the beat and how to swing it

At big news organizations, many reporters and editors are subject specialists. The specialties demanded change all the time. In the straight-arrow early ’90s, I went to a party where someone introduced himself as “the sin reporter” [1] for his wire service. He covered US consumer goods and found himself writing mostly about alcohol and tobacco companies – it was an era of distillery takeovers and lung disease class-action lawsuits. Last year, as cannabis became legal and corporate in Colorado, the Denver Post appointed a marijuana editor.

According to a 1958 journalism textbook in my collection [2], in the Mad Men era a big US paper might have desks or specialties for sports, finance, labor, women’s pages, society, travel, religion, science, real estate, stamps, autos, aviation, gardening, and farming, as well as “radio-TV” and other arts lines. (Political and other “general” news was divided among city, national and international teams.) When Calvin Trillin published his newsmagazine satire Floater in 1980 – it was about a general-assignment reporter  or “floater” who rotated through the different beats – the list was similar, and the reporters in the book were still all male. Now we can see real changes. Aviation isn’t a newspaper beat, farming has mutated from a lifestyle into agribusiness, and the last full-time religion reporter on Fleet Street stepped down this year. I have never met a stamp reporter.
Science desks mushroomed in the age of the bomb and the space program, and now exist mainly as healthcare or technology beats. Hi-fi and home electronics reviewers in the ’60s reinvented themselves as personal computing reporters in the ’80s and then became mobile gadget, gaming, or telecoms reporters. Curmudgeonly columns on English usage have disappeared, though we do see news stories about language research and variation thanks to the pop psychology vogue and to reporters like Margalit FoxAt my J-school reunion last year, the hot beats for the classmates still working as front-line reporters were national security (which can be turned to covering nuclear weapons if those come into play again), immigration and aging.

Over a longer period, change is even more dramatic. A century or more ago there were visitor beats: entire newspaper columns and even newspapers that listed ships calling at port and guests in hotels, a genre acknowledged in the 1958 journalism book’s chapter “When Others Come to Town.” This is antique social media: “Cornelia Otis Skinner, Emily Kimbrough and 400 others checked in on the Montcalm!” One day, some of our beats and habits will seem just as strange. I’ll be surprised if Bitcoin remains a beat, or digital etiquette. It’s enough to send one back to hardy freelance perennials, like chess and the questing-vole sort of British nature column that reports from very, very close to the ground.
There aren’t many general assignment reporters anymore and so my advice to students is to develop a specialty. It’s more efficient for building contacts and knowledge, it gives you a freelance base and a chance to break news, and it’s fun. In Finland I reported a lot on papermakers and forestry, and then on mobile phones – specialist stuff but still a bit too crowded and packlike. (The closing of MacWorld may signal a shakeout in the world’s army of tech reporters; on the bright side, there seems to be an inexhaustible demand for them as tech PRs.) Best is to look at the landscape and ask what subjects are currently underreported and how to conceptualize them for the public interest. Pitch your own beat.

But don’t forget, every choice is … a choice. If a beat is known as Property as opposed to Housing, that frames the coverage before you’ve reported or written a word. The War on Drugs is a different beat from Addiction and Recovery. Careers will run different stories and value different opinions than a section called Work or Labor. You can choose cover Countryside, Nature or Environment. Imagine the message if a newspaper appointed a national human rights reporter, or a young people’s rights reporter. 
It’s really time to bring back some of those old beats. I reported intermittently on unions but not enough to be a trusted labor reporter, a breed that used to exist in big port cities especially. Sarah Kendzior‘s fast food worker story is a good example of finding a story that’s right in front of everyone’s face but didn’t fit the institutional news agenda. (And the story is moving; there are now fast-food strikes). The religion beat is always under fire as an anachronism, but it’s an important part of life for many, and hugely important geopolitically. Organized religion now plays a role in social services and sometimes speaks about poverty when no one else will. Agriculture is a great beat; there are a million cooking writers but few people write about modern farming. Water, whether floods or droughts, is a great topic and a case has been made that it deserves just as much coverage as energy. Let’s see how many more we can come up with.
[1] At my last job I too was briefly acclaimed as a sin specialist after reporting stories on snus (“Swedish mouth tobacco” – it’s a great example of something familiar in one language and bizarre and requiring explanation in others), alcohol and “love vacations.” 
[2] I’ll update with a photo and full details. This particular book was not academic, but published by the test prep book industry that grew up around the New York State Regents exams – publishing houses like Barnes & Noble, Kaplan, Amsco. Those cats could break it down. I remember high school teachers sometimes using them as textbooks, particularly Eli Blume’s Cours supérieur.