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THE BEAT GOES ON
by Deborah Potter

Every reporter in Shreveport, Louisiana, knew the Hollywood Casino was for sale. But only Rich DeMuro of KTAL-TV was able to break the story when Hollywood found a buyer. One evening, after DeMuro had filed a story on West Nile virus, he checked the casino’s Web site. There was the sale announcement, right on the home page. DeMuro quickly confirmed the story and turned a package for the late news that no one else had. “It was scary how easy it was,” he says.

DeMuro didn’t just happen to scan the Internet that night. He did it daily in his role as the station’s gaming reporter, and he credits the station’s beat system for his exclusive. “The reason you can break stories is because you know that things are on the horizon,” DeMuro says. “Then you’re on top of things when they do happen.”

At KTAL-TV every reporter and anchor has at least one beat or area of interest to keep track of. “We have a young staff that for the most part is new to our area,” says news director Sean Kennedy. “Giving each reporter an area on which to focus helps them get acquainted with a new hometown as well as bring us stories.”

Broadcast newsrooms may seem unlikely places for beat systems to flourish, with their relatively small staffs and high turnover rates. But according to a national survey by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, almost two-thirds of local television stations assign at least some reporters full-time to covering beats. Stations where all reporters are on general assignment are now the exception, not the rule. Less than a quarter of the 104 stations surveyed in 2002 said they don’t use beats at all.

Beat-system advocates believe there is no better way to encourage original reporting. ““Without beats, you end up doing stories from faxes, emails, releases, newspapers, phone tips and scanners,” says Raleigh, North Carolina, news director John Harris of WRAL-TV. “You simply won’t break many stories that way, and typically, you won’t get much beyond the surface.”

News directors say a beat structure helps reporters understand issues better, so their stories can provide viewers with more depth and context. “We’re all looking for ways of bringing viewers back,” says news director Tod Pritchard of KITV-TV in Honolulu, Hawaii. “Having quality in our newscasts is the key, and the beat system is a way to get there.”

Health and medicine is the most popular beat in local TV newsrooms, according to the PEJ survey. But more than a third of the stations surveyed have beat reporters covering crime and court stories, and a similar number said they have an education beat. About a quarter of stations have beat reporters covering consumer news and an equal number have a government beat—whether the focus is on city hall, the state house or politics in general.

Like KTAL, which has a gaming reporter to cover the area’s five floating casinos, many stations create beats with specific local issues in mind. In Orlando, Florida, home of Disney World and other theme parks that draw millions of visitors each year, WESH-TV has a transportation and tourism beat. KYW all-news radio in Philadelphia reopened a bureau in the state capital this year, after the city’s former mayor, Ed Rendell, took over as Pennsylvania governor. And KHOU-TV in Houston, with its large Hispanic population, has a bureau in Mexico City.

KYW is one of many stations whose beat system is a hybrid, with both topical beats and geographic coverage areas. “We have people in bureaus [in the city suburbs and South Jersey] because of the logistics of getting around the region,” says Steve Butler, director of news and programming. “In most large cities it’s becoming a bigger problem.”

At WBBH-TV in Fort Myers, FL, three reporters cover the three main counties in the viewing area and the rest cover specific subjects, including airport development and the military. “This has been working so well for us that we are looking at assigning all of our anchors and producers to specific beats to make calls on daily,” says news director Darrel Adams.

Beats are taking root even in the smallest of markets. News director Kristi Wilson of KOAM-TV in Pittsburg, Kansas, market # 145, says reporters who get to know an area deliver more relevant and comprehensive stories. “It also helps when people identify the station with a reporter; they feel more comfortable calling in with ideas and talking to someone they know is knowledgeable about their community.”

Beat reporters say the time they take to build relationships with key sources pays off in better access to information. “I have discovered that police officers, prosecutors and defense attorneys talk to you more if they know you’re interested for the long run and not just a daily turn,” says Anita Malichi, who covers the area north of Indianapolis for WTHR-TV. She says establishing trust with sources helped her break the story of a local church worker accused of child molestation.

