When I was in college (Yes, they had colleges back then.), I covered a lifestyles beat that included everything from nightlife to campus Greek organizations. As a professional journalist, I mostly covered hard news beats based on geography, which meant writing about city and county governments, cops, courts, and fire. I occasionally covered a light-hearted feature, but hard news really is my expertise.
A beat is a reporter’s assigned area of coverage. Beats help to organize the newsroom, allowing reporters to be “everywhere” for the public by ensuring that ample attention is given to each area of coverage. They also allow reporters to become experts in their coverage areas, identifying stories that best serve their audiences and developing trusted, reliable sources.
The beats in our student newsroom mostly revolved around the various schools on campus, student life, administration, student government, etc. Then, after a while, the beat system just sorta evaporated. I’m not sure if this was because some beats were less popular with student journalists than others, because the staff grew too small for all beats to be covered, or if it was some other reason all together.
The truth is that it doesn’t really matter why the beat system disappeared. What matters is that it needs to come back.
I recently asked a group of collegiate media advisers if the news staffs they oversee use beat systems. Every adviser who responded said their staffs used beat systems and that they worked really well.
Collegiate newsrooms often are chaotic, stressful, unorganized places. Students run in and out of the newsroom, trying to cover the campus community between classes, homework and some semblance of social lives. Student journalists need the organization that beat systems create. They allow each student journalist to know which area of campus he or she is responsible for. They help the journalist know where their story ideas should originate (not that they would ignore passing on story ideas from other parts of campus). Beats don’t mean that an individual journalist has to cover every story that comes out of his or her area (some areas produce more news than one reporter can cover), but he or she should get “first dibs” on the stories originating in that area.
The bottom line is that beats are critical in college newsrooms because they allow more organized student reporters to better serve their audiences.
I think it’s time to bring our beat system back. I’d love to hear from you.