How to Be a Beat Writer

Experienced reporters are usually assigned a beat, an area they cover on a regular basis, when hired by a media entity. Depending on staffing, you may be assigned a beat on a subject area unfamiliar to you. Whether working for a newspaper, radio or TV station, or a news website, you need to understand how to develop your skills to become the best beat writer in your field.


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    Research the people and the issues that play a part in your assigned beat. Beats could cover anything: health and wellness, sports, government, politics, education, entertainment, fashion or environmental issues. If you are the new education reporter, for instance, read previous articles about the school board in your area, about new hirings in the district you are covering, awards people within the district have won, and even state and national issues that could affect your area.
    • If you are hired by a small publication or broadcast entity with only a few reporters, you may be expected to cover more than one beat. It's a challenge, but it can be done.
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    Introduce yourself to the people on your beat. Meet officials at the school district's main office, city hall, the law enforcement office, local sports team offices and even buyers at your large retailers, depending on your beat. Call ahead if possible to make an appointment or spend the day making cold calls based on the size of your market. (The smaller the news market, the more acceptable drop-ins are.) Take plenty of business cards with you, and make sure to receive cards or take notes about the primary people who'll be your contacts.Encourage them to contact you, so they become sources.
    • At the police station, for instance, your contact will generally be the Public Information Officer, but it's still a good idea to at least meet the police chief.
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    Maintain a strong sense of ethics by being discreet and trustworthy in how you handle information you obtain from your regular sources and contacts. They need to know they can trust you because they may need to tell you something as background information to explain something current, but they don't intend for it to be repeated in the media. If this occurs, file it away in your brain and notes, but don't divulge it to anyone and by all means, don't include it in a story.
    • Being discreet includes not badmouthing those with whom you deal. For instance, a sports reporter for the Washington Post with a reputation as a solid beat writer for his assigned team complained to another writer and was quoted in that writer's publication. He did eventually change beats, but not until after he endured harsh comments from fans, some players avoided him and he faced overall embarrassment.
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    Develop a reputation for accuracy, fairness and thoroughness with your audience by being the most dedicated beat writer you can be. Know Associated Press (AP) Style (or the style guide your employer wants you to follow) and keep a style book with you when you write. (The most recent copies of those on the market should include standard guidelines for handling social media, something you need to understand)
    • A beat that is covered well will develop a solid following that may even strike up a relationship of sorts with you. They may make comments to online articles, write letters to the editor and send you tips or story ideas. Respond to them in a timely and professional manner. Beat writers can often even take their following with them when they move to a new media outlet, a real boon and selling point to a potential new employer considering you for their staff.


  • Be prepared to move or develop stories on your own. With the developing trend of newspapers folding, merging or going to all online content, many are downsizing. If you are a beat writer finding yourself suddenly with no place to publish your work, you can continue writing, selling your work to freelance outlets or even publishing it on a free blog. By keeping in the game, so to speak, you may find yourself being hired by a media source needing someone with your knowledge, proven skills and fan base.

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Categories: Writing