Turn the Beat Around

If you’re a beat reporter at an American newspaper, when you get to your desk each morning, you know what you’re going to find: Your voice mail is jammed with 14 messages. The mail is stacked a foot high. The faxes cover your chair. And within a half hour, you’ll be pushing aside whatever you had planned to juggle your daily crisis.


In my case, that might be a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that ranks Baltimore No. 1 nationwide in syphilis cases, or a groundbreaking Hopkins’ asthma study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, or the man in the newspaper’s lobby who says his mother’s nursing home has taken away all the bells from patients, so they can’t ring for help.

By lunchtime, I’ll discover a thousand pediatricians are converging on Baltimore for a meeting. My editor is waving at me to come into her office. And I’m straining to hear a woman whispering in the phone. She’s in a local hospital’s AIDS unit, and a male nurse has just raped her.

You are a beat reporter. And you’re the journalistic equivalent of the emergency room. You have too many stories, too little time. I’m not an expert, but a fellow reporter who’s wrestled with beats for 13 years. Like you, I’ve ridden the high of a streak of great stories, those days when my stories are coming in one by one, ripe and ready for the front page. But just as many days, I’ve cranked out two dailies and three digest items, and I’ve come home hungry and frustrated, burned out from the stories I finished, guilty about the ones I never got to.

Like you, I have my list of stories, the great ones that excite me, the ones I plan to do once things settle down. I sometimes catch glimmers that I might be really good. But I also look at my stories sometimes and think they’re junk. I feel the tremendous heft of the material I’m dealing with, and I wonder if I’m doing my beat justice.


I became a beat reporter by accident. Out of college, I worked for the Associated Press in Philadelphia and then the Spartanburg Herald-Journal in South Carolina. When I headed west to work a night GA shift at The Sacramento Bee, I was informed my first day on the job that I’d be working night cops instead. I was upset. I didn’t want to be a beat reporter. I distinctly remember thinking: I don’t know how to be a beat reporter.

It didn’t take me long to learn the list of cop numbers by heart and turn into a hard-charging, story-cranking machine. But it’s taken me years to see the big picture. That’s what I want to discuss: how to handle your beat. You’re not like other reporters, who are focused on one story at a time. The beat reporter is a cook creating a five-course French meal. You’re a farmer growing crops in every field. You’re the maestro conducting your own symphony. For every story you create, there are five others you’re tracking, 10 wacky calls — and as many as 20 other potential stories you had to let go.

Much of the work of the great beat reporter doesn’t show up in the paper. A lot of your work isn’t the stories, but everything around those stories: how you handle your time, develop sources, balance long vs. short pieces, deal with your editors, your own perfectionism and thorny newsroom issues such as “cherry-picking.” How you deal with these five crucial issues is a big factor in how successful you’ll be.



Chapter One: Time


This is perhaps your greatest challenge.


You never have enough. There’s always another call, another medical journal, another city council meeting. Early on, it does help to take all this in. Go to as many meetings as you can, read as much as you can, meet as many people as you can. Every story will lead you to two more and help build sources. Doing these stories helps you build credibility and develop the facility to write about your beat. Even the stories you complain about having to do, you’ll almost always wind up learning something from.

In many ways, the volume is a blessing. During the holidays or a slow week, when other reporters are struggling to find something interesting to work on, you can pick from among many stories. In fact, when you are a beat reporter, the kingdom of journalism is at your feet: investigative pieces, features, profiles, news analyses. It’s all there for the taking.

But working too hard for too many days will lead to burnout. At The Sacramento Bee, I remember feeling so busy that I couldn’t leave the newsroom to walk one floor up to the well-stocked cafeteria. I was living on Diet Cokes and Snickers bars. I toted the police scanner in the bathroom with me. I even landed in the cardiac unit twice.

And if you stay at a frenetic, cranking pace all the time, you’ll never free yourself to do the great pieces everyone will remember. You are a farmer, but one field should be left fallow. What an editor deletes from a story is sometimes as important as what he or she leaves in. The same goes for you: what you choose to let go of can be as important as the stories you go after. These are among your toughest decisions. It helps to articulate a vision for your beat. As a health reporter in Sacramento, I honed in on the changes shaking the country’s health care system, and I let go of many of the stories that didn’t fit into that theme.

