This may sound sacrilegious, but I have always found the concept of beat reporting rather odd. Don’t get me wrong: I can’t think of a better way to divvy up the labor of getting out the daily news—or up-to-the-minute news,as the case may be. Beats help reporters define their roles and ensure minimal overlap. That’s efficient. But beats also strike me as potentially limiting.
Imagine the news as a pie. There is a wedge for the automotive industry, a wedge for the airline industry, a wedge for energy, a wedge for Wall Street, one for personal finance, and so on. Actually, that’s just for business news, but you get the idea.
Add up all the wedges, and there’s plenty of unclaimed pie left over. When do news organizations ever shine a light on timber companies, for example—or private prison operators or railroads or plumbing conglomerates (if such things exist)? Chemical companies? Laundromats? Funeral parlors?
Sometimes the overlooked topics may be more important than the ones that dominate the headlines. Take the industry I cover: energy. From the amount of television, newspaper and new media coverage—and I’m as guilty as anyone—you would think the world is flooded with solar panels and wind turbines. Not true: Combined, those two sources of energy provide only 2 percent of our electricity in this country. Coal—which generates close to half of our electricity—gets scant coverage, except of course when there is an accident. (Ken Ward, Jr.’s terrific Coal Tattoo blog for the Charleston (W. Va.) Gazette is an honorable exception.)
There’s a reason for this, of course. Reporters by definition like to cover “new” stuff. A century ago, the oil beat was a plum assignment, with wildcatters converging on Texas. But nowadays who wants to dwell on the coal, oil and gas industries when there are new problems in new industries to be discovered. Will wind power companies get stymied by complaints over noise and ruined views? When will solar panels get cheaper? How do you store the energy produced by sources like the wind or sun, which work only in accordance with nature’s whim? These are some of the cutting-edge questions of the modern day.
Similarly, I’m struck by the amount of coverage devoted to the proliferation of social media. I like Twitter as much as the next person, but it accounts for a total of about 10 minutes of my day (well, maybe 20). And I’m far from fluent in FourSquare, reddit, and some of the other Very Important Inventions that, judging from the coverage they get, are about to revolutionize the world. Privately, I enjoy the irony that daily newspapers—the dinosaur print type—devote columns of space to these trends, when their pre-Baby Boomer readers probably have less of a clue about this stuff than I do. I also am tickled by the fact that the one old-industry beat that the media never neglect is … newspapers.
Coverage of new technologies is natural and important. Times and habits are changing, and I don’t mean to suggest otherwise. News must be forward-looking. But there’s also a danger of neglecting traditional industries.
There’s no better illustration of this than the BP oil spill. Day after day this past summer, new and extraordinary revelations tumbled out about the offshore oil drilling business, as journalists and investigators turned their full attention to the Gulf. Who knew there was such a thing as blowout preventers, and that the United States (unlike Norway or Brazil) didn’t require remote-control switches that could activate them if all else failed? Who knew that industry regulators sometimes waived big environmental reviews for deepwater projects? Who had ever heard of Transocean—a company that even after the spill has a market capital of $21 billion, far more than a recent guess at Twitter’s valuation ($1.6 billion). Frankly, it terrifies me to think about what industries—nuclear waste storage, anyone?—we’re neglecting, especially given current financial pressures on media outlets.
There is so much more to cover. I sometimes feel that if only time, money and talent allowed, there could be five New York
Times’s worth of news every day, with (in theory) no sacrifice of quality. There would be room to cover the wedges that fall outside of traditional beats and room to delve into the neglected corners of existing beats.
|Wind power consumes a lot of space on the energy beat, yet coal—powering close to half of our nation’s electricity—gets scant coverage. Image courtesy of SeaEnergy PLC.
The Randomness of News
This leads me to my final theory, which is that the nature of news is essentially random. Sure, any media outlet has things it must cover—the economy, elections and so forth. But because far more news exists than any single media outlet can handle, it’s up to the reporters’ (and editors’) discretion as to where their interests lie. For example, when I served as the Austin-based Southwest correspondent for The Economist from 2005 to 2007, I became fascinated by alternative energy so I wrote about the wind turbines proliferating in West Texas and the green initiatives of Wal-Mart. My successor has done more immigration stories. The balance is probably good for readers.
Local media has less discretion because its coverage has stricter geographical bounds. These days, I cover energy and the environment for The Texas Tribune, an online start-up and a job I truly love. There are certain subjects I can’t skip—battles between Texas and the Environmental Protection Agency over air pollution permits, for example, and controversy over a natural gas drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing. And I have pages of ideas, many of which will never see the light of day because I just don’t have time.
The proliferation of new media is actually helping to solve the problem of too much news. The nonprofit Texas Tribune sees itself as a complement to other media, not a competitor. So if I see a story from a Texas paper that touches on an area I haven’t covered, I tweet it out to my followers and put a link on TribWire—our homepage feed for interesting stories about Texas from around the Web. Unless I have something meaningful to add, I happily cross the topic off my list.
Twitter and Google, in other words, help knock off more wedges from the collective news pie, by bringing readers into contact with stories they might not have seen otherwise. Even still, there is a lot to cover—and there’s less reason than ever to wall oneself off into a silo. A beat functions best as a starting point, not a boundary.
Kate Galbraith, a 2008 Nieman Fellow, covers energy and the environment for The Texas Tribune.