Monday, May 23, 2005

Future of the "beat" journalist

Stephen Baker at Businessweek's blog, was ruminating the other day on whether multimedia journalism will mean the death of the "beat" reporter. But this is not a new trend. Newsrooms have been edging toward it for years as they pulled out of city halls and state capitols and started covering "government." There's always a tradeoff, and a balancing act, here. Bricks-and-mortar journalism can be deathly dull and turn-of-the-screw. (It needn't be, but it too often is.) But while pulling back to the "government" perspective helps give a reporter a broader field of view -- and hopefully an understanding of how things connect -- you lose the perspective of the reporter who knew enough about City Hall to recognize when real news was being committed.

I've seen it in action. Too often you'll see a story in the local media about a court case or a city action that happened days ago and was just "discovered." It's especially noticeable in court filings.

I admit I don't know the answer with current staff sizes. Ideally, you'd have a couple of "government" reporters (and "lifestyle" and "families," etc.) with enough division of the work so that rotating through City Hall (but not living there) could be an expected part of their routines. But that's unlikely.

I rather do, however, like Paul Conley's take on this idea that multimedia is hard to learn (no, it isn't, Conley says). It's the same message I give to students at Newsplex. The best writers already are thinking in multimedia -- they understand they are trying to create a movie in people's heads. They understand that you work with a photographer early in the process because a great photo can get an even so-so story on A1. Team that writer who understands about creating the psychological "movie" with a photographer shooting video ...

And the good investigative reporter already wants the documents; it's just a matter of readjusting the thinking to get them digitally and then think about how they can be used other than in a static table.

Conley predicts that within a year "almost every entry-level journalist you could find will have the skills to work with audio, video, digital photos, etc. etc. etc." Perhaps a little optimistic, but judging from the students I see, not too far off.

The challenge for the industry will be to use this new talent in a way that lets it (ethically) flourish, rather than trying to force it into the box we've occupied for years.

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