Anatomy of a Beat Memo

By Richard Kipling
Editor, Orange County Edition
Los Angeles Times


I know we're all juggling mightily these days, but it has come to my attention that some may be unclear about the purpose beat memos serve - why they're important, what they should contain, who they are for and who reads them and evaluates them.
Beat memos are a simple tool that, taken advantage of, can make all of our lives easier - and smarter. This is what I mean --

Beat memos are not afterthoughts; in fact, they are forethoughts. They are documents that serve several critical purposes:
*** they help you organize your week and prioritize work time;
*** they help your editor know what you and your colleagues are working on, what the status of a story is, and they stake a claim to a story.
*** they help editors survey who is available for what duty when and at what editorial cost.
*** they help editors head off possible conflicts and work duplication.

These documents are read by editors - several editors - in LA, including Miriam Pawel.  They are, in effect, advertisements of your work and your work ethic; a chance for you to show the ORA desk, me and LA editors how you work and what you consider worth working on. It is a direct communication between you and editors.

A few suggestions:
** turn these relatively simple documents in on time. This will help your editor plan the week.
** short term (this week)/long term (everything else) is a useful way to organize your beat memo.
** provide detail about each day's plans -- the phrase "working Monday night shift" or "pursuing loan shark story" is not good enough. Let the editor know that you're calling and lunching and interviewing sources.
** explain the context of your listed activities. "following city council candidate jones" is not sufficient. WHY are you following jones?
** assume NO prior knowledge of a story by your beat memo reader. when referring to a story, provide a holding skedline. "working on JONES" or "checking status of JONES bill" is not an adequate description. even your editor may not remember what that story is, and, as I indicated, others even further removed are reading your beat memo.
** advertise more than one story idea or working story on your list. all of you presumably are pursuing several stories at once. You can work with your editor to prioritize them.

All of this does not mean you should disgorge confidential sources by naming names, time and place in your beat memo. It does mean you should keep your editors and other need-to-know people informed about your work.

Thank you.


  • Profile picture for user chipscan

    Chip Scanlan

    Chip Scanlan is an affiliate faculty member at The Poynter Institute. From 1994-2009, he taught reporting and writing in its real and virtual classrooms and coached journalists worldwide. He spent two decades as an award-winning journalist for the Providence Journal, St.


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