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Home > Reading Room > Beat Guide: Your first beat

SPJ Reading Room

Beat Guide: Your first beat

By Sonya Smith

I was so excited when I landed my first journalism job out of school.

I had a press pass, a journalism degree and health insurance.

But soon that glow subsided — and I realized that I was a small fish in a huge pond of professional journalism.

I felt expected to jump right into my new beat — calling my sources regularly for tips, writing enterprise stories and planning coverage weeks ahead. But I didn’t know how.

The first, and hardest, part of starting a first beat is realizing that you don’t know. You don’t know who to interview, what stories to write or any history about your beat.

I started out as an activities reporter at a twice-weekly newspaper in Irvine, Calif., called the Irvine World News — owned by the Orange County Register.

A few months later — I was given the opportunity to cover city hall. It was a great chance to learn and prove myself, but it was a huge learning curve.

I had just started to learn about the city — and now I was covering big issues.

The first thing I wanted to do was prove to my editors and sources that I was worthy of the beat — and that I really knew about the city. But, admitting that I needed to learn a lot about my beat was what helped me the most.

I can’t honestly say that I have already built a sturdy beat — I’ve been on it only for five months. But, I can share some things that helped me get started:

Don’t be afraid to fail.
Don’t be afraid to bring your ideas and creativity to the beat; that will only expand coverage. Don’t be afraid to try new ideas and fail; that’s the only way to come up with good, fresh ideas.

Learn about the current coverage.
Meet with the reporter who is leaving the beat — grab some coffee or lunch and learn from them. Learn who the main sources are — and tips for dealing with them. Learn about the big stories and ask for any story ideas the outgoing reporter never got to. Also, be sure to get the outgoing reporter’s maps, books and documents.

Learn all about the beat.
Spend extra time in the first few weeks reading up and learning about the beat. Find experts to meet with and learn from. On my beat, for example, growth is a big issue — so I met with a city planner who explained to me how city planning, development and building work.

Find good sources.
Finding quality sources doesn’t happen overnight — but they are invaluable to your beat-building. Meet, face to face, each person on the beat — exchange business cards and talk about what information they can provide.

Ask for cell phone and home phone numbers to contact them after hours. Be fair to the sources — work hard to give them adequate time to call back and the ability to say “I don’t know” — then they’ll understand when there is breaking news.

Find a good mentor.
Finding a good mentor will help make your journalism career. Try to find someone who will give frank advice on your ideas, reporting, writing and journalism future.

Build a system.
Most journalists think having a cluttered, coffee-stained desk is the mark of a real journalist. The truth is — being able to find documents, phone numbers and upcoming events easily makes a true professional. Start a source list on the first day and religiously update it. In the first week, create some file folders. Use these folders to organize documents on the main beat issues, working stories, and timely and untimely story ideas. In the second week, create a calendar system. Keep it updated with meetings, events and interviews.

Don’t settle in.
It’s easy after a few weeks to feel more comfortable with the job. Relaxing is OK, but make sure it doesn’t turn into laziness. Never cut short on an interview, leave a city council meeting early or forget to follow-up on a story; paying attention to these details turns a so-so journalist into a professional.

Establish your career.
After a few weeks, begin working on enterprise stories. Small, regular stories or clips are necessary, but big packages that show research, in-depth reporting and crafty storytelling will make journalists memorable. These packages do good for your readers, listeners or viewers — and show off your skills.

Remember your experience.
When it’s time to move on to a new beat, remember to help the next reporter learn about the beat.

Sonya Smith is a 2005 graduate of Cal State Long Beach. She served as the national student representative for the Society and now is president of the Orange County Satellite Chapter of SPJ.

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