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by Jessica Karmenzind

In the planning room of WTKR-TV in Norfolk, VA, is the "Enterprise Success Board" -- a place to list exclusive stories broken by WTKR reporters. When I visited the station in mid-January 2000, the most recent entry on the board was dated December 1, 1999 -- not because that's the last time WTKR broke a story, but because they break so many now, they just can't keep up.

According to assistant news director Mike Mather, this phenomenon is a direct result of WTKR's beat system. In the newsroom at WTKR, every reporter has either a geographic or issue-oriented beat. Reporters are required to check their beat everyday -- in person. "The worst thing I can see is reporters in the newsroom. No one ever got a story sitting around the newsroom," explains Mather.

WTKR reporters have taken this wisdom to heart. Rick Holmes, who covers the city of Norfolk, says he begins each day by stopping by the Police Headquarters, the Circuit Court Clerk's office and the Federal Court Clerk's office where he finds "little nuggets" that can turn into great stories. But beats haven't always been the WTKR newsroom gospel.

Two years ago no one in the WTKR newsroom had a beat. That changed when Tracye Fox took over as news director in early 1998. The first thing Fox did upon her arrival was to begin to implement a beat system because it "just makes sense. 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."

Fox hired Mather away from the Virginian Pilot, where he worked as a print reporter for 10 years, because she was tired of chasing his stories on her evening news. She then enlisted Mather to teach her television reporters everything he had learned from covering a newspaper beat. In December of 1999, Mather was promoted to Assistant News Director. One of his duties is to oversee the beat system.

Mather requires a lot of legwork from his reporters. Along with checking their beats each day in person, reporters are required to:

  • Subscribe to and read at least one local newspaper, one trade journal, and four community newsletters that cover their beat

  • Watch at least one local newscast each day in which they do not appear

  • Present to Mather records of newspaper subscriptions and clip files of articles important to their beat each quarter

  • Produce one newsworthy story each quarter using information gained from the Virginia Freedom of Information Act and present all FOIA correspondence to Mather by the end of each quarter

  • Present and pursue at least one story idea per day on their beat, including at least three market-exclusive enterprise stories each week
While it may seem like a tall order, the reporters aren't expected to do this without a little help from management. Fox and Mather grant reporters a "beat day" roughly every two weeks. On a beat day, reporters are relieved from having to turn stories for that day's shows and can use the time to dig in-depth on their beat.

Although at times it can be tough to work with a reduced staff because reporters are out on beat days, the entire staff at WTKR feels the sacrifice is worth it. "The hardest thing as a producer is to want everything now, but you learn that you have to let reporters loose because they're working on a good story on their beat that will pay off for you in the end," says Executive Producer Amy Morris.

Mather sees that pay-off in many ways, but one benefit outweighs all the others. "The best thing about the beat system is that we have stories that will not just carry us through a slow news day, but will give them relevance and context so that people don't turn on the news and get a skewed view of their community."

Fox sees her beat system as an antidote to newscasts full of reporters who do not understand their stories on any more than a superficial level. "Viewers can see through that. TV news is notoriously shallow. The beat system fights against that," she says. Or as Mather put it bluntly when explaining why he would hire a good beat reporter or researcher over someone with more live-shot and on-air experience, "Looking good and speaking well doesn't work when you have nothing to say."

Jessica Karmenzind is a former senior associate at NewsLab

(A version of this article was originally published in the NewsLab Report, Spring 2000)



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