Most reporters don’t just write about anything and everything that pops up on any given day. Instead, they cover a “beat,” which means a specific topic or area.
Typical beats include the cops, courts and city council. More specialized beats can include areas like science and technology, sports or business. And beyond those very broad topics, reporters often cover more specific areas. For instance, a business reporter may cover just computer companies or even one particular firm.
Here are four things you need to do to cover a beat effectively.
Learn Everything You Can
Being a beat reporter means you need to know everything you can about your beat. That means talking to people in the field and doing lots of reading. This can be especially challenging if you’re covering a complex beat like say, science or medicine.
Don’t worry, no one’s expecting you to know everything a doctor or scientist does. But you should have a strong layperson’s command of the subject so that when interviewing someone like a doctor you can ask intelligent questions. Also, when it comes time to write your story, understanding the subject well will make it easier for you to translate it into terms everyone can understand.
Get to Know the Players
If you’re covering a beat you need to know the movers and shakers in the field. So if you’re covering the local police precinct that means getting to know the police chief and as many of the detectives and uniformed officers as possible. If you’re covering a local high-tech company that means making contact with both the top executives as well as some of the rank-and-file employees.
Build Trust, Cultivate Contacts
Beyond just getting to know the people on your beat, you need to develop a level of trust with at least some of them to the point where they become reliable contacts, or sources. Why is this necessary? Because sources can provide you with tips and valuable information for articles. In fact, sources are often where beat reporters start when looking for good stories, the kind that don’t come from press releases. Indeed, a beat reporter without sources is like a baker without dough; he’s got nothing to work with.
A big part of cultivating contacts is just schmoozing with your sources. So ask the police chief how his golf game is coming along. Tell the CEO you like the painting in her office.
And don’t forget clerks and secretaries. They are usually the guardians of important documents and records that can be invaluable for your stories. So chat them up as well.
Remember Your Readers
Reporters who cover a beat for years and develop a strong network of sources sometimes fall into the trap of doing stories that are only of interest to their sources. Their heads have become so immersed in their beat they’ve forgotten what the outside world looks like.
That may not be so bad if you’re writing for a trade publication aimed at workers in a specific industry (say, a magazine for investment analysts). But if you’re writing for a mainstream print or online news outlet always remember that you should be producing stories of interest and import to a general audience.
So when making the rounds of your beat, always ask yourself, “How will this affect my readers? Will they care? Should they care?” If the answer is no, chances are the story’s not worth your time.