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BEAT REPORTING: MAKING A COMEBACK?
by Deborah Potter

When Springfield, Missouri, was searching for a new school superintendent, one reporter got the scoop everyone wanted: The leading candidate for the job had turned the offer down. John Shields broke the story on KYTV-TV where he's the education reporter, and sat back to watch the other stations and the local paper scramble to catch up. "There are plenty of times we beat the paper," says news director Marci Burdick, who believes her newsroom's beat system gives the station a leg up on the competition. "You're not just reacting. You know what the issues are ahead of the curve."

Beat systems-assigning journalists to cover a specific topic or geographic area-appear to be making inroads in local television newsrooms, which for years have been staffed mainly by general assignment reporters. But there's no one-size-fits-all formula: the systems vary widely, from stations where every reporter is assigned to a beat full time, to those where just a few reporters have approved "areas of interest."

Staff size, news hole, station location, and even the pacing of a station's newscasts all can influence a newsroom's approach. "There is a resurgence," says Bob Freeman, news director at WFIE-TV in Evansville, IN, "but not in traditional beats like cops, courts and city government." While many stations still assign reporters to those areas, others have added what Freeman calls more "modern day" beats, with health and consumer news leading the list.

Many stations' specialties reflect the communities they serve. WFLA-TV in Tampa, FL, for example, has a reporter covering elderly issues, a key demographic group in that area. KSTP-TV in Minneapolis, MN, home of Northwest Airlines, has an aviation beat. And technology is a full-time beat at KVUE-TV in Austin, TX, where high-tech is a leading industry. "It helps our stories have better context and perspective because our reporters are able to become experts in their content area and not have to start at ground zero," says KVUE-TV news director Cathy McFeaters, whose station no longer has any reporters on general assignment.

Beat advocates say the systems free their newsrooms from depending on the wires, scanners and incoming faxes for stories to cover. "Story ideas from reporters interacting with the world outside the newsroom are superior to story ideas dreamt up by my news managers in a windowless conference room," says Dan Rosenheim, news director at KRON-TV in San Francisco, CA. "The problem with implementing [a beat system] is that most days we need all or most of our general assignment reporters to cover a wide range of daily news stories." His solution is to have general assignment reporters develop a sub-specialty, an issue they regularly track, like law enforcement or the environment.

Other news managers employ a beat system to distinguish their coverage from the competition-print, broadcast, and cable. "Beats allow us to be the only ones with the story," says Deb Halpern, assistant news director at WFLA-TV in Tampa, where the competition includes three other commercial stations, an all-news local cable channel and two daily newspapers. The motive is similar in some smaller markets, too. "Having a legal/court reporter separates us from the other stations," says Bruce Cramer, executive producer at KFSN-TV in Fresno, CA. "We're on top of cases."

Another advantage of a beat system is that "sources know where to direct tips so that we don't miss stories," says Andrew Finlayson, news director at KTVU-TV in Oakland, CA. His station's long-time beat reporters on issues like business and politics are promoted in on-air image spots, giving them even more visibility in the community.

Beat systems are rare in radio newsrooms, even at large market all-news stations. One exception is KYW in Philadelphia where most of the station's 11 reporters are assigned to beats, either geographic or topical, including South Jersey, city hall, and criminal justice. "The advantage is when a major story breaks, you have somebody who is up to date," says executive editor Mark Helms, "who can put the story in proper context." But most radio stations simply lack the staff to specialize. All-news stations WBBM-AM and WMAQ-AM in Chicago both cover city hall with a full time reporter "but beyond that it sort of breaks down," says the stations' joint operations manager Georgeann Herbert. "The problem for radio-and it's always been a problem but especially in recent times-is that we have a lot of ground to cover and not enough people."

