Wick Communications

Getting the beat down

In Management on September 7, 2012 at 7:53 am

For some reason, several of us have been talking about newspaper beats this week.

It used to be that a beat was a sort of shackle. You could no more wander off your cops beat to write a concert review than you could play a concerto on a kazoo. Newspapers had greater formality in their organizational structure in the old days. Writers were territorial. Covering a beat implied some special expertise and only the newspaper expert dared tackle the subject at hand, be it municipal finance or high school football.

Well, those days are largely over and that is one of several things that have changed for the better. Today, most Kicker readers are true general assignment reporters.

That said, beats are still important. That’s because someone has to keep an eye on the cop shop, city hall and other particular areas of interest. It’s important that someone is responsible for checking the meeting agendas, getting the arrest log and other mundane aspects of covering the news. One of the reasons newspapers are the best way to stay informed is their tradition of covering the news every day and that requires beat coverage. Moreover, many good stories – stories that go beyond meetings — come from beat coverage.

So most of us organize our newsrooms around beats even if we know that “other duties as assigned” are assigned regularly and outside of beats.

There are several challenges that come with assigning beats. Here are a couple of them. …

  • They must tickle a writer’s interest. There is little benefit assigning someone who has never seen a football game to cover your football beat. Similarly, some folks are just not suited to covering crime. I wouldn’t try to force beats that just make no sense.
  • They must not focus on process. If you call a beat “city hall,” invariably, reporters will come back with stories about city hall. They will be populated with officials and peppered with the jargon of the beast. Sometimes the name of the beat is symbolically important. If you are told to cover “cops” you have a different perception of your job than if you are told to cover “public safety,” which might include school crossing guards, speed limits, identity theft and other trends as well as crime. You want reporters to cover an array of sources and not simply “officials.” Make the beat nomenclature reflect that aspiration.
  • They must not lead to chummy behavior. Sometimes we get too good at our beats. We are a little too friendly with the mayor or the police chief and that relationship precludes us from writing things we know will tick them off. I recommend changing beats every couple of years so that the news and usual sources don’t grow stale, and so that your reporters don’t grow too close to power brokers.

Clay

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