So you must be decisive. Be organized, and be ruthless. You have to learn to quickly sift through that voice mail and all the potential stories on your desk, otherwise, all your time to do other stories will get swallowed up. It may go against every cell in your body, but you have to acknowledge up front that you won’t get to many of the stories on your beat. This isn’t like college or other jobs you’ve had, where you tackled and finished all the work. This is a new country, where the clock is ticking. Your time is limited.



Chapter Two: Sources


When the federal government shut down human subject research at Johns Hopkins Hospital several weeks ago, and employees were told not to talk to the press, the other health reporter at The Sun, Jonathan Bor and I, had to have the names and home numbers of Hopkins doctors who would comment. Those moments come for every beat reporter, and they’re often after normal business hours. But we have to remember that sources aren’t just for an emergency, or for the big investigative story.


Everyone on your beat should be a source. From the health commissioner to secretaries, these people keep you up on top of what’s happening. They help you see the big picture in a confusing study. They will get on the phone on a busy day to give you a quote. Take good care of them. Stay in touch with them. Look for the people who love gossip and newspapers, the ones who will warn you off a non-story. I found one police officer in Sacramento like that, who circulated in many divisions of the department. He tipped me off to shake-ups, compelling deaths, and other stories.

But when I first arrived in Sacramento, the situation on the police beat was raw. Many of the officers considered The Bee a liberal rag. They didn’t like us, and they thought our stories were inaccurate. Some officers proudly told me they hadn’t read the paper since the 1950s. Meanwhile, in the newsroom, I was told that the night cop reporter basically made calls from the office and filed briefs. You babysat the city at night and paid your dues until you could move to a “real” job.

What would you do?

I knocked on the door. I asked the night watch captain if I could talk with him. The police weren’t used to seeing reporters around at night. They were suspicious of me. They complained about the paper. I used that to my advantage, presenting myself as a new reporter. I wasn’t involved in past coverage. I wanted to be fair. I wanted to get to know them. I asked them what stories we had missed.

That first night, I ended up eating dinner with the watch captain. Over time, I started getting into the police station. Gradually, I spent more and more time there, until I would spend almost entire shifts there. It took months. The few cops who spoke with me were looked down upon. Some walked by me and never said a word. Some nights, I stood outside the station, buzzing the intercom, hoping someone would let me in. It was dark and cold, but I didn’t leave. I figured some cop would walk by and take pity on me and let me in.

Gradually, detectives started to talk to me at crime scenes. They were quoted accurately in stories. They saw that I was willing to write about the good and the bad. They started to tell me about things ahead of time. Soon enough, I was trading information with them, and they were taking me behind the crime scene tape to get a look at a decomposed body.



The gift of the beat: getting up close


Once you have that credibility and respect, you can move in for the bigger stories, the untold stories, the ones everyone will remember. This is the gift of the beat. By working in an area long enough, you can develop enough trust to get special access. After a year on the cop beat, for instance, I got permission to ride with the narcotics officers for three months. And when “Hopkins 24/7,” the ABC documentary, had about 25 producers filming in every unit of the hospital, I was in the one place they were barred: the child psych unit.


This is a wonderful place to be. Special access is the place where no other reporters are. You’re in another country, an unexplored territory. And you can get there, if you’re patient. One night on deadline, my editor kept staring at a sentence in my story. It said that hundreds of elderly Marylanders were still caring for their now middle-aged disabled children. She pointed to it on the screen and said, “Go find one of those families and do a story on them.” It took four months and dozens of calls to locate the one family who would let me in, but once they did, the story was beautiful.

The great thing about these stories is you can work them while doing your other stories. The first rule is to never accept a “no.” I don’t care what the barrier is — danger, patient confidentiality, or simply that they’ve never had any reporter there before. I don’t care what it is; you can almost always work around it. You just have to be willing to work with them and try every angle.

Take the story I did last year in the Hopkins pediatric emergency room. I got a call that children with psychiatric problems were overwhelming the emergency department. The numbers were doubling at Hopkins, the University of Maryland Medical Center, and, as it turned out, hospitals across the country. Young psychiatric residents were on call all night, trying to handle these troubled children. I knew the only way to do the story was to get inside that emergency room.

But I was dealing with a double layer of confidentiality — not only was the story about children, but their problems were psychiatric. So I started with one meeting. I said I just wanted to talk about doing a story. I didn’t expect them to agree to everything at once. I asked for something simple first. I let them get to know me. I met with everyone they wanted me to meet with. Finally, they agreed that I could follow a resident for one night. No camera, no children identified.