Not all news directors believe beat systems can work in today’s fast-paced world of broadcast news, with rotating shifts, multiple deadlines and demands for frequent live shots. “Asking that crew to also have the time to every day check on the things they’re supposed to check on is unrealistic,” says Ellen Crooke of WGRZ-TV in Buffalo, NY. “Our challenge as news directors is to try and come up with different ways to stay on stories, to have consistency on stories.”

The solution at WSB-TV in Atlanta is to encourage reporters to develop what managing editor Mike Dreaden calls “virtual beats.”

“Many of our people have interests in specific areas and have developed good contacts,” he says. “We take advantage of their contacts and ideas and often assign them in these areas.” But Dreaden says the station sticks mainly with a general assignment approach because scheduling makes it almost impossible for one reporter to follow a story or topic area exclusively.

WRAL’s strategy is to assign each reporter multiple topics to track. One reporter covers the Research Triangle, the airport, and technology, as well as an outlying county; another is responsible for keeping tabs on a nearby community, religion and the state board of education. The station even has a kind of vacation relief system to make sure critical beats are covered when the primary reporter is off.

Beat systems are rare in commercial radio, where on average the newsroom staff consists of just one person. While some big market stations like WTOP in Washington, DC, do use a modified beat system, KCBS in San Francisco does not.

“For an all-news radio station, we have to make sure all of our reporters can cover everything,” says news and program director Ed Cavagnero, whose station motto is “All News All the Time.” Reporters at KCBS do specialize in topics like state or local politics, but that’s not all they cover.

Even the biggest supporters of beat systems admit they’re harder to manage than general assignment newsrooms. Reporters need time to work the beat, to make contacts and sniff out stories, and scheduling that time can be difficult. “Every couple of months I’ll pull them off to spend a whole day on the beat, meeting and talking with people,” says Todd Reno of KSVI/KHMT-TV in Billings, MT. “You lose a reporter for a day but it works out in the long run.”

Managers say they also need to monitor the kinds of stories their beat reporters come up with. “Beats can generate stories that are sometimes too ‘inside baseball’,” says KYW’s Butler. “You have to constantly work with reporters to make sure their focus doesn’t get too narrow.”

And beat reporters need to accept the fact that, on occasion, they’ll be asked to cover other stories when the station is short-staffed and there’s a must-do story that day. “Our reporters tend to protect their beats, and that’s good,” says Ed Trauschke, news director at WESH-TV in Orlando, “but it can’t be at the expense of the big story of the day.”

One additional challenge to beat reporting in smaller markets is turnover. “Seems that just as a reporter gets a grasp on a beat, he or she leaves,” says Kennedy of KTAL-TV in Shreveport. “Then it takes time for the newcomer to get up to speed.” To help that process along, Kennedy provides new reporters with a basic contact list and a few days to make get-acquainted visits. Other stations rely on long-time anchors and photographers to share their knowledge, and to show the new hire the ropes.

Carmelyn Daley, news director at WISC-TV in Madison, Wisconsin, has stuck with a beat system even as her staff has shrunk. It’s sometimes a gamble, she says, but the payoff is worth it. “It may not be every day, but I know that we turn stories that the other two stations may not have the opportunity to find.” She says the newsroom’s beat system helps her station keep big stories alive and advance them. Besides, she says, the beat system energizes the newsroom. “A reporter may not mind doing the day after Thanksgiving shopping story because she knows next week she’s got a good story in the hopper that she’s going to be given the time to do.”

“Beat reporting is the only way to go,” says Jacques Natz, news director at WTHR-TV in Indianapolis. “Shops that rely on management and assignment editors for all their ideas are doomed to fail as they will be less in touch with what’s really going on.”

This article was originally published by RTNDA Communicator, April, 2003.


 

 

Page Last Updated
January 15, 2009
 

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