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Best way to own the beat you cover?

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by Jim Luther Davis, Jun 18, 2014.

  1. So this past weekend I just wrapped up covering my first ever beat doing High School baseball for the local paper here. Looking back, I can definitely say I learned a lot from the experience and grew a ton as both a journalist and reporter.

    But now that I got my foot into the door, I’m keen on learning how to own the beat I’m covering.

    On my part, I’d try to talk to as many coaches as I could on a weekly basis. Some coaches were more open to freely conversing with me. Like this one guy, our conversations would go for about 20-30 minutes just BSing about the sport and what not after I got my questions out of the way.

    I just feel like there were other ways I could have established myself as a good beat guy for the sport.

    For example, I’d always run into some of the other reporters and beat guys while covering games. One of them has been on the beat for quite some time, and you can tell.

    The way he speaks with the coaches, you can tell he has a great relationship with them. Even with some of the players. Also, every game I’ve seen him at, he seems to be chatting it up with people in the stands or on the sidelines before and after games.

    It’s even more evident on his Twitter page. Besides a large number of followers, he also has a lot of people messaging him updates on games and coaches always seem to “@” him on their posts.

    It was all eye-opening stuff and I’m sure it took him some time to develop such a rapport.

    So I know a lot of you guys have had beat experience and wanted to see if you had any thoughts or advice on the topic?
  2. Mark2010

    Mark2010 Active Member

    Sounds like you are doing a good job. I always felt sooooo much more comfortable my second year around. I had time to learn the history of the teams, the leagues, the players and coaches, all the background stuff that just takes time to absorb.

    The encouraging thing is that you are looking for ways to get better. You can always look at what other papers/stations are doing. There is nothing new under the sun, so if you see an idea you like, don't be afraid to implement it. Ideas can't be covered under copyright.
  3. That's true. Good points.

    And yeah, I agree, as time goes on, you pick up more history and interesting tidbits. A lot of things I learned later through conversations and what not made me think, "Wish I knew that from the beginning."
  4. deviljets7

    deviljets7 Member

    I have to echo what Mark is saying about how much easier/more comfortable Year 2 on a beat compared to Year 1. That extra year is also very beneficial in terms of building that natural relationship with both coaches and players, especially if its a beat that has had a lot of turnover from year to year.

    I don't know how many schools are on your beat, but for me, I did baseball for a coverage area that had more than 20 teams. As a result, it wasn't always easy to build that relationship right away when I only got to see a lot of them only once or twice that first year.
  5. StaggerLee

    StaggerLee Active Member

    Sounds like you're already on the right track. You have one big obstacle out of the way in that you have the desire to own your beat, instead of just settling for the status quo.

    Main thing is do just that. Own it. Talk to as many people as you can. Make sure people know your name, your face. Develop trust in the coaches you deal with on a regular basis. At the same time, make sure they understand that you don't mind having a friendly relationship, but you're still there to do a job. The hardest thing is developing a great relationship, then having to call that coach because his quarterback was busted banging a chick in the baseball dugout during school (yep, had to make that call before).

    One thing I notice that has helped me is getting out in the public instead of spending time on the phone. I know the old-school way of doing things was to just work the phones. You can cover more miles with your fingers than you can in your car, but sometimes that face-to-face time is more important than being able to get three coaches on the phone in the time it takes to drive out to one's practice.

    When I first got to my new beat (one in which I didn't even know the school colors or mascots, let alone coaches), I made a point of going out to practice, even if I had nothing to report. On my way to work, I'd drop by practice, just to shoot the shit, maybe set up interviews later in the week, etc. It helped build some solid relationships and it also allowed me to lay some groundwork for how the season would go.

    Anyway, like I said, I think you have the right idea. Be the authority on your beat. Care about it more than your competition. The respect will come if you do that.
  6. Yeah, for the region our paper covers, it's about 100 teams over 3 divisions. So I hear you on only being able to see a lot of them only a couple times. But for the teams I knew would 100% contend for a title, I made it a point to keep in touch with their coaches and go out to a couple games.

    All good points. But speaking on your example of the quarterback dugout incident, how do you go about reporting that from a non-bias perspective and STILL being able to keep that contact (i.e. that school and the coach)?

    I'm sure it's tougher in the pros, say if you're writing a piece on a player who's been slumping. An example is I saw one of the Trailblazers beat guys basically blast Batum a couple years back, saying he was overpaid and inconsistent pretty much.

    When you report stories such as that, wouldn't the subject of the story make it a point to avoid you?
  7. linotype

    linotype Well-Known Member

    The offseason is critical beat-building time. Offer to meet the movers and shakers on your beat for lunch. Or coffee. Or something informal. Doesn't matter what, just make sure you can get face to face with them off the record, without the pressure of an interview.

