The Philadelphia contingent at this year’s Online News Association conference was more than 30 deep, and two dozen of those attendees crossed the country for the largest gathering of online journalists on grants from the Center for Public Interest Journalism and the Wyncote Foundation. I myself was fortunate enough to be part of that contingent, and spent three days immersed in conversations about the practice of digital journalism while building friendships with newspeople from Philly and around the world.
The best thing I can say about ONA 2012 is that the long weekend of talking about how to pursue stories and information in the digital age left me inspired, even anxious to get deeper into that pursuit. In addition to the work I do with CPIJ, I report on land use, development, and zoning for PlanPhilly.com, and one session in particular, Beat Reporting for the Digital Age, opened me up to the possibilities contained within the “limits” of a reporting beat.
The panel included Juana Summers, who covers national politics for Politico, and Laura and Chris Amico, who run Homicide Watch D.C. The latter project–whose mission is to “cover every homicide from crime to conviction” in Washington–is narrow in its subject, but fairly exhaustive in its coverage. A few hours after the panel, the Amicos received the 2012 Knight Award for Public Service.
A beat reporter’s job, as I understand it, is to know everything about something. This doesn’t happen automatically, of course, and in fact it’s impossible, but that’s the goal you work toward with every story you write. A beat reporter should be constantly discovering, building, and sharing knowledge about a topic of interest to his or her community. And the more social media and reporting tools are developed, the more ways there are to do this.
Perhaps I’m biased, but Philly’s own Amy Z. Quinn put it best, when she said during the session that beat reporters should act as conduits between readers and sources:
in my newspaper days, on a new beat, often someone handed you a “beat book” of sources. I want to provide that to my readers. #digitalbeats
— Amy Z. Quinn (@AmyZQuinn) September 22, 2012
Check out video of the session here.
At times, conversations about the journalism industry, its successes and failures, and predictions for its future tend to, I feel, turn in on themselves and become repetitive. The ONA conference provided several examples of this, perhaps because “best practices” in a centuries-old tradition don’t change that much in a single year, even in the midst of digital tumult. Conferences like ONA are invaluable in that they raise the professional standard for working journalists. But what sticks with me after this year’s conference is that, while it’s essential to think, write, and talk about the future of this field, it’s even more essential to focus on the present, the dynamic of public life on our planet and in our separate cities.