Finding stories on a new beat

by

Jacqueline E. Sharkey, head of The University of Arizona Department of Journalism

Jacqueline E. Sharkey, head of The University of Arizona Department of Journalism 

How do you become a good beat reporter and find good stories? Well, contrary to what you might think, it doesn’t hinge on writing what you know the most about or what you’ve decided you like the best. In fact, we were told that curiosity and ignorance are two of the most important and helpful tools a journalist can possess. Score one for inexperience.

According to Diego Ribadeneira, an assistant metropolitan editor at The New York Times, a good beat reporter is well organized and has a clear purpose, a variety of sources, a growing list of story ideas and a constant desire to learn. A good beat reporter doesn’t thinks he or she knows everything and isn’t afraid to admit it. Well, considering I mispronounced Tucson more recently than I care to admit, I’m already poised to become a pretty good beat reporter, no?

Here’s some helpful advice on how to conquer a new beat:

  • Develop an interest in something, but don’t be afraid to change your interests.
  • Get out of the office, walk around and actually learn about the place you’ll be covering.
  • Build personal relationships. Ask people to educate you about what they do.
  • Diversify your sources. (CEOs are great, but their secretaries have critical information, too.)
  • Organize your work.
  • Maintain open lines of communication with your editor.
  • Compile a running list of ideas.

Where do you find good story ideas? Keep an open mind (and eye and ear). If you see something curious — a building under construction, a store closing — find out the story behind it. Scour bulletin boards. Check Web sites of local environmental groups. Read exhaustively, in particular specialized papers. Follow the money (especially tax dollars). Let your mind wander.Even with all that great information, how can you be sure you’ll become a great beat reporter who finds the best stories? Ribadeneira summed it up: Work hard.

— Arcynta Ali Childs

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