Archive for January, 2016

This is an updated version of a handout for a reporting workshop I used to present more than a decade ago. I have updated it for my Advanced News Gathering class this semester at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication. Many of the tips here came from my World-Herald colleagues, Paul Goodsell, Joe Kolman, Nichole Aksamit and Cindy Gonzalez, with whom I collaborated on the original workshop. Other colleagues, perhaps most notably former Digital First Media colleagues Tom Meagher and MaryJo Webster (who will address my class remotely Thursday), taught me things I used in updating that old handout to use now.

No competent reporter would consider doing the job without knowing how to interview or take notes or to dig for records. In 21st-Century journalism, using data is not a specialized skill. It’s an essential skill.

Even if you haven’t mastered high-level analysis and visualization skills (just as some reporters are better than others at interviewing or working sources), every reporter needs to use data at least at a basic level to find answers and tell stories. Whatever your level of ability, you should seek to learn more about the data sources on your beat and how to access and use them.

Ask for electronic records. When an agency you cover releases a report or some annual statistics, ask for the report in a digital format. We can incur significant expenses when we ask public agencies to sort data for us (though often much less than they might tell you initially). But every report already exists in an electronic file that should be easy and cheap to obtain. Whether you use the data immediately or not, you should have it on hand electronically.

Pursue the data. Ask for data as aggressively as you insist on access to any other public record. You must not be intimidated when it comes to asking for electronic information. When someone cites facts in an interview, you already are used to asking, “How do you know that?” and asking for copies of any reports the source is citing. Ask for an electronic copy as well. Often the source would rather e-mail you the report rather than find an envelope anyway. Don’t ask just for the report itself, but for the raw data on which it was based.

Consider different uses. As you learn about data sources, consider what stories you might pursue based primarily on this data. Consider how you might use this data for information to support other stories you might do. Consider how you might use the data routinely. Consider how the data might be useful to colleagues on other beats.

Use the Internet. Visit the Web sites of public agencies and private organizations on your beat and learn what data sources are available readily online. Learn what reports and statistics are posted online. Learn whether the agencies post searchable databases online or pdf files that are more cumbersome to use online. (Various tools can help you extract data from pdfs, and a pdf can also identify electronic records you could obtain to sort and search yourself). Browse the databases to learn what information they offer and consider how that information might be useful in stories.

Get budgets. Obtain the budgets and spending records of public agencies in electronic form so you can use a spreadsheet to look for trends, changes, irregularities.

Get directories. Learn what sort of basic information the agencies on your beat might have in electronic form: personnel rosters, payroll records, government board rosters.

Get an updated version of the payroll records periodically — say quarterly — and you’ll have a good way of tracking government raises. It’s searchable and, thus, a nice way to double-check a name spelling and job title and salary, a good way to know who’s been with the city the longest and who’s a newbie, an easy way to access a list of the city’s highest and lowest-paid employees. It’s particularly useful when a public employee makes other news — gets arrested or fired or wins an award — or when you are just searching for an employee who might have been around during a particular time period or has experience in a given area.

Listen for data behind statistics. When sources tell you they are tracking or studying something — a certain kind of complaint, the condition of city roads, housing code violations, etc. — chances are they are working from a database or a spreadsheet. Ask “How do you know that noise complaints have risen or that 65 percent of the streets are in good condition?” and then ask to see their work, which may prompt other stories. In most jurisdictions, the data should be public record, and you should ask for it.

Interview the data. Think of data as another source that you interview. Do you want to know how many single mothers of a particular race or age group live in a particular community? You could probably call a number of people and get some vague answers and some anecdotal sense of whether the number is growing or declining, but why not ask the Census Bureau? Think of questions you could ask the data on your beat: What bar has the most liquor-law violations? What school has the best (or worst) test scores? What intersection has the most accidents?

Study the data first. Reporters are at a great advantage when they go into an interview knowing at least something, and sometimes a lot, about the information the source deals with. If you can find some data online or in a database you already have acquired, check that before you interview a source. It helps you ask better questions and helps you catch the source in mistakes or lies.

