A brand new beat

QUESTION: What are the first things I should do when I start a new beat? Who do I call? What should I read? How do I start?

Answer by Helen Fallding

I believe in the Nike approach to a new beat: Just do it.

Few editors will allow you to spend full days researching your new beat or meeting with key sources – unless that generates immediate stories. Think of a few fairly straightforward stories that will get you into the offices of some key people on your beat. Schedule extra time after the interview to hang around and get to know the person a bit. Ask what issues your media outlet has missed.
On those first few stories, make sure you are relentlessly fair and accurate. That’s what will inspire those sources to call you back with news tips.

If you’re taking over the beat from someone else, sit down with that person and get contact information for key sources. Ask what great story ideas the outgoing reporter always meant to pursue but never had time for. Even if that person was removed from the beat involuntarily, your respect for the former beat reporter’s expertise may win them over.

As you grow in your beat, you will discover for yourself who the chatty sources are who seem to know everything that’s going on in town. Develop ongoing phone relationships with those people, without getting so close that they think you owe them something. Be prepared to turn on a source at a moment’s notice if their bad behaviour warrants coverage.

Personally, I think lunch dates with sources are overrated. For one thing, it’s hard to take notes while trying to eat spaghetti with one hand. Even if the conversation is for background purposes only, you’ll need to scribble down a few notes about things to follow up on later.

Get on the mailing and e-mail lists your sources subscribe to. Most of the contents will be boring, but you’ll be the first reporter to know about the gems that pop up occasionally.

Pick a few key issues in your field that you plan to “own.” Cover every development in that area so thoroughly that the whole city comes to associate your name with the issue. When I took on the health beat at an Ontario paper, the issue-du-jour was hospital mergers. On my rural beat, it was the hog industry and on my science beat the health of Lake Winnipeg took centre stage.

Above all, listen. If you’re at a conference for a quick hit on one speaker, stick around and listen to what people are talking about during the break and drop in on other sessions. You could come back to the office with one story for today and three ideas for next week.

Be open to beat-related assignments from your editors, but keep an ongoing list of fabulous ideas that keep you busy enough even on slow weeks to avoid getting assigned something mediocre.

As your expertise develops, don’t forget that your audience is still coming to each of your stories with little or no background. Avoid slipping into jargon and always explain the context.

Remember, only your mother reads every one of your stories.

Helen Fallding is the Assistant City Editor at the Winnipeg Free Press. For more tools and tips to help you with your new beat, check out the Beat-Specific Tools section of J-Source.