Five lessons from deep beat reporting

By on May 22, 2012

Since last September, I’ve been working on a little side project called “Beyond the Blotter: The Homicide Watch Handbook.”

It’s a simple WordPress site, and I’ve been spending spare moments populating it with my notes, sources, resources, methodology, tips, tricks and advice for online crime beat reporting.

Although it’s primarily a how-to guide book for reporters on the Homicide Watch platform, it’s also been an opportunity for me to reflect on how and why our website works. And, because I’m frequently asked if the concept could work for other beats, it’s given me some time to think about what specifically works universally.

Undoubtably the deep beat reporting model could work on many other beats — education, public policy, public health, economy, to name just a few. If I were to begin brainstorming what those beats would look like, I’d start with why Homicide Watch works.

  1. It has a guiding principal: “Mark every death. Remember every victim. Follow every case.” With those three branches I can evaluate every day what my tasks are and decide which stories belong and which don’t. Knowing and understanding my editorial mission helps me decide where to put my resources. And, when I’m asked “why are you covering this?” or “why aren’t you covering that?” I have an answer that I believe in.
  2. It is structured reporting: Many of our readers use victims’ and suspects’ pages as their primary navigation tool. Why? Because homicides happen to people and people bring us in to Homicide Watch. The typical crime brief is not about people and it doesn’t build into any larger narrative. By structuring our reporting around the ways that people find and consume our content, we’re reflecting the ways they engage with our reporting, leading them to engage more fully.
  3. It has clear community expectations: Our comments policy is listed prominently on the the site, and some of our commentors will know from personal interactions what is expected of them. But I don’t just mean a following-the-rules type of expectation. I frequently model the ways I would like the community to interact with the site by highlighting comments I think are useful to community dialogue as “Comments of the Day.” This shows readers the gold standard and typically raises the level of conversation. The community also knows what to expect of us. They know that every murder in DC will be reported, that court documents will be posted and that we will stay with the case until a conviction is reached.
  4. It encourages reporters/editors to be purposeful and reflective: At a recent journalism discussion, reporters talked about the heavy burden of “feeding the beast.” Despite an average daily output of five stories, I don’t do that. Why? Because I know what the purpose of each story is and I consider its value to the community before publishing. This deep beat method means that a reporter knows how each piece fits into the picture and the reason is for publishing it.
  5. It also encourages reporters to take action: Sometimes news happens 75 words at a time. The structure and method of Homicide Watch make that OK. Because they are part of a larger narrative, those 75 words have a built-in context. Working online means that reporters and editors can work quickly — writing and publishing stories, creating maps and posting documents. If a story fits the purpose of the site, there’s nothing to keep a reporter from moving on it quickly.