On the appointed day, I showed up at 5 p.m. to meet the psychiatric resident. By 6 a.m., she saw how committed I was to the story, and she asked if I wanted to follow her another night. That’s what happens, once you’re inside. They see you’re not Hard Copy. They see you care. Soon, you’re going several nights, and they agree to have a photographer. That work turned into an award-winning, 100-inch, two-page story, with photos, and everyone identified.

Extraordinary stories take extraordinary means.

In sensitive stories, you have to be patient and be willing to calm people until the end. The Friday before the ER story ran, one of the Hopkins officials called me several times, upset about how Hopkins might look, trying to get its lawyers to block us from publishing. Also that week, I drove to every house and visited every family, read them the details on their child, in some cases showed a photo, explaining again this will be on the front page, even how big the pictures might appear. When people are in a vulnerable situation, and they have agreed to be in your story, make sure they understand. Double-check the details. Do right by them.

How you conduct yourself goes to the heart of how well you do. Realize that you are your own product, your own brand. When you’re a reporter, your name is all you have. Do you want to be like Southwest Airlines, which is known as fun and efficient, or the airline that everyone hates? Are you the reporter who thinks he knows the story ahead of time, who forces the details into a preconceived mold, or do you listen to the people you’re interviewing? Are you the reporter who confirms all the worst stereotypes about our business, or are you the one who surprises people with your honesty, integrity, and passion?

Don’t think for a minute that the public doesn’t quickly figure out which category you’re in and deal with you accordingly. We like to think we find out about things through paper trails and computer databases. In reality, for so many stories, we’re dependent on people, people who have come to like us, who know we’ll be accurate and fair and human.


Chapter Three: Balancing Long and Short Stories


It’s easy to get lost in your beat. From education to crime to medicine, there’s always a steady stream of stories. These dailies and shorter stories count: they build up your sources, they help you develop the skill of writing about your beat, they make you better qualified to write the bigger stories — and they often lead you to them. But you have to be careful: You could crank out pieces forever and not think much about longer stories. Except for my narcotics series, while I was on the police beat at The Bee, I didn’t step back and look at what I was doing. That’s my advice for you. Just as in life, you have to occasionally stop what you’re doing and look around. Where are you? What track are you on? What’s on the horizon?

Most of us know the enterprise story we want to do. We were working on another story when we discovered it. We drove back to the newsroom a little faster than usual. We excitedly told our editor. Maybe we started a folder. We did a little research. Then we took the fatal step: We put that story on our budget list. Too often, the story dies there.

This is my image of what happens: You’re driving on a hot desert road in the Southwest. It’s nearing noon and pushing 100 degrees. You’re hungry, thirsty, out of gas. You’re the reporter who’s been cranking out the complicated stories that no one cares about, the must-do stories that are killing you, but you feel like they are getting you nowhere. Suddenly, you see a great story. It’s like coming upon a beautiful gas station on that desert road. It’s well stocked, with clean bathrooms, even a Pizza Hut attached. You want to rest, eat, stay awhile.

But then a daily comes up. Your editor asks you to go back down the road a little way and do that one story. It’s only a few calls, a few hours, a few days. You can go back to the gas station soon. But then another story comes up, and you go even farther down that road, away from the gas station. Then another story shows up. Soon, you’re so far away, you can barely make out that gas station, that story. Then one day, a few years later, you’ll see that story on the front page of a major newspaper. And you’ll wave to it. “Hi, story! Bye, story! Good to see you!”

It’s easy to say it’s everyone else’s fault: that you have too much work, too little time, that your editors are giving everyone else but you those wonderful clear weeks for projects. I used to do that.

About a year after I got to The Sun, I was upset about not doing some longer pieces, and I talked to the then-managing editor, Bill Marimow. He asked for budget lines. I brought him three. His response was: “These are great. Which order do you want to do them in?”

Do you know what happened? I walked back to my desk and the phone rang, and I got tied up in something else. I got swallowed, dragged down into the muck and mud of the dailies, the Medicaid nightmare, the all-important Hopkins study, all the stories you have to do, or you think you have to do. I felt too responsible for them. I didn’t stop to think: Do I have to write this story today? Could I wait until we know more? Could a general assignment reporter cover it? Could I brief it? I didn’t follow up on those three stories. I wrongly thought I’d get to them next week, or next month.

For a long time, I had the illusion that just over the next hill, in a few weeks, in a few months, I’d reach a clearing, a calm, beautiful oasis where no dailies could find me. I don’t know how many times I’ve told sources or people calling that just after I finished these next few stories, I’d have time, things would calm down. But I am here today to tell you that you will never reach that clearing. I don’t think there is one.

