After Diana K. Sugg had been The (Baltimore) Sun’s medical reporter for six years, she wrote an enduring article about beat reporting for the Poynter Institute. In “Turn the Beat Around,” Sugg brought her experiences at the Sun and other newspapers to life as a way of offering guidance to other reporters about ways to structure and handle beat assignments. This was in 2001, and though technology has brought changes in how beat reporters work—as Twitter and other social media tools supplant those messages on voice mail—her advice stands the test of time. An excerpt follows:
“Retaining Independence Isn’t Easy for Journalists”
– Robert Blau
From Summer 2001
Ed Wasserman on“The Insidious Corruption of Beats”
When you are a beat reporter, the kingdom of journalism is at your feet: investigative pieces, features, profiles, news analyses. It’s all there for the taking. But working too hard for too many days will lead to burnout. At The Sacramento Bee, I remember feeling so busy that I couldn’t leave the newsroom to walk one floor up to the well-stocked cafeteria. I was living on Diet Cokes and Snickers bars. I toted the police scanner in the bathroom with me. I even landed in the cardiac unit twice.
And if you stay at a frenetic, cranking pace all the time, you’ll never free yourself to do the great pieces everyone will remember. You are a farmer, but one field should be left fallow. What an editor deletes from a story is sometimes as important as what he or she leaves in. The same goes for you: What you choose to let go of can be as important as the stories you go after. These are among your toughest decisions. It helps to articulate a vision for your beat. As a health reporter in Sacramento, I honed in on the changes shaking the country’s health care system, and I let go of many of the stories that didn’t fit into that theme.
So you must be decisive. Be organized, and be ruthless. You have to learn to quickly sift through that voice mail and all the potential stories on your desk; otherwise, all your time to do other stories will get swallowed up. It may go against every cell in your body, but you have to acknowledge up front that you won’t get to many of the stories on your beat. This isn’t like college or other jobs you’ve had, where you tackled and finished all the work. This is a new country, where the clock is ticking. Your time is limited