Sunday, December 19, 2010

Three ways to learn about your community in bed

This post originally appeared on First Draft, the SPJ Generation J committee blog.

You're an early-career journalist hired to cover a community new to you.

You've picked up a couple tricks from school, internships and entry-level jobs. You know it's a good idea to begin building a detailed source list. Initiate contact as soon as possible; log a phone number here, schedule a meeting there.

The best jobs provide lead time to read current events and interact with people in your new community. Other times, you've got to learn along the way, and in many cases, you'll need to learn in your off-hours.

This is where pajama bottom journalism comes in - methods to learn about your community, with your laptop, from the comforts of your bed. Or at your Ikea desk. Or at the table you found on Craigslist. I know you wear pajamas sitting in front of them.

(1) Embrace RSS:

Really Simple Syndication, RSS, is a smart way to bring the news to you and saves you the time it takes to visit every homepage for every outlet. Start with a list of all of the news organizations you know and add to your media diet as you go. Bookmark the home pages and subscribe to the feeds.

Organization and management is key. Create a method that works for you. Be content in not reading everything you see. Scanning is important.

I use the built-in RSS reader in Safari and organize feeds into folders by category:

My goals are simple: know what our staff and partners are producing to best to link related content and listen to what others have contributed to the news agenda.

(2) Connect with local journalists:

Whether you view other local journalists as competitors or partners, you can't discount the value reading, watching and listening to the work of others.

There are more than 500 journalists working in the editorial departments of newspapers, magazines, radio stations, television stations, wire services, online outlets and niche publications in the greater Sacramento region. There may be more or less in your region. In any case, a lot of good work is done by those outside your organization.

  • Search for staff lists and bookmark them. Here's one staff list.

  • Search Twitter for them and follow them. Here's one social networking lead.

  • Join local media association groups. Here's one group.

  • Create Twitter lists to manage the noise. Here we are. Here they are.

The goals, again, are simple: listening and connecting. Manage your news flow and build bridges for communication.

(3) Research local ties:

"Local kid makes good" is a pretty good story. Your audience wants to know about people from the area.

  • Keep a list of famous people in a spreadsheet. Anyone born or raised in your area has a local following. Sometimes Wikipedia has done the work for you, like these lists of writers, sports figures and entertainers with roots in Sacramento or of alumni from this university and this university. If you're feeling collaborative, make your lists public by editing the Wikipedia page. (Disclosure: I used to edit the above sports figures page when I was in college.)

  • Set up Google Alerts for people that interest you. Know when the hometown athlete is arrested or if the traveling musician returns home to try out new material. Alerts for the local universities and community colleges also surface interesting content.

  • Create Twitter lists for these hometown connections, and separate them into groups as you see fit.

Reporters who've been at the company for two decades may have developed an excellent source network that informs them of news about locals. You're not there yet, but you'll make up a lot of time by setting up these news streams.

(Bonus) Know what locals "Google":

Google Insights for Search was my favorite takeaway from the 2010 SPJ Convention & National Journalism Conference. The tool allows you see what people search on Google, and you can narrow the query to a metropolitan area during set time frames. A simple search will show you the 10 top search terms and 10 rising searches.

Granted, the top search term column is generally useless besides finding out that people may not know how to type ".com." Facebook, Yahoo, YouTube, Craigslist and Google regularly dominate the searched terms in the Sacramento region.

The second column, appearing on the right side of the page, is what will grab you. Google displays the terms gaining significant growth. "Breakout" terms are being searched more than 500 percent the normal rate.

It provides great support to the national topics you want to localize. Yes, Sacramento does care that much about Miley Cyrus.