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The beat goes on … line

February 19, 2011

Online news sites and mainstream media outlets are adding a new beat for reporters to cover: the blog.

According to the latest issue of Nieman Reports, news organizations from around the world are formally creating new beats in which the reporter’s main job responsibility is not to interview the mayor, check police reports or develop sources at city hall, it is to read what the audience is saying about the issues of the day and then report that commentary back to the audience.

This is particularly true at TBD, a local television station and website covering the Washington, DC, metropolitan area.

The Arlington, Va.-based news station has created a team of “community hosts” who scour social networking sites and local blogs each day in search of information about everything from Washington area restaurants and sports to politics and breaking news.

That information is then used by TBD reporters to either develop new angles on what is already being reported on the Internet or it is aggregated and put directly on the company’s Web site.

Helping to do this job is the estimated 200 blogs that have joined TBD’s community network.

“I’d been a reporter for four years before I joined TBD as a community host,” Daniel Victor wrote in the Winter 2010 edition of Nieman Reports. “Now, instead of looking for phone numbers or pounding the pavement for sources to interview, I’m scanning the Web for sources of news and information that will interest our readers.”

This relatively new practice is a fundamental change from traditional journalism, which used to require that reporters verify anything they read in another publication by interviewing their own sources and confirming that the information is true.

In some cases, Victor says, TBD reporters do just that. But with the wealth of information floating in cyberspace, he says, there is no reason for reporters to limit themselves exclusively to the human sources they can contact directly.

“Why should TBD ignore what’s out there just because we didn’t speak to each source,” Victor wrote in his article. “I vetted each link for reliability, expertise and coherence the same way I’d vet a human source in a deadline situation. It isn’t the act of speaking to a reporter that validates sources as worthwhile; it is the vetting process the reporter puts them through before and after the interviews.”

TBD is not the only organization that uses blogs as beat.

In the same issue of Nieman Reports, Juanita Leon says that her two-year-old political news site, La Silla Vacia of Colombia, has emerged as an important source of information for reporters at more traditional media outlets.

The news site, which Leon founded in March 2009, is not only a source of independent reporting about politics in the South American country, it is a beat used by other political journalists trying to keep up with the latest news about Colombia’s major events.

At the same time, Leon wrote, La Silla Vacia checks other blogs for news it may have missed.

“I increasingly believe that the role of specialized blogs is to create beats for journalists,” Leon wrote. “Typically, newspaper and TV reporters rely on tips from sources for their stories. Now blogs and journalistic websites like La Silla Vacia are starting to be significant forces in our media ecosystem.”

Leon says she realized that blogs were an important source of information for journalists while she was the editor at another dot-com news site in New York.

“The Iraq war was not going well and I was discussing with my boss whether we should send a reporter to cover it,” she said. “The intern overheard us talking and she suggested another approach: Follow the soldiers’ and Iraq victims’ blogs instead of going there. We did just that; soon, several blogs were selected and we made them our Iraq beat.”

As Leon points out, the Web is changing the notion of journalism in many ways. It used to be that reporters were mortified — and sometimes reprimanded — if they were scooped by the competition. In the digital age, the competition is just another source a reporter uses in covering a beat.

(Note: This blog post is based solely on the articles published in the Nieman Reports. No people were interviewed.)

Update on TBD: February 24, 2011.

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