primarily for online's benefit.
But there's something in this for newspaper reporters, editors, and readers, too.
Primers, FAQs and timelines offer beat reporters a great way to share the breadth of their knowledge with their readers -- while at the same time demonstrating their authority to their sources.
Say you're writing a primer about the town you cover -- or about a topic on a beat like the environment. A good primer is sweeping in scope. It identifies and describes the big challenges in your chosen area. It offers you a chance to share your hard-won expertise in a more effective and expressive way than the daily, reactive, incremental story -- or even the occasional trend story.
Primers also force reporters to state the obvious -- which is often left strikingly unstated in the hurly-burly of daily journalism. For instance, how often does your newspaper describe the social, economic and racial stratification that is, inevitably, one of the most defining aspects of daily life in your communities?
Timelines, for their part, require us to know how we got to where we are. Beat reporters should know that -- and if they aren't sure, or if there are large gaps in their knowledge, well, then, building a timeline is just what the doctor ordered.
FAQs require reporters to identify and ponder the important questions -- and ideally ask readers what they are curious or worried about. FAQs can even force reporters to acknowledge that there are questions for which they don't have the answers.
(In fact, I think we should not just be doing FAQs, but Frequently Unanswered Questions -- or maybe even Frequently Unasked Questions. But the acronym is ... problematic.)
My Personal Experience
In a strictly print universe, primers, FAQs and timelines rarely offer enough obvious bang for the buck. But if you add online into the mix, where such evergreen content can live for a long time -- longer if it's updated once in a while -- they become hugely valuable.
And while writing them is never easy, they're a lot harder when you're starting from scratch.
Forgive me if I use some of my own work as examples, but it's what I know best.
I've written dozens of primers over the past decade. The first ones I wrote were for Education Week on the Web, a site I helped launch in 1996. I had been an education reporter for many years before that, so I knew what I was writing about. I found writing authoritative, straightforward explanations -- of such complicated, loaded and misunderstood topics as phonics vs. whole language and vouchers -- to be hard, but deeply satisfying. Check out Education Week's Issues page to see what this has turned into over the years. It's wonderful work by talented beat reporters.
Once I came to washingtonpost.com, I set myself to writing primers and FAQs about subjects with which I had only a passing acquaintance. Writing the idiot's guide to campaign finance or Whitewater, starting from essentially scratch, was devilishly hard.
It's amazing what you find when you're a generalist poring through the work of even the best beat reporters. While looking for some authoritative overview of the topic at hand, you find instead how incremental developments and anecdotes can really cover for the absence of simple, basic, explanatory journalism. You read everything you can find, and you still end up having to do a lot of your own reporting.
But again, I found the act of researching and writing them deeply satisfying. And the response from readers was deeply gratifying: Sure, none of my primers ever got in the top-ten daily page view list, but over time they wildly outperformed daily stories. And I was overwhelmed by the e-mails from readers -- particularly students and teachers -- who found them useful.
Six years later, even, I still get e-mails a few times a month about a primer I wrote on affirmative action. Admittedly, most of them are from students trying to get help with their term papers -- but, when you think about it, the ability to help students with their term papers is a pretty good litmus test for a news Web site.
People still also stumble across -- and seem grateful for -- my primers on welfare reform, tax policy and managed care. My primer on campaign finance was even reprinted in a book on the topic.
My career as a general-interest primer writer collapsed as I got sucked into covering L'Affaire Lewinsky. But on my new "beat" I constantly used primers, FAQs and timelines to tell that story online and help make washingtonpost.com the pre-eminent destination on the Web for all things Monica. See, for instance, this timeline or this 1998-era FAQ.
These experiences taught me that a beat reporter has a tremendous advantage over a generalist.
In fact, plunk a beat reporter down to make a list of the half-dozen things that interest them the most about their beat -- and voila! -- you've already got the outline of a great primer. They've already covered the events that make up the timelines. They've already asked the questions that make up the FAQs.
I'm not saying these are ever easy to do. It's never easy to boil things down, which is what these formats require. It takes a lot of time, a lot of energy -- and, often, strong editing.
Next Steps for Newsrooms
As I wrote in my last essay for OJR, in many newsrooms, newspaper reporters are now filing on our clock, and that's a huge victory. But they're still not filing on our terms.
A lot of the things I would like folks in print newsrooms to start doing for online -- narrating photo essays, adding Web links, shooting video, creating blogs -- don't necessarily provide a lot of obvious, immediate return to the newspaper itself. Maybe they are a bit too risky for some managers out there.
So it seems to me that primers, FAQs and timelines -- written by beat reporters and edited by their regular editors -- are the obvious next step for newsrooms to take, because they are perfectly adapted to the new medium while still serving the newspaper.
I have a theory about why newspaper circulation is down. It's not so much the Internet or demographics -- at least not in and of themselves.
I think it's at least in part because newspapers have failed to give readers evidence that reporters really know the community, least of all care about it. That used to be a given, decades ago.
Similarly, newspapers have failed to showcase how deeply knowledgeable and caring their reporters are about the issues they cover.
And in the absence of evidence of that sort of connection, readers feel free to drift away, either to ignorance or to commoditized news on the likes of Yahoo.
Primers, FAQs and timelines -- particularly if they are produced in a way that encourages and responds to reader input -- can reestablish the bond that once existed between newspapers and their readers. And it was that bond, I believe, that made newspapers essential, more even than the news.
So here's an idea that will make newspapers better, make Web sites stronger and maybe even be an antidote to declining circulation. What's wrong with that?
Stop hiding your secret weapons, people. Deploy them!