Covering a Beat

By Bob Keeler

Story ideas flow from many places. Some walk through the door on their own, but they’re not always there when you want them. What you need is a regular stream of story ideas. The “beat” system can provide them.

A beat is an area that a reporter covers. It can be a geographical beat, such as a town, county or city. It can also be a subject beat, such as prisons, fashion, religion, environment and many others.

Covering the university for one of its papers can involve such beats as research, the arts, student life, buildings and grounds, dorm life, campus police, commuters, administration, Student Union, University Hospital and many others.

The reporter’s job is to establish good sources on the beat, to check with them frequently and to know what’s happening on the beat.

Sources are the people who make the decisions or have the knowledge on your beat, from individual campus policemen to residential assistants. To be a good reporter, you have to spend time developing sources. Here are tips:

Get Out There: Talk every week to people on your beat, in person or by telephone, but remember that nothing beats talking face-to-face. As you talk to people, constantly find out names of other potential sources.

Keep Track: As you make new sources, keep their phone numbers in an orderly system, because you will be talking to them again and again. A small three-ring binder, organized alphabetically, works well. Get home numbers and double-check spellings and titles.

The Who: Figure out which sources consistently know what’s happening. Cultivate them. Know who has a motivation to talk with you. Know what the motivation is. Know something about sources personally. Have real conversations with them. Treat them with courtesy and sensitivity. Don’t just make sources at an organization’s top level. Cultivate them at every level.

Back and Forth: Share with sources some of what you’re learning in reporting out the story. This gives them a chance to clarify what you think you know from the other sources. It also makes it a two-way relationship.

Trust and Credibility: Keep your promises. If you tell a source that you won’t attribute a piece of information or a quote to her, do as you promised. A source betrayed is a source lost. Nothing builds sources as well as consistently accurate, fair stories and kept promises. Use multiple sources. Don’t settle for one-source stories.

Question Authority: Don’t judge reliability based on title or power. Remember: Presidents sometimes lie.

Setting Priorities: Once you find out what’s happening on your beat, the trick is to know which stories need attention immediately and what can wait for a few weeks, if necessary. Set priorities accordingly.

Managing Your Editor: Make sure that the ideas for covering the beat come mostly from you. An editor’s ideas aren’t necessarily superior to a reporter’s. Try to give your editor a note every week, telling her what you are working on that week and what you plan to be working on for the next few weeks. This can be a good planning tool. Use it.

Robert F. Keeler is a former editorial writer for Newsday. Keeler won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for a year-long series of stories about a Catholic parish on Long Island.