Wick Communications

Circling back on your beat

In Writing techniques on February 17, 2012 at 9:32 am

For some reason, this week I’ve been thinking about beat reporting.

When I broke into the business, nearly every cub reporter was given a beat. Usually, it was something fairly mundane and inexact, like “city hall,” or “high school sports.” Constrained by our own imaginations and living in a land that held no Internet capable of feeding bigger dreams, we longed to one day have a better beat, like “national politics” or “the statehouse.” We always thought bigger beats were better for some reason, though I now know that isn’t true at all.

We were coached on these beats. We learned to contact sources on our beats regularly, even daily. I doubt there was a day I didn’t contact members of the city council and county commission when I had those beats as a young reporter. We actively cultivated the confidence of secretaries, janitors and anyone else who might slide us information that policymakers might want to hide. It was fun and it was competitive. Working for a daily newspaper in Florida, I learned to rifle the mail sent to public officials. I stood around the halls of government just hoping to overhear something I could later confirm. There were consequences for being second with a story.

I don’t get the sense that we cover beats like we used to.

One reason is that, as newsrooms have shrunk, each of us has more responsibilities. We can’t afford to hang out in City Hall in hopes that we hear something juicy. Then there is the new lack of competition. We don’t worry so much about being beaten on our beats now that there are fewer reporters at city hall and in the statehouse. …

I also think something more insidious is at work. I think we have come to value celebrity tales, news of the weird and all the things that are more likely to get us online clicks than stories that hold elected leaders accountable. One consequence is that we don’t follow through. We write about that drive to get a stop sign in the neighborhood after a kid is hit by a car, but we don’t write about what happened – or didn’t happen – two months later. We don’t make sure the school principal adds the extra elective that she promised in a story in September.

If you have a beat, here’s what I would like you to do. Search for a relevant term in your online archives. Search for your name so that it calls up everything under your byline. Have you ever done that? Find something you have written about in the last year, something from your beat, and return to it. Find out what became of that public promise.

While you are at it, rediscover your beat.

Clay

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