Organize with spreadsheets. A spreadsheet helps you understand information. You spot relationships, trends, reversals, gaps. You can use a spreadsheet for something as simple as a source list or chronology, or to analyze thousands of pieces of data.

Enter data yourself. Sure, it’s nice to get data e-mailed to you, but don’t forget that you can enter data yourself. Often an afternoon at a courthouse or government office searching through paper records yields a notebook full of information you can analyze and understand better if you take a few hours to enter it in a spreadsheet.

Use Census data. Census data are not just the basis for Census stories, but provide helpful information about families, housing, economics and communities for a wide range of stories. The Quick Facts section of the site provides data about any state, city, parish, county, town or zip code in the country. For instance, you can quickly learn demographic, business, housing, income (and much more) for the city of Baton Rouge.

Census download shot

A download button at the top right of Census search results lets you download the data in various forms for analysis or display.

BLSSeek federal data. If any federal agency has jurisdiction on your beat, it probably has some data available. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has a “data tools” tab that opens a number of opportunities for information on employment, productivity and other economic topics. The Bureau of Justice Statistics offers similar data sets on crime, courts and prisons. Data.gov gives a guide to federal data on a wide range of topics.Datagov

Seek state and local data. Access to data and quality of data that you can access online or through public records requests varies by state and local jurisdiction, as laws and compliance with laws varies. Sometimes you have to search for data by agency. Other times a government jurisdiction, such as the City of Baton Rouge, will provide a portal to data from all agencies. Sometimes media organizations and public interest groups have already acquired data sets and made them easily accessible online. Louisiana Sunshine, a project of the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, makes many state data sets easy to access.  

Think critically about data. Former World-Herald reporter Joe Kolman had this quote from Dick O’Reilly of the LA Times taped to his desk: “The most important lessons in CAR are not which keys to push on the keyboard, but how to think critically about data. People who learn to think that way will learn which keys to push because doing so becomes fundamental to their quests. People who only learn what keys to push really haven’t learned anything.”

Other resources

National Institute of Computer-Assisted Reporting (lots of databases and how-to instructions for members of Investigative Reporters and Editors).




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As Washington braces for a winter storm (and the metro area’s inability to deal with winter storms), my mind wandered back five years.

On Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2011, almost exactly five years ago, Mimi and I drove nine hours to get home from the heart of Washington to our home in the Virginia suburbs. In good traffic, the drive usually took less than 45 minutes. In normal Washington traffic, an hour was not unusual, an hour and a half certainly possible.

But when it snows in Washington …

I am not the only one to remember that evening (or my whining about that evening):

Nine hours, 11 hours. For recalling a nightmare from five years ago, two hours seemed a minor exaggeration.

David Heyman (who will appear more in this tale later) also recalled our shared 2011 Odyssey:

My daughter-in-law, Ashley Douglass, took three hours to get home in some light snow Wednesday evening, prompting her husband, Tom, to ask if I had the link from my account of the 2011 trek to share with her. He thought it was on this blog, but it was on TBD.com, the Washington local news site I helped launch less than six months before that snowy day.

The TBD archives were preserved a few years, but have vanished from the Internet. I couldn’t even find my story of the snowy commute on the Wayback Machine (which preserves snapshots from websites, but not full archives). But I did save the html files.

Some background on that day before I share my five-year-old tale: This was the year after Snowmageddon and Snowpocalypse paralyzed Washington for days. But not every winter storm forecast for DC materializes as predicted. At least a couple times earlier in January 2011, weather forecasters had warned of potentially snowpolalyptic storms that either missed Washington entirely or only provided a light dusting. So when we were warned of the Jan. 26 storm, most of Washington shrugged and headed to work as normal. But this time the forecast actually lowballed the storm. By mid-afternoon, huge, wet flakes were falling fast, sticking to the streets, and the federal government (and nearly everyone else) shut down early, sending virtually every vehicle in Washington into the streets at the same time.

I’ve spent most of my life in the Midwestern states of Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and North Dakota. I know winter storms, and laugh at Washington’s inability to handle light snow. But this was a genuine winter storm, falling fast and hard and wet on a metro area whose drivers and cities don’t know what do with a mild winter snow that wouldn’t cancel school in Iowa.

