Five Beat Reporting Tips You Can Use

“Once a week, buy a key person coffee. Learn what they want from you before telling them what you want from them. When possible, do interviews in person. Build relationships. While on a story, log contact info for good sources you meet.” — Erin Barnett, The Oregonian

Norman Rockwell's "The Runaway" shows a beat cop talking up a runaway child.

In our latest StateImpact webinar, our database reporting coordinator Matt Stiles gave us a run down of some things to keep in mind to really own your beat. Before he was a data nerd, he was a nerdy beat reporter. Stiles covered federal courts in Dallas and City Hall in Houston. Both had challenges. The feds wouldn’t talk to him. And he couldn’t get the folks at City Hall to stop talking to him.

As you know, beat reporting is hard. The best beat reporters are organized, they really care about a subject and they’re asking the right questions. Some tips to remember to own your beat:

1.) Be aware and be around.
The best beat cops are in diners and on street corners meeting people and, in this case, perhaps discovering a runaway. If he were out in his car, or back at the station house, he might not have seen this kid. Or looked close enough to recognize the pack on the floor. This kid might have gotten away.

2.) Be organized.
Efficiency is key in beat reporting. Knowing who to call — and how to reach them — is so valuable over the long term. Know your sources, close and not, and make sure you can reach them anytime you need them. It’s important to keep an archive like a Google doc for the string you collect on the beat. And a data library of contacts and story tips.

3.) Be curious.
Any good beat reporter cares as much about the subject matter as the people he or she is covering. They’re curious and dig for information. They know the insider language and publications that their sources use and read. They know enough to make sources want to talk to them to keep up on the latest gossip. When Stiles covered City Hall, the mayor’s chief of staff would call him routinely to see what he was working on, what people were talking about and what other reporters were writing. Use those opportunities to gather intel for your coverage.

4.) Approach your coverage with a sense of purpose.
You have to know how you want to cover the beat. Are you focused on day-to-day news or longer-term enterprise? Do you have a master narrative? At StateImpact, we narrow our focus to specific issues, but it’s always something to think about. Once you know your focus, you have to dig for stories. Ask more questions. Request documents and data. The best beat reporters are relentless but also friendly and respectful to sources.

5.) Strong sources are your lifeblood.
The most important thing about beat reporting is sources: All the data or documents in the world is useless without sources. Sources — both friendly and formal — are the lifeblood of any beat. Good beat reporters work hard to build relationships with sources. These relationships can weather negative stories, or mistakes, or stories they wanted that you didn’t have time to do. That’s because you’re always honest with them about story ideas, quotes, timing, etc. Covering a beat isn’t about today’s story, no matter how big or juicy. It’s about facing your sources the next day. It also helps to have a diversity of sources. That includes elected officials but also secretaries. Knowing a lowly data specialist in a state agency is as important as knowing the director in many cases.

Watch the full webinar below:

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