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