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: