Skills for journalists in print and digital media.

Beat mapping

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With reduced space and resources, one challenge in running a successful beat is for the reporter and editor to map the beat, discuss all its possibilities, and then develop a content plan that is clear about what receives the most attention and what receives less. This is to avoid being led through the year by breaking news alone and instead develop a body of work that mixes news and enterprise and makes an real impact.

Beat mapping is similar to story mapping. In education and creative thinking circles, mapping is a popular critical thinking approach. There are even inexpensive software package tobuild and share maps, including Inspiration and Thinking Maps.

I recommend a series of  four conversations between a beat reporter and his/her editor, working from that first rough map to a concise content plan.

1) Map: Brainstorm a wide-ranging map of the beat, including all the possible people, organizations, issues, themes, audiences that the beat entails. Then select and combine those parts of the map that seem the most important content areas. Sketch a second, distilled beat map.

2) Landscape: With the distilled beat map, brainstorm and list the people, institutions and organizations, events and milestones, and finally the issues and themes associated with the beat. Discuss what pieces you have contacts and relationships with, and which pieces need development. Sophisticated beat plans usually include a couple running issues or themes that will be developed over a year.

3) Expectations: Develop clear beat expectations that include both “output” (the kind, amount, and frequence of content that will be produced, and the internal systems and routines that are part of successful coverage.

4) Sources: Consider the people, organizations, and issues listed in number 2. Then list contacts for each in descending layers, from officials to average people. The layers, adapted from the Pew Center’s “Tapping Civic Life” project, include: Officials. Quasi-officials. Experts /on the record. Experts / background only. Real people. The goal here is to assess how deep your sources run and to identify areas for more source development.

When these four steps are complete, write a concise beat mission statement that includes the focus, issues and themes, and a sense of the content expectations over a year’s time. Here, again, the goal is to anticipate more than breaking news and use that anticipation to make the best decisions about time and resources through the year.


Tapping Civic Life workbook

Covering Communities web site

Richard Harwood on covering civic life


Written by mroberts8

November 9, 2009 at 6:41 pm

3 Responses

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  1. […] life: This is a mix of good beat work, strategic beat mapping, and a more methodical understanding of the sociology of community. Examples of good methodology […]

  2. […] “Beat Mapping” is a process I developed years ago to help in the creation of new beats. Over the years I’ve used it more as an ongoing process to refresh and refocus existing beats. And in recent years, it has been a tool for regrouping in the face of staff and budget cuts to make hard choices about coverage. […]

  3. I am a frequent reader of your blog and just wanted to let you know you that I really like your blog.

    Download Beats

    March 1, 2010 at 6:19 pm

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