So here is my account of my commute from hell (on a day off even!) five years ago (with a few updates): (more…)

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This is an updated version of a handout for a reporting workshop I used to present more than a decade ago. I have updated it for my Advanced News Gathering class this semester at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication.

Finding sources

Find new “suspects.” Seek out sources beyond the “usual suspects” on your beat. If you always find yourself talking to white men, find some women and minorities who might bring a different perspective to your stories and steer you toward different ideas. If you find yourself always talking to the professionals and bosses, spend some time talking to the folks in the trenches. If you spend most of your time talking to liberals, seek out some conservatives. If you spend most of your time talking to people your age, seek out some younger or older sources. These people with different perspectives will point you to different stories. Look around the agency you cover for the people or offices that attract the least attention. Spend some time there to see if you’ll hear some different tips. Ask yourself each week whether you made meaningful contact with a new source. If you didn’t, could you have?

Talk to consumers. If you are assigned to a government or commercial entity, make sure that your circle of sources is wider than the officials of that organization. Talk to citizens who deal with that agency or business and use its services or products. If some of these consumers or citizens are organized, you should deal regularly with leaders of those organizations. You also may need to deal with some self-appointed crusaders and gadflies. Make a point of dealing with some average, unaffiliated consumers.

Identify “gatekeepers.” Develop rapport with assistants and other “gatekeepers” who control access to important sources. These people can be important sources themselves. At the least, good relations with them are essential at times to contacting the sources.

Go prospecting. Take time to go “prospecting” for sources and stories. Take a trip or set up an interview with no particular story in mind. Visit a source you haven’t seen for a while or a community or agency you haven’t covered for a while. Go just to familiarize yourself, to take someone to lunch or chat in the office or home a while. Maybe you’ll come back with a terrific story you never would have known enough to pursue. Maybe you’ll come back without a particular story, but with some tips to pursue. Maybe you’ll just come back with a valuable source to contact in future stories. At the least, you’ll gain a greater understanding of your community and your beat. Prospecting almost always yields stories and is always time well spent. You just can’t tell the editor or news director in advance what it’s going to produce.

Learn where records are. Familiarize yourself with the paper and electronic record-keeping practices of the offices you cover. Learn which records are clearly public, which are legally confidential and which might present access disagreements. Learn which records and databases you can access online without asking for them. For records kept by someone at the agency, ask to see them frequently, whether you are using them or not. This lets sources know of your interests. Seeking records in routine stories establishes precedents when you are seeking similar records in sensitive stories. Ask for records in electronic format whenever possible. Learn who has access to the confidential records (not just in the office, but clients or members of the public who might have them).

Find experts. Learn what academic institutions, think tanks or non-profit groups might study or monitor activities in your beat. Develop them as sources, so they will notify you of reports or rumors and they will know who you are when you call for their analysis of issues and events. Learn what attachments, if any, your experts have. Biases don’t render an expert’s research useless, but you must know them and note them.

Develop national sources. Contact national associations, academic experts and government agencies to develop sources with expertise in the subject you cover. They may provide valuable perspective for a local story. Or they may know something happening locally. They may alert you to a national trend. You can search for experts by topic at Profnet and Help a Reporter Out.

Relations with sources

Be available. Let people on your beat know you’re interested in hearing tips, suggestions, complaints, whatever. Make sure they have your cellphone number and e-mail. Make rounds frequently in person and by telephone.

Be honest. Never mislead a source. Be honest about the direction a story is taking. If it’s going to be a “negative” story, don’t bill it as something else. If you’re not going to write a story about a tip, don’t indicate that you will. This doesn’t mean you have to offend or worry sources needlessly. If a source is worried about a negative story, assure him you intend to make the story fair and accurate and that you want to hear his side.

Be annoyingly insistent on accuracy. If someone gives you figures off the top of her head, ask where she got those figures, then check the original source. Call back sources to confirm spellings, figures, chronologies, etc. Ask for reports, documents, business cards, personnel directories, calendars, databases and spreadsheets that can confirm spellings, numbers and other facts. This not only ensures the accuracy of your stories, it wins respect with sources (and good will that you’ll need if an error does slip through). It puts sources on notice that they can’t slip bogus figures past you. And the materials you gather for one story often will be helpful in other stories.