    Just take 30 minutes or an hour to get to know them as people, and have them get to know you as a person. You'd be surprised how quickly some of them get chatty and comfortable. I can't tell you how many times those informal meetings have paid off months or years later when the shit hits the fan and I've needed to reach someone immediately for a story.

    It's an incredibly worthwhile investment of time and money. Especially if your editor will pick up the tab.
  8. Mark2010

    Mark2010 Active Member

    Editor's actually DO that? None of mine did. But sometimes I'd do it on my own.
  9. OgCritty

    OgCritty New Member

    I'm young and definitely do not classify myself as a seasoned beat writer, so I guess take my advice with a grain of salt. But I think the most important thing you can do is be different than your competitors, especially when they are more established on the beat than you are. If all you're doing is writing game stories, sidebars and the occasional feature, then why would someone read your work when they can just go to a different website/paper and read the same stuff from what they deem a more reputable source?

    Get away from the typical game story or feature. Almost anybody with a halfway decent command of the English language can write a passable game story. Take chances with words, take chances with your leads and take chances with the structure of your story. Use video and social media to supplement your work. Get game film and analyze it in a blog post. Call a player or opposing coach once a day and post a Q&A in a blog post. Create original content that nobody else has.

    But most importantly, work your ass off. You can look at the other writers on your beat as mentors and all-around good people, but they are your competitors first and foremost. If they consistently beat you to breaking news stories and put out superior content, your boss will kick you the the curb and find someone who can keep up. Never get outworked by anybody, and you'll see how quickly you can become the go-to source on your beat.
  10. SP7988

    SP7988 Member

    Good advice.
  11. Batman

    Batman Well-Known Member

    One good piece of advice I got once echoes what others have said here -- don't let them know you as just "the guy with the notebook."
    Like StaggerLee said, if you normally do your weekly football interviews on Tuesday or Wednesday, pop by for few minutes on Monday to set things up. Hang out for 15 or 20 minutes, talk to players and coaches, shoot the shit, and don't worry about writing anything.
    If you're writing about preps, too, take advantage of the access you'll get. For football, just hang out and watch practice for 30 minutes and talk to some of the parents that show up.
    If you feel like you're in good with your high school baseball coaches, ask if they mind you sitting in the dugout during games (or circumvent it by shooting your own pictures, and you'll be there anyway). You will learn and see more sitting there than you ever will sitting in a press box. As a bonus, the players will see you more often and get to know you. You can talk to the scrubs during the game, bounce some quick in-game questions off players and coaches (like an explanation of an odd play, what the opposing pitcher is throwing, or what a guy's pitch count is), and generally get a better feel of the vibe of the team.
    High school baseball is my favorite sport to cover for that reason alone. It's so much more laid-back and accessible than all of the others.

    Another good piece of advice that takes a while for young reporters to learn, especially in the preps, is don't feel like you need to report on every little thing. Not everything is worth a story, or it might not be a story right that second.
    The recruiting game is a prime example of this. Just because a coach from State U. comes to visit a high school it doesn't really mean much. They all make the rounds. File it away, though, and ask one of the high school's coaches who they were looking at. Then keep that in the back of your head when recruiting season heats up.
    Don't be afraid to file away an interesting tidbit that can serve as the germ of a feature story down the road. Maybe it's the freshman running back who's also a genius. Might not be a story now, but a few months or a year down the road when he's playing more, then it is.
    Even salacious stuff doesn't always need to be reported. Covering preps, you WILL hear kids talking about getting drunk at last weekend's party. Doesn't mean you need to write about it. Kids have done that for 100 years, and will do it for the next 100. This might sound terrible, but it's not really news unless something bad happens.
    Knowing what NOT to report is as important as knowing what to report. Want to blow up your working relationship with a program in a day? Write a story about some of the teenage antics you'll overhear in any field house.

    Something else that I'd recommend is getting to know the assistant coaches well. Inevitably, the head coach ends up leaving and they get promoted, or they end up as head coaches somewhere else. Sometimes they coach other sports. In all of those cases, having that relationship already in place expands your network of sources.
    Somewhere down the road, too, you might be at a new shop, but one of those old assistants winds up in the same town. If you weren't a jerk the first time around, it's a good starting point in your new beat.

    Often, they're also the ones who call in the scores or handle stats and recruiting. You'll need to pump them for information on deadline, so it helps if they know you and don't mind you calling at 11 p.m. on a Tuesday.
    You'll hardly ever quote these folks, but they're the backbone of the program. They know what's going on. And if you're on good terms and don't throw them under the bus as a source, you'll learn more from them than anyone else.

    One more ... never lose a phone number. You never know when you'll need them.
    Last year, one of our old area football players committed a murder. It was a huge regional story. His old coach had moved on to another school two or three years prior and I hadn't talked to him since, but we'd been on good terms and I still had his number stashed in my cell phone. It helped us get background information and work some story angles that no one else had.
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