Beat systems do exist in local television news,
but they're still the exception, not the rule. While many stations
have a medical reporter or a consumer reporter, it's rare to find
a station where most reporters are not considered general assignment.
But as one news director puts 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.
- Be clear about your expectations of 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" will
generate multiple story ideas for the future.
- Offer training to beat reporters 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. Consider helping
reporters join journalism groups that can build their expertise,
Reporters and Editors, Society
of Environmental Journalists, Education
Writers Association, Religion
Newswriters Association, and the Association
of Health Care Journalists, among others.
- 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 reporte
rs accountable for being productive by making it part of their
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.