Become an expert. The more you learn about the complicated issues, technology and economics of your beat, the more your sources will respect you, the harder it will be for them to BS you, and the easier it will be for you to spot good stories. Read books, articles, reports. Research online. Ask lots of questions.

Admit you’re not an expert. If you don’t know or understand something, ask. Sources will respect your honesty, and you will learn. Also, if you fake understanding, they will catch on quickly and you will lose credibility. Repeat your understanding back to the source for confirmation.

Show interest. Sources may want to bend your ear about a matter other than what you want to talk about. Listen. You may get a good news tip. Even if the source thinks it’s a story and you don’t, show interest. However boring or annoying a source may be, however uninteresting you find this alleged tip, you don’t know when a little bit of knowledge might be helpful. Even if the information is completely useless, the source will appreciate your interest and may someday tell you something that is important or interesting.

Tell sources of your interests. Tell good sources about stories you’re working on, even the ones that may not involve them directly. You may know that a source isn’t directly involved with an issue, but if you tell him about the stories you’re working on, he may steer you toward other sources who might be helpful, or he may tell you something helpful that he’s heard around the office.

Regard your sources as characters. You’re not going to profile everyone on your beat. But you might profile anyone on your beat someday. So regard them all as characters you must develop fully. Learn about their families, hobbies, backgrounds, favorite sports teams, watering holes. Note their mannerisms. Follow them on social media if they use it (and if they don’t, ask why). Even if you never write that profile, learning these things will bring some tips your way, as the character will tell you about something she heard from her husband or an interesting thing happening in a social group to which she belongs.

Establish a connection. Don’t be afraid to show your human side. If you have children the same age as the source, commiserate about car seats or car pools or car insurance, whatever stage the children are. If he hates your favorite sports team, engage in some good-natured trash talk. If she has an illness in the family, show genuine compassion. Don’t fake a connection or stretch for one, but be alert for genuine ways to make a connection. If you have little in common with the person, connect by showing genuine interest in the character beyond the narrow focus of today’s story.

Share control. Even if a source spends a lot of time with reporters, he probably doesn’t feel completely comfortable facing you and your notebook. Occasionally in an interview, give him some control. Sure, you’re asking the questions, but answer his questions if he asks any. Listen politely as he wanders off the subject occasionally. The source will feel more comfortable answering your questions if the relationship doesn’t feel one-sided.

Take control. Ask your questions directly. If the source ducks a question, ask again. Whatever niceties you engage in to establish rapport, the source should understand that your interest in the relationship is receiving information and understanding.

Track your sources. Use a spreadsheet or program such as Google Contacts or Outlook to keep track of information about your sources. Get their office phone, direct office phone, cellphone, home phone, vacation home phone. Get their e-mail addresses. Record names of secretaries, spouses, children, hometowns, former jobs, alma maters, anything you learn that might later be handy to know.

Ask for documentation. Always ask for documentation of what your sources tell you. You don’t have to do this in a challenging way (unless you’re challenging). Present it as part of your quest for accuracy. Or if the source was uneasy about discussing something for the record, say you can attribute something to a document rather than to him. Documents provide verification. They may provide details that your source can’t recall or did not know. They may lead you to other sources. In addition, they provide precedent. If a source gives you a document when it’s in her interest, it may be difficult for her to claim later that the same sort of document is not a public record.

Know public-records laws. Sources won’t always give you what you want willingly. You should know what records are public and know both the Federal Freedom of Information Act as well as state public-records laws. But use FOIA requests as a last resort. Ask sources to give you records that should be public (or some that shouldn’t). Sometimes a direct request gets you information quickly that can take months if you file an FOIA request. You might be asked to file a request for their records, but get the records quickly in a matter of minutes, hours or days, depending on your request. Always ask informally first, especially if you have good relations with the source. Formal public-records demands are an important reporting tool, but they can be slow.

