The best plan in the world will fail if you and your staff don’t know how to execute it properly. This is what sometimes happens with newsroom beat systems.
As I wrote previously, a beat is a reporter’s assigned area of coverage. Beats organize news coverage while allowing reporters to become experts in their assigned areas.
Beat systems rely on editors to assign the best reporters to each area and trust that the reporters know what to do with those assignments when they receive them. Problems with beats arise when reporters don’t know how to work them well.
Below are my 15 tips for working your beat.
1. Know a lot
Have you ever heard someone referred to as a “jack of all trades and a master of none”? This cliche sort of describes journalists. Journalists know a little bit about a lot of topics because it’s their job to become quasi-experts on whatever they are covering. They have to do this to master journalism.
To be a “master” journalist, you must be naturally curious and love learning. You need to learn as much as you can about what you’re covering as quickly as possible. The more you know, the better stories you will identify, the more intelligent questions you’ll ask and the more effectively you will serve the public.
2. Understand the area’s background
Get in the archive and research the area you’re assigned to cover. What are the big stories that have happened there? What are important ongoing stories that you’ll need to follow up on? You need to have an idea of the beat’s history and what’s important to the people there now.
3. Know the law
Understand the laws that govern your beat. What information are you legally entitled to and where can you get it? What information should you request but know you may not get because it legally doesn’t belong to the public? Knowing the law in your beat helps establish and build your credibility. It also leads to better stories and, therefore, more advanced coverage for your readers.
4. Meet people
It’s good to spend a day or two in the beginning introducing yourself to people in your beat.
If there is a well-liked reporter leaving that beat, ask him/her to take you out and introduce you to sources. This helps lend you that reporter’s credibility.
If not, take business cards to distribute and just go introduce yourself to key people in your beat.
Don’t ask for anything during these visits. They are just for introductions and the beginning step toward establishing a strong professional relationship.
While it’s impossible to meet everyone in your beat initially, don’t focus solely on meeting the movers and the shakers. People like administrative assistants and the group who gather at the local coffee shop will be some of your best sources of ideas and information. Don’t forget to meet them.
Also, do your best to remember people’s names as you meet them. Here’s why Dale Carnegie said remembering names is so important.
5. Understand expectations
Understand what your editors expect you to produce from your beat. How many stories do they expect and how frequently? What stories are they interested in? What do they consider the most important aspects of your beat? As the old saying goes, “news is whatever the editor thinks it is.” You should at least understand your editor’s expectations of your assignment.
6. Be there
There is no substitute for personal contact with your sources, especially when you are new to a beat. You need to develop relationships with the people who work and live in your beat so they will trust you, rely on you and help you provide important information. Don’t try to work your beat from your office chair. Go out into your beat every chance you get.
Here’s more on why you should leave your desk.
7. Be immediate
Be ready when big news breaks in your beat. Have a sense of urgency and understand when something needs to be covered in person and live.
8. Identify great sources
It won’t take long for you to identify which sources are easy to talk to, readily available, don’t mind being interviewed, and give great information. It’s important to know the strong, quotable sources in your beat because they are key to your coverage success. It’s equally as important not to rely too heavily on them, making it seem as if they are your only sources.
9. Question every story
There will be more stories in your beat than you are able to write. Question the value of writing every story and the cost of not doing so.
Every story you write is another story that won’t get done.
Ask yourself how important each topic is to your readers. If you don’t know, then you need to spend some time getting to know your readers and questioning what they want/expect from you as their reporter.
Also, don’t forget about stories. Just because something doesn’t happen for your immediate deadline doesn’t mean it’s not newsworthy. Keep a running list of story ideas so you’re never without content plans. If something isn’t decided or a question can’t be answered right then, ask the source when you should contact him/her again, mark it on your calendar, then always follow up.
Here’s more on finding story ideas.
10. Get answers
Never let a question go unanswered. Ask a question as many times as you have to until you get an answer or the source outright refuses to answer it. Doing so means your readers never will wonder why you didn’t ask or accuse you of not asking tough questions on purpose.
On a related note, be sure you understand the answers you receive. If you don’t, you need to ask the source to explain his/her answer. It’s unacceptable to end an interview without understanding all of your source’s answers. Stay until you figure out what’s going on.
Never assume that everyone else understands except you. As soon as you do that, your editor will ask you what something means and you’ll look incompetent when you can’t explain it.
Check out these 10 Simple Steps for Stronger Reporting.
11. Do a favor
A quick way to build relationships with sources is to do favors, if you can. I added that “if you can” because you certainly shouldn’t do anything illegal or unethical for a source. But if you can bring them a few extra copies of a newspaper he/she is in, put an item in a calendar listing for his/her or assign a photographer for his/her organization’s positive (but still newsworthy) photo opportunity, you should do so. People will help people who help them.
12. Accentuate the positive
News doesn’t have to be negative. Don’t forget to write about the positive things in your beat. No, your job isn’t to promote the area, but your job is to cover it fully. Sources will resent you if you only contact them when there’s an issue. Every beat has positive, fun stories too. Don’t forget to write them.
13. Protect your sources
If you tell someone you’ll keep information off the record, keep it off. If you promise not to say who told you a piece of information, keep that secret. Sources who trust you are invaluable.
14. Be accurate
It should go without saying but, just in case… be accurate. The people in your beat will shut down and make it extremely difficult for you to do your job if they don’t trust you to get the information correct. Plus, no one wants to be known as the reporter who can’t get it right. Do everything in your power to make sure all of the information you release is accurate, fair and balanced.
Check out these 12 Steps to Building a Credible College Newspaper. They are applicable outside of the university setting as well.
15. Know your role
You spend so much time relationship building in your beat that it can become difficult to report negative things. You will end up reporting something negative about a source who you really like. People will surprise you with the things you do. Remember that your job is to report the news, however inconvenient that information may be. Never dedicate yourself to anything but the truth.
Working a beat well is difficult. The majority of the work you do never is seen by your readers because it includes things like story development, relationship building, time management, and balancing reporting for multiple mediums while still doing in-depth reporting.
Perhaps the best advice for working a beat is to understand that the work never is done. There’s always one more edit that can be done or one more story to be written.
You have to develop an understanding of the people who care about your coverage area and what they need and want from you, then you have to set personal limits.
Do as much as you can to cover your beat to the fullest in the time that you have. Really, that’s all anyone can ask.