But every once in a while, there is a quiet morning, or a few hours when you can’t get anywhere on your current story, and you can use that time to make calls on your longer one. Hoard that time. Take charge. Secretly, do a little here and a little there, until you’ve built up enough to say to your editor, “This is what I have. Give me two weeks, and I’ll give you a great 60-inch story.”

Don’t complain about the stories you never get to. Get to them, at least a little bit at a time, so you can convince your editor to give you more time. Don’t be like all the other reporters, lining up to complain that they never get to do a long story. You have your project, and it’s partly reported. All you have to do is finish it!

The other thing that you must do, again, is be ruthless. Look at your stories. What are the best ones on your list? Why aren’t you doing those right now? Often, on your beat, you get to know lots of people well, and they can sometimes guilt you into thinking you must do this or that story. But you don’t owe any agency or any hospital or anyone a story — even if it’s a good feature that will land on the front page.

You owe the readers great stories. That’s it.

Think of the clothes in your closet, or your friends, or most things in life: it often boils down to a few that you truly like, your favorites. When you’re getting overwhelmed, consider which stories you would do if you could only do three more stories in your life.

I recently did this. I’d missed time from work because of medical problems, so my mental backpack of guilt and stories was huge — ones I hadn’t finished before I left, plus all the ones that stacked up while I was gone. I had this list of ones I felt I had to do. But one day, I just stopped. I thought about all the stories on my desk. Then I selected the best ones and went after them.


Chapter Four: The Newsroom



Getting time with your editor


Every reporter needs to realize that this is a problem at almost every paper in the country. Wherever you go, you’ll face this issue. So you have to find your own solutions. Wait in line to talk with your editor. Interrupt him or her. Try to make a weekly appointment. Learn your editor’s habits, and find out the best time to approach him. Get the editor to the cafeteria, or walk somewhere to lunch. When you do get time with that editor, be prepared, have a laundry list of everything you need to run by him, and be efficient about it. But don’t edit yourself so much that you’re not talking about stories the way you need to.


If you’re getting nowhere with your immediate editor, seek out someone else in the newsroom. Go to a reporter or another editor. I once found a wire editor a great source for brainstorming and talking about ideas. Whatever you do, make sure you’re talking with someone. Some of the most crucial editing happens in the reporting phase, long before you ever begin to write your story.



Dealing with other reporters


Don’t pay attention to what other reporters are doing.


As a beat reporter, you will be furiously working away, and you’ll look across the newsroom and see other reporters taking long lunches. You’ll see others getting months and months for a long project, when you can’t even get three weeks for a story you believe is just as strong. You’re better off not looking at that, not thinking about that, not comparing yourself to others. Your best defense is a good offense: Do your own good stories. You can’t worry about what others are doing.

But anyone who’s been on a big beat will soon discover that other reporters are going to do some of your stories. They will sometimes cherry-pick. The worst situation is an editor saying this: “Oh, you have to write 10 briefs and three dailies, so you can’t do this big great Sunday story. We’ll give it to this other reporter.” Again, make sure you’re quietly working on your own great Sunday story. If the story being given to another reporter is one you really want, make an argument why you should do it, and prove you can clear your decks and get it done. Do some reporting so it seems you’re already halfway into it.

You need to keep in mind, though, that you’ll never be able to do all the stories you want to do. Think of all the stories on your budget list you’ve never even started. Ask yourself: What is best for the paper? If a story needs to get in, and you can’t do it, make sure someone else does it. Don’t begrudge the other reporter. Don’t be one of those reporters whose heart is shrunken into a seed by jealousy and bitterness.

My old editor, Gregory Favre, used to tell me, “You can’t do it all, kid.” And he was right. All you can do is your own good stories, one at a time.



Perfectionism


Most us are conscientious. We’re used to finishing every job we’re assigned. But working a beat, you have to learn that you’ll never finish it. At some point on the health beat, I realized that I could stay 24 hours a day, and I would never finish all the stories I wanted to do. I also realized that the paper wouldn’t have room to run them all anyway. But it’s hard to walk away. It’s difficult to take that psychic burden of all the undone stories off your shoulders and let go of the guilt. But you have to, for your sanity, for your life. If you can’t do it for those reasons, do it for your career. When I finished the story on the children with psychiatric problems in the emergency room, I was so worried about the stories that had stacked up, that I felt compelled to rush and do those. I didn’t do a follow-up on the ER piece.