Television stations with small staffs face the same dilemma. "If you've got people to dedicate, great," says Ed Kral, news director at WAGT-TV in Augusta, GA, market 109, where he has only one full time reporter. "In today's run-and-gun newsrooms we don't have the people to say, 'Go dig, and if you don't come up with anything, that's okay.'"

Staff size isn't the only obstacle to setting up a topical beat system. Some large market stations like KGO-TV in San Francisco and WABC-TV in New York find they can't manage it either. "So many coverage decisions here are also decisions about logistics," says Ken Jobe, assistant news director at WABC-TV. Outside of its consumer and investigative units, WABC-TV has only one full-time reporter who covers a beat-education. "And she normally stays in the city," says Jobe. Reporters in the suburban bureaus tend to cover education stories there, because it's so difficult to get around the sprawling New York metropolitan area.

In central North Carolina, WTVD-TV in Durham has resisted issue beats for a different reason. "I feel like there's a good chance it would cost me in story count," says executive producer Rick Willis, whose station often runs more than 30 tapes in a half-hour newscast. "We are committed to a high story count and a fast pace."

Other news managers see beat systems as too confining. "Having a formal beat system sometimes plugs reporters into specific areas from which they can't escape," says Steve Kraycik, executive producer at WFTS-TV in Tampa, FL, whose station has neither topical nor geographic beats. "We don't like to get locked into a 'system' and then fill our newscasts with stories just because they came from a certain county or a certain 'beat.'" But Jim Kent, news director at WDBJ-TV in Roanoke, VA, sees a clear advantage to geographic beats. "When you cover 25 counties, and a story can be a two-hour drive away," he says, "you need reporters who have done their homework before they hit the road."

"The very fact that we're small is the reason we need beats," says Jim Ogle of WKYT-TV in Lexington, KY. "We need people out there digging up stories." In a market where major spot news is rare, Ogle says, his station's highly structured beat system produces an abundance of original reporting. "It's like being in a buffet line with a full plate. I'll take that problem every day over the 'three people unassigned, what should we do with them' problem."

"Bottom line, it's one more channel to enterprise," says Dave Lougee, news director at KING-TV in Seattle. But he also admits there are hurdles on the way to success. His station produces 37 hours of news per week. With reporters working different shifts, "it's a bit of an awkward dance" to assign them to beats when they may not be able to connect with key sources.

News director Tracye Fox has an unorthodox solution to that problem at WTKR-TV in Norfolk, VA. "Reporters now work when news is happening on their beats. They change their schedules to fit the news." There are sometimes headaches, she says, but overall she's pleased with the results. "We are getting stories the other two stations aren't." Fox says one key to success is providing reporters with regular "beat days" so they have time to develop sources and stories.

The success or failure of a beat system can hinge on how reporters are assigned, says Cheryl Grant, news director at WZZM-TV in Grand Rapids, MI, where the beats include government, diversity, and faith. Reporters, producers and photographers all have beats at the station, which are assigned based on their expressed interest. "We've had a [beat] system forever, but listening to what they want to do is new," Grant says. "Maybe it wasn't working before because people weren't interested."

Experience and ability also matter in assigning reporters to beats. "We choose beat reporters based on expertise in certain areas, or the potential to gain expertise in an area, and on story enterprising skills," says WMAR-TV news director Drew Berry. While his reporters have beats, including city hall and the state capitol, they also turn general assignment stories. "They have to because of dwindling resources," he says. The approach is similar at KYTV-TV. "If I had my druthers, we'd be set up like a newspaper," says news director Burdick. "But I can't do it, with 38 people on staff and 35 counties to cover in two states." Most of her reporters are not assigned to specific issues full time, but they're expected to stay on top of developments and to enterprise stories on their beats at least once a week. The result? "Our coverage is better. We get great content, great news," Burdick says. "What you give up," she says, "is generalized, generic coverage." More and more news directors apparently believe that's a sacrifice worth making.

This article was originally published in RTNDA Communicator magazine, November 1999



 

 

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January 15, 2009
 

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