Mapping your way to better stories

by April 12, 2010

By Joe Grimm

Some reporters pan for the nuggets on their beat. Others use maps to find the buried treasures.

Here are three styles of beat mapping. One maps relationships, one charts coverage plans and one details the insides of organizations or industries.

MUCKETY.COM

On March 24, Muckety.com released a free new tool that lets anyone upload a spreadsheet of people or organizations and their connections to get a visual representation of the network.

It’s based on Muckety’s software, which uses databases and interactive maps to chart “the paths of power and influence.” The Muckety Web site contains hundreds of thousands of executives, politicians, companies, boards and organizations and the is vetted by the journalists who run the site. The new MyMuckety application allows beat reporters to upload their own data to create password-protected relationship maps for a beat or a single project.

Muckety co-founder Laurie Bennett said, “What Muckety tries to do is look for the crossovers. What other board does this guy sit on in the Fortune 500? What non-profit does he direct? What politicians does he have some influence over?”

You can pore over a list or a database, Bennett said, but a relationship map is much easier to read. “Some of the best stories can be generated from the unexpected or those that are outside the person’s known sphere of interest.”

Muckety cherry picks national data and stories for its Web site. When I called, Muckety had just downloaded all the 2009 reports for Congressional travel – and who paid for it – and was digesting databases of companies that have received government contracts of more than $1 million.

Bennett and her team can’t dedicate attention to local or micro networks. “We figure, at this point, they don’t have as much Muckety as we want for our site,” she said. “Muckety at the local level is very different than Muckety at the national level.”

MyMuckety lets reporters build those maps. “You are limited only by your imagination how you use the mapping tool, people and their connections to one another.”

NEWSTRAIN

Michael Roberts has for years been riding the Associated Press Managing Editor’s Newstrain, conducting workshops on beat mapping and other subjects. For Roberts, a beat map is not a visual guide, but a written agreement between the reporter and the editor over how the upcoming stretch of reporting should go.

Michael Roberts of The Arizona Republic

Deputy managing editor of staff development & projects at The Arizona Republic, Roberts said he became frustrated seeing how daily stories hijacked reporters and editors. Beat mapping, Roberts said, “is as much to protect the reporter as to cover the beat.” He said that beat maps are part of the annual evaluation process at the Republic.

This type of beat mapping keep the reporter on the straightest path to the desired body of work. Because there is a plan, side trips, detours and rabbit holes show up for what they are – distractions. Beat coverage is then driven by what is important and not by the distraction of the day. This helps everyone decide when an urgent daily story that is not on the map is better handled by that reporter or left to a wire service, another staffer or simply briefed or ignored.

In Roberts’ beat mapping sessions, the compass is calibrated with these questions: “What’s the issue or the theme for the year? What is going to be your body of work? Do we want hundreds of B5 stories or some Page One enterprise?”

In a world of continuously declining resources, journalists have to set some goals and not decide everything in the heat of a deadline. “It’s part of how you decide whether the story is looking you in the eye is a big deal or not,” Roberts said.

“If I’m covering Procter & Gamble and they have seven divisions … you to have to pick your shots” and focus on the most relevant divisions.

DISSECTING THE ORGANIZATION

Eric Nalder is prone to saying that he just does what any Soviet spy would have done. Actually, few spies have been at their craft as long as Nalder has been. An invitation to teach in the 1970s turned him into a careful student of his methods and those of others – including spies. He has since trained for journalism organizations like Investigative Reporters and Editors, at universities and for non-media companies.

Eric Nalder, a senior enterprise reporter at Hearst

Nalder is senior enterprise reporter at Hearst, and when he starts a project, he begins by building a map of what things look like inside the organization or company and how it interacts with other organizations.

One of the first things Nalder does is to get the phone book for the organization. Just as a map is not always literally a map, neither is a phone book. “The phone book may be something as ordinary as the actual phone book for the company or it may be a payroll database or a bankruptcy record which will contain all the employees of the company because they are creditors. It could be in a lawsuit or an SEC filing.”

Once, when denied access to the classified roster of a battalion of Army Rangers, Nalder built his phone book by scouring six months of the base newspaper’s sports pages. Stories about baseball, football and basketball were filled with names, ranks and units.

“Business is a very, very interesting hybrid of a beat,” Nalder said. “There is a simplicity in covering government; with business there is a lot of information shrouded. However, there is that link between business and government … that link is important to you.” He finds information in contracts, with regulators and in public disclosure reports.

Nalder said, “Understanding the structure of the company also means understanding who the company interacts with.” He loosely calls these people regulators, but they include suppliers, environmental watchdog groups, stock analysts and even accounting firms.

Nalder’s current project is a medical investigation, Dead by Mistake. He said, “if you’re a medical doctor and you’re trying to do surgery on a person or treat their illness, you need to understand the structure of the body and the structure of that particular body. There are some universals with companies, but they’re very loose. Companies and even government agencies are different from each other.”

A map – or a phone book – shows reporters how things are working, how they are connected and which ways lead to the best stories.

Also, don’t forget to check out these sites:

Newstraining blog

“Art of the Interview”

“Breaking and Entering: How to Dissect an Organization”

Nalder’s tip sheets, available through Investigative Reporters and Editors

Joe Grimm is a visiting editor in residence at the Michigan State University School of Journalism and writes the “Ask the Recruiter” column for Poynter.org.