Newspaper Beat Reporter
In newspaper parlance, a beat is the subject area that a reporter is assigned to cover and write about. Beat reporters can cover everything from local crime to a specific sports team. They develop expertise in their beat, getting to know people and earn their trust so that when news happens, the journalist can report on it with authority and some depth of knowledge.
Typically beat reporters work with a specific editor who also knows the beat, who can guide the reporter toward sources or information, and help them shape their stories.
A reporter covering retail companies might report to the business editor, for instance, who will be able to help that reporter gather information more effectively.
Beat reporters are expected to develop sources, i.e., people who have information about their subject matter, so they can better gather news and find scoops. Sources for a reporter on a crime beat would be local cops. By talking to the local cops and developing a rapport with them, the beat reporter can more easily get information about crimes happening in the neighborhood.
But to offer balanced coverage, a crime beat reporter needs to develop sources beyond just cops; they'll need to know defense attorneys, community leaders, coroners, judges, district attorneys and public defenders. A good beat reporter will be so immersed in her beat that she'll have people who contact her with news tips before she hears about them.
The Meaning of the Term Beat
The etymology of the term "beat" to mean a reporter's assigned topic or area takes its roots from police work.
Police officers typically have an assigned route or neighborhood where they "beat a path" while patrolling the area. So journalists beat a path in their assigned subject area.
The use of beat reporters has fluctuated over the years. Once a common way of assigning work to reporters, some news organizations preferred to have a general assignment (or GA), reporters.
This gave more flexibility to newsrooms to assign reporters to the news of the day, since not every beat is going to produce daily news items.
With the newspaper industry struggling to remain profitable and relevant as online competitors continue to change the business model of journalism, developing a niche or a beat is more important than ever. There are multiple news outlets covering the "what" of the news, but good beat reporters can also provide the context of "why" and "how."
Beat Reporters and PR People
That expertise is even more important in the age of public relations. Most organizations and businesses, from Fortune 500 companies to sports franchises have PR representatives whose jobs are to get coverage for positive news about their company. They're also tasked with handling queries from reporters about topics that the company might not find flattering or complimentary.
For a beat reporter to be effective, she has to develop relationships with these PR people, but also should be savvy enough to know how to get information without their help or guidance. Working a beat is the best way to learn how to be an effective journalist, whether in print, online or on television.