Addressing and avoiding trouble

Stay on the record. As much as possible, keep your interactions on the record, especially when you’re talking about information your sources know first-hand. Your sources should always understand that this is a business relationship and your business is gathering and reporting information. When you have to go off the record, make sure it is for a good reason. For instance, if a source is telling you something he doesn’t know first-hand, you wouldn’t quote him about that anyway, but the tip may lead you to first-hand sources. If you go off the record, make sure both of you understand the terms: Is the information for publication but not for attribution? If so, try to get agreement on a description of the source that’s as precise as possible. Is the discussion not for publication (if so, make sure the source knows you will try to publish it using other sources)? Before you go off the record in any fashion, tell the source you might try to get her on the record later if she says anything you want to use. And if she does, go back later with just the information or quotes you want to use, and try to get her on the record. I discussed confidential sources more extensively in a 2013 post, and will focus on the topic in a separate class.

Face the music. When you write a story that might make someone angry, show up at her office after the story runs, or call, either to ask directly about the story, to follow up or on some other pretense. Give the person a chance to sound off. If you made mistakes, admit them. If you didn’t, hold your ground but listen respectfully. Many sources (politicians, lawyers, coaches, athletes) are used to respectful adversary relationships and they will respect you and keep working well with you if you show the respect and courage to face the music when you’ve nailed them. This also is a good time for getting news tips. If someone is upset about a negative story, ask about more positive news happening in his territory. If he says the situation in his office isn’t nearly as bad as in another office, ask for details about the other office.

Admit your mistakes. If you make an error (or if your organization makes an error on your turf), admit the mistake, correct it and apologize personally to those affected. People understand that mistakes happen and they respect people who take responsibility. If you weren’t mistaken or if it’s not clear whether you’re mistaken (such as a disagreement over emphasis, rather than a factual error), listen sincerely to the complaint. Even if you disagree, give the source her say and discuss why you told the story the way you did. Consider whether a follow-up story is warranted. If not, suggest a letter to the editor, a comment on the online story or a response in social media. Brief your editor or news director on the disagreement and how you handled it. If the source complains to the editor, you’ll be glad it wasn’t a surprise.

Beware of getting too close. If your relationship with a source moves beyond friendly to friendship, you may need to adjust the relationship. You might need to ask some tough questions that remind him of the nature of your job. You can’t and shouldn’t withdraw from community life. But if you encounter sources at church and in children’s sports and the like, you may need to establish some boundaries. If you’re unsure whether a relationship is getting too cozy, discuss it with an editor. Maybe you should discuss it with the source. The source might feel a little uncomfortable, too, and might appreciate hearing that you can cheer together at your kids’ basketball game Tuesday and still argue Wednesday over news coverage or access to records.

Social media relationships. You should seek appropriate social-media relationships with sources. Follow them on Twitter if they use either personal or agency accounts professionally. Facebook is a little trickier because of language such as “like” and “friend.” If you use your personal Facebook account professionally and your source does, too, it should not be a problem to be “friends,” especially if you are friends with people on different sides of an issue, or different political parties or sports teams. If they have a Facebook page that you have to “like,” you can do that and note in an update on your page that you have done so not because of any particular fondness, but for the professional interest of following news from the page. Of course, if a person’s individual page is public, or usually public, you can just check in occasionally, as you can do with a page if you’d prefer not to “like” it (Facebook will tell some of your friends that you “like” the page, and you might prefer not to do that). It’s always a good idea to discuss your social media relationships with sources with an editor or news director, so you are on the same page.

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One of the best things about being a reporter for the Omaha World-Herald was that we were always on deadline.

Even before digital publishing gave constant deadlines to all journalists, the World-Herald had a never-ending succession of deadlines for our evening edition and four morning editions. Whenever news broke, we were always scrambling to get our best story into the next edition.

When I posted some lessons last year from my decade at the World-Herald, I double-checked to see if it still was publishing the evening edition, because that seemed kind of unlikely. It was, but Publisher Terry Kroeger announced Monday that the evening edition would end March 7.

I can’t let the announcement pass without some fond memories of the “all-day” World-Herald, other afternoon newspapers in my past and the place of afternoon newspapers in the past and future of the newspaper business.