I like to believe that for every story you don’t get to, there are always two or three others coming right at you. Think of the I Love Lucy episode, in which Lucy struggles to eat the chocolates in the candy factory. There are too many for her to stuff in her mouth. Or consider the analogy used by a character from HBO’s Sex in the City, comparing men to taxi cabs: if you miss one, no problem, because there’s another one right behind it.



Burnout


Too many reporters wait until they are so fed up and fried that they’re on the verge of quitting. I urge you to stop before you get to that point. Think of the philosophy of a savings account. You have to pay yourself along the way, or you’ll never make it. Take care of yourself along the way. If things are slow one day on your beat, go slow yourself, clean off your desk, update your phone numbers, go through files, and trash the stuff you’re never going to use. Go to lunch outside the newsroom with colleagues you haven’t talked to in awhile. When I left The Bee, a reporter walked up to me and said, “I think you’re one of the nicest people in the newsroom, and I wish we could have gotten to know each other, but you always seemed so busy, I didn’t want to interrupt you.”


Take a mental health day. Go to bars with other reporters. Build vacations into your schedule. Go on fellowships. Get a master’s degree. Look up some of your old stories and read them. Make sure there are a few people in your newsroom you can go to for a morale booster. Every once in a while, you just need to flop down in a chair, spill your guts, and get a little encouragement. And when you’re really feeling bad about your job, I propose this quick fix: grab your notebook, get out of the newsroom and go interview someone. I promise you’ll feel better.



The diamonds on your desk


Lastly, I want to say something about inspiration.


Even when you love it, when you’re cranking out great stories, this is a burnout profession. Just when you’re ready to leave for the night, a crow with West Nile Virus falls dead in the Inner Harbor. Just when you’ve cleared a day to work on your weekender, Cal Ripken has back surgery. On Thanksgiving, your family is home together, and you’re at the office vending machine, choosing between Snickers and Reese’s peanut butter cups. A lot of times people don’t like you. You doubt yourself. You think you’re not doing enough. You think your writing is awful, that you’ve gone downhill. But before you get so demoralized that you’re ready to quit, before you’ve planned your next career, think back.

Can you remember the interviews when, all in one moment, you got it? When the connections are all made, and it seems the person is talking to you in slow motion? When you know with every cell in your body, that this story is important, and that you are going to write it right onto the front page?

Have you come back, hot and sweaty in the summer, to the air-conditioned newsroom and opened your notebook, gently, like it was full of jewels you were free to arrange on the page? Have you been so absorbed in your story that you couldn’t hear the photo editor shouting right next to you?

Have you ever driven back from an interview so moved by someone’s words that you dare not turn on the car radio, for fear you’d break the stillness, lose the sacredness of the world that person has brought you into?

Do you still remember the stench of the woman dying of melanoma, and the husband who loved her so much that he still slept beside her every night? Can you still hear the brain tumor patient, who was brave enough to giggle in the MRI machine? Do you remember the 93-year-old woman who’d been brutally beaten, and how she managed to grasp your hand so tightly?

You carry those moments with you, and somewhere else, a reader does. In someone’s home, your story is laminated in a photo album, or framed and hung on a wall. For years, they will remember the day you came and interviewed them.


Your stories may not turn out how you’d hoped. I always see them in my mind’s eye, beautiful and shimmering and whole; once they’re finished, they often seem like a piece of crude pottery. Maybe every story doesn’t spark a great change, but we’re the ones who are showing people a sliver of worlds they would otherwise never see — how hard a teacher works, why a teenager joins a gang, or maybe something as simple as not making assumptions about a misbehaving boy in a restaurant.

I will always remember the winter night a mother stood in her doorway, tears in her eyes, saying to me, “You tell them. You tell people it’s not Michael’s fault. We tried to discipline him. Mental illness is like any other illness. Maybe now people will understand.”

Maybe now people will understand.

Don’t dismiss the power of one story. Don’t let all the tough things about your job cover over the diamonds on your desk. If you see stories everywhere you go, if you connect with people, if you care, take heart and follow your instincts.

And when you get back to your desk tomorrow morning, after you clear out the phone messages and scan through the faxes, dig out that great story you’ve wanted to do — and go for it.



Diana Sugg has worked as a health reporter for The Sun in Baltimore, Md. for the past six years. She has also worked at The Sacramento Bee, the Herald-Journal in Spartanburg, S.C., and the Associated Press in Philadelphia. She was recently named to Poynter’s National Advisory Board.

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