It’s hard to sustain a beat system in a short-staffed newsroom and even harder to build one from scratch. While many TV stations still have a medical reporter or a consumer reporter, it’s rare to find a station these days where most reporters are not considered general assignment.
But as one news director put it, “Unless you want reporters spoon-fed by the assignment desk and existing on a diet of breaking news, planned events and newspaper stories, you have to go to a beat system.” The question is, how?
Here are some tips and suggestions for building a beat system in your newsroom.
* Decide what kinds of beats will work best in your area. Stations that cover large geographic areas often arrange beats by location. This can make logistics simpler but it effectively means you still have general assignment reporters, they just cover less ground. Topical beats allow reporters to develop some expertise so they can add context to stories and compare how different communities in your area deal with similar situations.
* Establish what beats you will cover. Consider what matters most in your community, who the major employers are, where the money comes from and where it goes. Traditional beats include education, health, business, government/politics, crime/courts. Other beats stations are covering include the environment, technology, transportation, growth/sprawl, aging, faith/values, arts/culture. Think broadly about what topics might fall under each beat.
* Assign beats by matching the interests and skills of your staff with the requirements for covering different topics. In some newsrooms, reporters aren’t the only ones assigned to beats. Producers, desk editors, and photographers can track developments in specific interest areas.
* Set expectations for beat reporters. Beat reporters generally are expected to track issues in their specialty and to turn beat stories daily. If you plan for reporters to continue working general assignment, but you expect them to stay on top of developments in specific topic areas, being clear about that from the start can avoid a lot of frustration.
* You may want to adjust newsroom routines to accommodate a beat structure. Some stations do not expect beat reporters to attend the morning meeting in person. Instead, they begin the day by checking in on their beat (stopping by the courthouse, for example) and have a scheduled time to call into the meeting to discuss the stories of the day.
* Help reporters become experts by suggesting ways they can build expertise. Insist that they read widely–not just newspapers and magazines but trade journals and Internet interest groups. They should get on the mailing list for government and private organizations involved in their beat. And they should use the Freedom of Information Act regularly.
* Support beat reporters by giving them time to develop stories. This could be as little as one day per quarter when they are not expected to turn a story that they can devote to working the beat. Once a month would be better–time for a reporter to meet sources in person, check documents, and generally troll for ideas and information. Each “beat day” should generate multiple story ideas for the future.
* Offer training to beat journalists to improve their skills. Especially useful is training in working with databases, but you may also want to offer training on how to file a FOIA request, where to go to check records, and so on. Point reporters to journalism groups that can build their expertise, like Investigative Reporters and Editors, Society of Environmental Journalists, Education Writers Association, Religion Newswriters Association, the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, and the Association of Health Care Journalists, among others. Make sure they know about online training programs like NewsU. Consider helping reporters cover the cost.
* Reward beat reporters for breaking news on their beats. Some stations offer time off, others provide gift certificates or even silly trophies. The point is to make clear that this work is valued. At the same time, hold beat reporters accountable for being productive by making it part of their performance evaluation.
An additional resource that may be useful is the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s planning sheet for developing a new beat. While it was created for use by a newspaper, it could easily be adapted by a television newsroom.