The all-day World-Herald

I joined the World-Herald in 1993, a little leery of the fact that it still had an evening edition. The deaths of afternoon newspapers in Des Moines in 1982 and Kansas City in 1990 had caused considerable disruption in my journalism career. And in 1992, I had overseen the newsroom aspects of a switch from afternoon to morning publication as editor of the Minot Daily News. While the World-Herald didn’t maintain separate news staffs (as Des Moines and Kansas City had done), it did have two shifts of editors and two production and circulation shifts. This seemed to me another disruption waiting to happen. (more…)

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This is an update of a workshop handout I developed more than a decade ago. The Omaha World-Herald had a newsroom reorganization in the early 2000s that gave many reporters new beats. I was writing coach there and developed a workshop called “Mastering a New Beat.”

That became “Mastering Your Beat,” a workshop I presented in some other newsrooms and for press associations (I remember it was a full-day workshop for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association in 2003 or 2004.) By 2005, I had developed the workshop into an interactive course for News University called Beat Basics and Beyond (at one point, it was one of their 10 most-used courses; not sure if that’s still true). We updated that in 2011 as Introduction to Reporting: Beat Basics, and it’s still available at News U.

This spring semester, I’m teaching Advanced News Gathering at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication, and I’m structuring much of the course around beat reporting, so here’s an updated version of the original handout:

Mastering your beat

A reporter on a new beat faces two challenges that sometimes compete: Producing right away to gain the attention and respect of readers, sources and editors and taking the time to learn new sources and issues.

These tips may help in addressing these challenges on a new beat, injecting some life into a beat that’s feeling too familiar, improving coverage on a beat where you or your editors want to elevate coverage, or updating your beat coverage to include more digital tools and opportunities:

Plan your beat coverage

Make a plan. If your editors didn’t give you a job description, write your own. If they did give you a job description, perhaps you will need to add some detail. What public and private institutions and organizations fall in your turf? What topics and issues definitely or probably fall in your turf? What topics or issues that lie primarily on someone else’s turf may sneak onto yours occasionally? Which regular meetings or other events will you always cover? Which regular meetings or events will you always monitor and sometimes cover? Which, if any, will you usually ignore? What will be your high priorities? What will be low priorities? (If everything is a high priority, then you haven’t prioritized.) How much of your time will you spend on enterprise? How much on daily news? What are some investigative opportunities? What are some feature possibilities? Discuss your plan with your editor, and discuss any differences in your expectations. The plan should not be a straitjacket. As you learn the beat, you and your editors may need to adjust the plan.

Identify potential conflicts. Where might your turf overlap with other reporters’? Discuss these possible conflicts with the reporters and with editors. By addressing overlap in advance, you can avoid missed stories, bruised feelings and duplication of effort.

Learn the topic and the territory

Debrief your predecessor. Unless your beat is new, ask your predecessor and other reporters who have worked the beat for advice. Ask what stories she intended to do someday but never got around to. Ask about helpful sources or difficult sources. Ask about confusing issues. You’ll want to surpass your predecessor and bring a different approach to the beat, however good she was. You’ll want to develop good relations with the sources she found difficult. But you’ll also want to tap her experience.

Ask lots of dumb questions. You may know a lot about the beat, but you don’t know as much about each piece of it as your sources do or as regular consumers do.

Confess your ignorance. If you don’t know the topic, don’t pretend you do. Ask people to educate you. They will respect your candor, and as you learn, they will respect your knowledge. If you pretend to be an expert before you are, people will know. You will lose respect and have a difficult time gaining it. Mike Reilly of the World-Herald advised: “One of my favorite ways to start a question in an interview is, ‘Pardon my ignorance, but …’ I learned the hard way as a reporter to follow this rule of thumb: ‘Better to humble yourself in the interview than humiliate yourself in print.'”

Learn the geography. Especially if your beat is geographical, you need to understand the lay of the land. If it’s a suburb, drive the rush hour commute and make your way through the cul-de-sacs. If it’s a tough neighborhood, get out of the car and walk it. If it’s a region, drive the main roads and the back roads. Stop and ask questions. Wear out your maps. Visit landmarks. Visit gathering places. Visit major employers and some minor ones. If your beat is topical, geography still may be important. If you’re covering education, visit the schools. If you’re covering crime, ride around with some cops and visit some high-crime areas without cops. If you’re covering social services, visit the institutions.

