Reporting beats re-examined

Can a newspaper eliminate all beats? That seems to be the plan at the Tampa Tribune.

Division of newspaper journalism work into “beats” has practical benefits. The reporter on the cops beat gets to know local law enforcement and local crime pretty well. (The cops reporter can tell you which streets are unsafe at night!) He or she develops reliable sources within the police department, the juvenile justice system, and maybe within the courts as well. Many a fresh journalism graduate has started on “night cops” and as a result learned a heck of a lot about a town or city in a short time. (TV news can have beats too, but the practice is not as common as at newspapers.)

SPJ blogger Ron Sylvester, for example, has covered the courts in Wichita, Kansas, for several years. His deep familiarity with the local system and its players informs his reporting and also makes his job a lot easier for him than it would be for someone like me, coming in cold. It takes some time to develop expertise on a beat.

Beats can be rather broadly defined — check out the Pulitzer Prizes awarded for beat reporting. Other common beats are education, business (sometimes a particular industry, if it’s big enough in the local area), City Hall, religion, health and medicine, science. Local beats differ from global or national beats, naturally. A science journalist might not call herself a beat reporter at all. An education reporter for a large city newspaper might write a fair bit about national education policies, while the education reporter for a smaller paper might focus solely on local schools.

A reporter doesn’t usually go into a beat with any special background. You learn on the job. As your experience builds, you get better at it (no surprise there), and stories take less time to write. Your knowledge exceeds that of the average man on the street. You’ll also catch some flak if you miss a story on your beat — you’re supposed to have your ear to the ground on all matters related to your beat, not wait for others in the newsroom to tip you off. (Links from the blog of Meranda Watling, an education reporter in Lafayette, Indiana.)

Beats can also be purely geographic — Reporter A covers County X, Reporter B covers County Y. It’s just a way to divide the work and try to ensure there’s no duplication of effort.

Is elimination of beats practical, or smart, especially in a metro area as large as Tampa, Florida (2.7 million people)?

Beat advocates say the systems free their newsrooms from depending on the wires, scanners and incoming faxes for stories to cover. “Story ideas from reporters interacting with the world outside the newsroom are superior to story ideas dreamt up by my news managers in a windowless conference room,” says Dan Rosenheim, news director at KRON-TV in San Francisco, CA. “The problem with implementing [a beat system] is that most days we need all or most of our general assignment reporters to cover a wide range of daily news stories.” His solution is to have general assignment reporters develop a sub-specialty, an issue they regularly track, like law enforcement or the environment. (Source: Newslab.)

A great perk of assigned beats is that beat reporters do tend to hear about stuff before anyone else — except insiders. That’s because a beat reporter becomes a kind of inside-outsider, familiar with the people, events, and routines of the beat area. By the same token, feeling like part of the family can sometimes lead a reporter to make bad decisions, but I think the trade-off (getting the good stories first) is worth the small risk.

Without beats, the risk is that the newsroom will rely far too much on press releases and the pseudo-events typically staged by government, nonprofits, and businesses in the self-interest of publicity. It poses a great danger, because that kind of lazy journalism makes for a very boring product — and maybe we have seen too much of that already!

Instead of beats, Tampa will have these:

  1. Deadline — breaking/daily news
  2. Data — specifically for database stuff
  3. Watchdog — investigative reporting
  4. Personal journalism — people’s everyday lives like weather, health, entertainment
  5. Grassroots — citizen journalism

I have no qualms about emphasis on those five areas — seems like a good approach, for a news organization to make sure it’s doing good work under each one of those umbrellas. I also think a DE-emphasis on crime, cops, and courts would behoove a lot of newspapers. When I travel and pick up an unfamiliar local daily, I’m often struck by how many of the truly local stories are nothing but crime, crime, crime. It’s not that I want to read only “happy news,” but a lot of crime news is very lazy journalism — you just get a handout from the police. Surely there is other stuff happening in these communities! (At least, I hope so!)

What I’m really asking here is whether a news organization can properly, appropriately, cover its audience area without having assigned beats.

Maybe you should question what the general assignment (non-beat) reporters are turning in. Are these really the best stories to cover? In a world of slashed newsroom budgets and reduced staffing, you will NOT be able to cover everything. Admitting that, maybe you should ask what is the most interesting, most useful, most important stuff to guarantee that you will cover.

And maybe that leads you back to the idea of beats. Maybe not the same old beats, and maybe not geographic beats at all. If developing expertise allows the reporter to find important stories that otherwise might never come to light, then what kind of stories would you want those to be?

From that expertise, that ear-to-the-ground enterprise, you get the deadline, the data, the watchdog, and the grassroots.

Related: Beat Blogging is a project focused on the use of social networks in beat reporting.

One Comment on “Reporting beats re-examined

  1. Eliminating beats sounds like a recipe for chaos. Good luck to the Tribune, but I don’t see how such an amorphous plan will result in better journalism.

    This is just another example of old media flailing around, trying one poorly thought-out strategy after another and hoping something works. The sad thing is that the people responsible for this mess — the business managers, the owners, the publishers, the people entrusted with the long-term economic health of news institutions — are the ones who will walk away unscathed.

    Journalism schools get beat up constantly by critics, but what on earth do business schools teach? Has there ever been as clueless a leadership class as the group of bozos running American businesses during the past 30 years? GM is on the verge of bankruptcy. GM!!

    Listen, I could rant on and on, but I’ll stop there. My point is this: Blaming journalists for the mess old-media institutions are in is as wrong as blaming auto workers for the disaster that has befallen the Big Three. This is a failure of business leadership, first and foremost — the result of a short-sighted, not very bright leadership class corrupted by easy profits. But it’s the people who do the essential grunt work who suffer.

    P.S. Is there any way to get a preview function for your comments section?

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