December 31, 2002

What does it take to be a great beat reporter?

The best beat reporters I’ve known are well-organized, determined, with a clear sense of mission and a wide range of sources. They are constantly reading about the beat and striving to learn new things. They are well-versed in the language, issues and events that matter. They are judged by the breadth of their knowledge and their success at communicating the important stories on their beats.

Beat reporters in the Knight Ridder Washington bureau faced a difficult challenge when I worked there in the early 1990s. We weren’t on the top rung of the newsgathering ladder. 

“People here aren’t going to answer your calls first,” I remember news editor Bob Shaw telling me. “At the end of the day, there may be a stack of messages from reporters. By the time they’ve finished calling The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and the networks, it’s time for them to go home. So how do we get the stories, the information, the access we need?”

Reporters handled it differently, Shaw said. 

Owen Ullman and Ellen Warren, the White House reporters, did it with persistence by demanding that officials treat them with the same respect as more high-profile competitors. 

Ricardo Alonzo Zaldivar, Charles Green and David Hess did it in Congress by being everywhere, from committee hearings and bill markups to news conferences, and by talking to as many people as they could. 

Mark Thompson at the Pentagon and investigative reporter Frank Greve did it by knowing the turf so well that often their sources wanted to talk with them to find out what they knew.

Probably the hardest part of being a beat reporter is staying on top of things and dealing with sources you have to return to every day even if you’ve written a story they don’t like. Unlike other journalists, beat reporters every day face the challenge of encountering sources who may not be pleased with their reporting. That experience, although sometimes painful, helps instill the quality of persistence that defines good reporters. 

That’s a lesson George Judson learned early in his career. Judson’s first job in newspapers had been in rewrite, turning other people’s reporting into stories. Years later when he went to work as a reporter at The Hartford Courant in Connecticut, he saw what he had missed. At the Hartford paper, newcomers at the paper were assigned to cover a specific town — everything from police and fire news to zoning commission meetings.

“What they were learning (and that I was not learning as a rewrite man) is that they had to go back to the same people day after day and develop relationships that got beyond the superficial, to find out what was going on that wasn’t quite public,” Judson recalled in My First Year as a Journalist, a collection of insightful memoirs by reporters and editors looking back at the lessons of their first year. “They had to learn to be better reporters than I was required to be.”

Beat reporting takes courage, discipline and judgment, knowing which story has to be written today and which can be put off. It requires teamwork with an editor and other reporters. Working quickly: getting to sources and obtaining information and then writing on deadline stories that give the news and why it matters. Not getting into a rut.

Some reporters take a limited view of their beat. The city hall reporter haunts the corridors of power but rarely visits the neighborhoods where the decisions take effect. The police reporter shoots the bull with the desk sergeant but spends little time talking with victims or suspects. Beat reporters get comfortable with their sources, the jargon and the process, forgetting who they’re working for.

Defining your beat is crucial, says Jane Mayer, who covered the White House for The Wall Street Journal and is now a staff writer for the New Yorker. “Beats can be constricting,” Mayer says in “Speaking of Journalism: 12 Writers and Editors Talk About Their Work.” She says, “Some people think that if you cover city hall you should never talk to anyone outside city hall. But I urge anybody whose job is to cover a narrow assignment to interview everyone who touches your beat.”

Mayer’s suggestions for broadening your beat include: 

“Interview the caterers who come in with the food, interview the photographers who take the pictures. Talk to relatives. Talk to officials who come in contact with the person you’re covering. Those things can lead to wonderful stories, and generally people who are on the periphery are looser with the details than those working directly for the person you’re covering.” 

Covering a beat isn’t easy. For me, schmoozing was probably the toughest part. You often feel like an alien, especially during your first days on the job. You have to acknowledge your ignorance and learn the language, learn the process, learn the people. The best reporters know how the world works, whether it’s the world of law enforcement, the laboratory or the corporate boardroom. That takes time, dedication, discipline and courage. Beat reporting demands a wide range of skills, talents, attitudes and work habits. Which ones do you think are most important?

[What does it take to be a great beat reporter?]

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Christopher “Chip” Scanlan (@chipscanlan) is a writer and writing coach who formerly directed the writing programs and the National Writer’s Workshops at Poynter where he…
Chip Scanlan

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