Learn the jargon. Each beat has its own jargon, acronyms and processes that a new reporter must learn. Read and ask so that you learn the terminology and the processes. But remember that you are writing for readers who may not know the jargon. You have to learn it to understand your sources. But you have to translate into English for your readers.

Be curious. Watch for changes or trends, especially as you’re out on your turf. Construction or going-out-of-business sales may lead to a story. If you see something odd, ask about it. If you see something new, ask about it.

Read exhaustively. Identify local or national websites, social media accounts, email newsletters, list-servs or periodicals that you should read, follow or subscribe to stay current on your beat. Identify and obtain any databases, books or articles that will help you learn the background of an issue, the jargon of the beat or the personalities. Identify and obtain reports that will help you learn about the beat and its issues.

Check the archives. Read your own paper’s archives (and any competing news organizations’ archives) for general background. And check them again every time you’re pursuing an idea. You’ll get valuable background and context. And you can save yourself from “discovering” a story that’s been covered by every reporter who ever had the beat.

Search online. Find and bookmark websites of agencies and organizations, nationally and locally, that relate to your beat. Click around their sites to see which ones have statistics, databases, background information, discussion groups and the like that might be helpful. If they have searchable databases online, search them and learn what is available. Ponder how you would use this data as the basis for a story. Ponder how you would use the data routinely on stories. Visit the websites occasionally to look for story ideas and sources. If you haven’t visited a website recently, it may have changed, so don’t assume a bad site will stay that way. A revamped site or a new service offered online may be worth a story.

Develop files. Create folders (electronic and paper) to store information on the various issues and organizations you will be covering. File away statistics, reports and studies so you can find them quickly on deadline.

Research social media. Identify Facebook pages, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram accounts and other social media accounts of people and organizations on your beat. You’ll add more as you learn about the beat, but start out by searching the main organizations and people on your beat to see which platforms they use and how they use them. An account that hasn’t posted any updates in weeks won’t be very useful, but an account that regularly tweets out news will be an important one to follow and monitor.

Learn the law. Learn the open meetings and open records laws of your jurisdiction. Know which meetings you can attend and which records you can obtain. Learn how the open records law applies to electronic records. Learn who are the custodians of public records. Develop some rapport with them and let them know you are interested in the records and understand the law.

Get to work

Find some stories to work on quickly. You’ll need to spend some time in reading and source development, but you’ll learn faster if you get right into the beat. Come up with a list of possible stories. They will announce your presence on the beat to potential sources and to interested readers and generate tips for more stories. Reilly noted, “I believe getting stories in the paper is the most important way to establish yourself with your main sources. It is how they will best understand you in terms of your interests, your responsiveness, your trustworthiness and the ground rules you and they will play by. Just sipping coffee and chatting with sources can actually create difficulties if you are not careful and sources get used to you not writing about the stuff they tell you.”

Use each story as a chance for long-range learning. The story itself might be a routine daily piece that you normally could crank out in a couple hours with a couple telephone interviews. Take an extra hour or so. Go to a character’s office. Introduce yourself. Ask questions about the history of this issue and of the organization(s) and people involved. Read up on the context. Research the background of the issue. Identify related upcoming events. Identify related issues that might merit in-depth examination. Identify characters who might merit a newsmaker profile.

Write for readers. Your first responsibility, whatever your new beat, is to tell the story to your readers. Identify the people with the strongest interest and with potential interest in the area or topic. Choose stories of interest and importance to those readers. Keep them in mind as you decide the approach to each story and as you consider ways to present your stories and make them useful to readers.

Write for sources. Especially at first, you’ll need to write some stories for sources. Don’t write anything that won’t be interesting or important for readers, but show your sources that you are responsive. Even if you just write a brief from a tip, you tell sources that you value their suggestions. If a tip doesn’t pan out, get back to the source. Tell him what you learned and that you always want to hear tips, even if the source doesn’t have all the facts. You’ll spend some time debunking false rumors, but you’ll also get some valuable tips. If you ignore bad tips, you won’t get good tips.

