Charlie Beckett On BeatBlogging In A Networked World

getimageIt’s a safe bet that Charlie Beckett, online media aficionado, director of POLIS at The London School of Economics and the author of Super Media: Saving Journalism, knows a hell of a lot more about the media than most of us. If his credentials aren’t convincing you, check out this interview. Somehow, he sums up the current state, ongoing failures and legitimate potential of beatblogging in a networked world in three questions. Plus, he’s got a British accent and it makes him sound super authoritative.

What is the potential for beatblogging in an increasingly networked world?

I think the key to it is understanding what we mean by the beat, what that area is. What is the cue, or the subject? And that’s changed. In the past, it was kind of obvious. It would be your neighborhood…and if it was a subject, it would be basketball or medicine. But as they get more hyperlocal and specialized, in a way they get more complicated.

If people want extremely hyper-local sports reporting, they concentrate on just one team. When you see networked journalism, they often plot new genres because the public doesn’t think the same way the journalists do. They’ll do comedy and the football club, they’ll be talking about sex on the same forum, they’ll be talking about really specialist discussions about injuries that those football players have got. I always think that’s amusing because you get joe public sometimes w/out an expert view, but sometimes there’ll be joe public who happens to be a sports physiotherapist and has a very expert view, and they comment on that blog.

What I’m saying is it’s all very complicated. Even on the hyper-local level, how people define their community is much more sophisticated than it used to be. When you think of geographical, it’s obviously much harder because people who live on separate street may have nothing in common with each other. I live in north London, where my kids go to school and have a lot of interests in common with people whose kids go to the same school. But my football team is in East London. I was born and brought up in South London where I have a lot of connections. And my wife’s from West London.

What is hyper-local for me? It’s difficult to define. But once you do define it—and I think, increasingly, non-professionals are much better at this than professionals—it’s a very rich, creative thing.

Social networks are brilliant for defining “what is a community?” cause they don’t worry about he definition, they just get on and do it.

When do you think the major shift occurred and how is the potential different now?

At one level, it hasn’t occurred yet. Beatblogging, hyper-local, hasn’t really taken off in a way that has huge capacity. There’s a lot of failure out there, partly because it’s difficult to define and partly because it doesn’t have a lot of momentum. The danger is that, by it’s very nature, something that becomes hyper-local or very specialized may not move much, in journalism terms, anyway. You know, the story doesn’t change much and it can be quite static. So I don’t see it necessarily as something that kind of replaces mainstream journalism. I think it’s additional.

Where it’s ahead of us already is, say, in the social networks, where people are creating areas of interest already. It took off when Facebook took off. In a way, some bloggers have been very, very good at turning themselves into hyper-local beat reporters. The political ones especially. You can be a blogger who covers a beat.

I’m a blogger who covers a very specific beat. It’s called academic journalism or something in Britain. And I have a very small network of people who come to me because they think I will report on stuff. I’m kind of that person. On the other hand, it’s been difficult for me to scale that up or turn it into a richer network. I don’t put a lot of effort into crowd sourcing and the other techniques. That takes an effort, and that’s sort of what Jay Rosen and Paul Bradshaw are very good at looking at.

Bottom line is that it does take effort. It doesn’t necessarily blossom by itself.

How will the beat reporter’s world change as the network potential of the web expands?

I look at social networks and I see people creating what are reporting communities without ever worrying about it. It’s only the journalists who worry about ‘well, is this a basketball personality blog or is it a celebrity basketball blog?’ Just do it and see what people are interested in.

It’s two directions of travel on this. One is from the audience. One of the problems at the moment is that people aren’t sure where to find this kind of information. Once you set up a hyper-local blog, how do you tell the people in that locality that you’re there? It’s partly about usage and media literacy and sheer volume and scale. You’re kind of shouting in an empty room. The people are in the next room and they don’t realize. You’ve got to bring them into the room.

From the other side, the information disseminators, the journalists, we are still struggling to change the model from the broadcast model—the idea that if we shout something loudly enough, people will come and get it, they’ll sign up for subscriptions and come to us. We are still struggling with the online technologies such as collecting meta data, understanding traffic flow. You know the stuff about putting Brittney Spears in every story, that’s kind of the level of our understanding at the moment. And I think that’s really changing. I’m not a technologist, but that really fascinates me.

If you look at stuff like the social network marketing applications on Facebook. Of course, the money grubbing bastards always lead first, they develop quickest. And the journalists have to get the same tricks, which is listening to what people are saying online and then getting in on those conversations. So that way you can find the people and what the subjects are. That way of understanding the meta data intelligently is only just evolving, really. The use of people’s day to day data about people will be a really valuable resource for making journalism proximate to people’s lives.

*Photo from CharlieBeckett.org, a site worth reading.

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