Check agendas. Check agendas of meetings of agencies you cover. By identifying in advance the issues that will be addressed, you can write stories about the impact of the agency’s action, which usually is more interesting than the meeting itself.

Cover your tail. Your inexperience on the beat will hamper your news judgment at first. So backstop yourself by running story ideas past your editor. Especially tell your editor what you’re deciding not to write about. Your editor might save you from passing on a big story. Or if you do pass on it, you’ll have company in the doghouse.

Connect with sources

Go “prospecting” regularly. Your editors probably will give you some time as you start on the beat to make the rounds of major players and introduce yourself. Your first few stories will introduce you to a few more. Go further. Make at least one “prospecting” call per week. Arrange to visit someone with an office, agency or organization you haven’t contacted yet. Lunch is often productive, but it’s not necessary, and don’t meet at the restaurant. Visit the office, shop or home, so you can learn the geography, picture the layout and meet other people. Prospecting calls don’t involve a particular story you know about in advance, but try to bring back a story, or at least several tips. You will make a valuable contact for the future.

“Prospect” among the public. Don’t limit your prospecting calls, or any of your reporting, to the official sources and institutions of your beat. How do those officials and institutions interact with the public? Talk to consumers, voters, residents, parents, students, victims, etc. If you have a geographic beat, take an occasional drive to a town or neighborhood you haven’t visited lately. When you see something you don’t know about, stop and talk.

Follow up. After a prospecting visit, an interview or a story, touch base with the source again. Thank her for helping you. Ask what else is going on. Ask if she thought of anything else after you left. Follow up in a variety of ways: e-mail, note cards, phone calls, social media, in person.

Diversify your sources. If most of your sources turn out to be similar to you in race, gender and/or age, perhaps you are subconsciously connecting better with people like yourself. Or perhaps the official structures of the institutions reflect some discrimination. Seek out more diverse sources by contacting rank-and-file employees, people served by the agency, community groups that deal with the agency, groups organized by age, gender or race. Ask the minorities you do encounter whether they truly are that rare in the field you’re covering, or whether you’re looking in the wrong places.

Identify “gatekeepers.” Develop rapport with secretaries, press aides and other “gatekeepers” who control access to important sources. These people can be important sources themselves. At the least, good relations with them are essential at times to contacting the primary sources.

Develop national sources. Identify national experts who can provide perspective on issues or who can place local events in their national context.

Correct errors. If you make errors in print, make sure you correct them promptly. Apologize personally. Errors hurt your credibility, but taking responsibility wins respect.

Get lots of contact points. Business phone number isn’t enough. Get a source’s cell number and home number, if you can. Get the direct after-hours number. Learn about social media accounts and how they use them (and how often).

Make digital contact. Give sources your e-mail address and get theirs. Learn which ones prefer to communicate by e-mail and which open their e-mail once every few weeks. Learn who likes to communicate by text message or by private messages on social media. Learn about list-servs or email newsletters in the field you are covering and see if you can join them or subscribe, to learn about news and to stay in touch with issues and sources. If you’re looking for examples of something, consider sending an e-mail to several sources, asking if they have encountered the situation you’re writing about.

Run out of business cards. Leave business cards with everyone you meet who might be a potential source. Collect their business cards and call them back.

Gather lots of directories. If an organization you cover has a print phone directory or employee directory, get a copy. Or if they have a database of employees, get that, either as a onetime spreadsheet or (ideally) get access to an online database that will always be up to date (or nearly so). At each prospecting stop or each interview for a story, ask if you can get the office phone directory, the annual report and other booklets or spreadsheets that might come in handy.

Connect with colleagues

Learn whether reporters on your beat have an association, Facebook group, list-serv or some other way of connecting. You can learn sources, techniques and story ideas from other reporters. Read coverage of your beat by other news organizations. You can connect by phone or e-mail with reporters addressing the same issues. Or you might connect with colleagues through a more general organization or listserv, such as Investigative Reporters and Editors or the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting.

Some reporter organizations:

Association of Food Journalists

Association of Health Care Journalists

Criminal Justice Journalists

Education Writers Association

National Association of Science Writers:

Religion Newswriters Association

Society of American Business Editors and Writers

Society of American Travel Writers

Society of Environmental Journalists


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