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Covering a news beat

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by rico_the_redneck, Aug 6, 2013.

  1. I covered prep sports for several years at a small daily and had a pretty good understanding of what I was doing ... knowing what to focus on, how to stat games etc., how to crank out stories on deadline.

    I'm about nine months into covering news now and some of the skills are transferable (picking out what's important etc., which is helpful in a two-hour city council meeting!) Overall, I'm enjoying covering news, but would really like to get better and could use some help.

    One weakness I have is relying heavily on a tape recorder, which obviously is a huge time killer. I'd really like to master note-taking, but I have the same problems a lot of folks have as far as not being able to write as fast as people talk etc. If I could learn to lose the tape recorder or at least minimize using it, I think that would be a huge step toward time management. If anyone has strategies for taking notes (and/or ditching the recorder), I would really appreciate it. I've tried the Google, but it hasn't given me much. I even tape phone interviews - I've got one co-worker who does that as well and one who types and talks, which I've tried and had trouble with.

    And, just generally, if anyone's got suggestions for tools (online or whatever) and strategies folks have used while covering a news beat at a smaller paper, that would be much appreciated as well.

    Also, any books that would be good on news writing? When I was learning sports writing, I had some books on the basics of the craft that really helped.
  2. murphyc

    murphyc Well-Known Member

    rico, when you take notes currently, are you writing by hand or taking notes via a laptop/computer? I ask because I am much faster typing on the computer than I am taking notes by hand. As an added bonus, I'm not left trying to decipher my chicken scratch the next day. Whenever I cover a meeting, I bring my laptop (my current employer has a nice Macbook I get to use). If you have something like that, you could probably bring it to interviews as well, as long as you maintain eye contact and the person you're interviewing is OK with it.
    Another key: ask for things to be repeated. There's no shame in that. For example, if you're at a meeting and you're pretty sure something important just happened but you didn't quite catch what it was, don't be afraid to ask afterwards "What was that you were saying during the meeting about XX?" The same thing can be done during a one-on-one interview: ask for something to be repeated. Some people may get annoyed by having to repeat things, but most people I've interviewed over the years haven't been. If they act annoyed, simply tell them you want to make sure you have accurate information.
    I tend to go in spurts in terms of using the tape recorder, mostly because of the time issue. Even if I'm using a tape recorder, I'm also writing down notes. You get double the chance of getting things right that way, plus if something happens (notebook ruined by rain, batteries die on the tape recorder, etc.) you have a back-up plan.
    One last tidbit: ask co-workers about your beat and get familiar with your paper's archives. There's a wealth of info. usually in both of those.
  3. DanOregon

    DanOregon Well-Known Member

    If you have the recorder with you, under the notebook while you are taking notes, note the counter on the recorder when you hear something you probably want to quote word for word.

    Listening and understanding are more important. If a quote doesn't jump out at you and you can't get every word down, don't think it will be any more memorable than in print. A great quote tells the reader why it matters, not what the "it" is.
  4. WolvEagle

    WolvEagle Active Member

    I switched from sports to news a few years ago. In fact, I'm about to go to a City Council meeting.

    I second all of the above advice, though I'm old school and don't use a recorder - I don't want to take the time to transcribe. I already work way more than 40 hours a week.

    One thing that helps me is that over the years I've developed my own shorthand. As you're quickly writing the words, take out the vowels. And, there will be some words that you can abbreviate with the first few letters that you'll easily remember - each reporter is different with that, though. If you're not sure about a word when you're writing your story, think in terms of context. Which word is correct that looks like that abbreviation? That works well for me.

    And, I've found that if I think I just heard a great quote, quickly write everything down and put quotes around it. And, if I know I'm paraphrasing somebody, I put an arrow next to it. You can't quote everybody and everything. Again, it's whatever works for you.

    I'm glad I made the switch. I got tired of making teens look like they're gods. I feel like I'm accomplishing much more in my career now. But, every person is different. There's no wrong answer.
  5. Bradley Guire

    Bradley Guire Well-Known Member

    Before I got an iPad, I took notes with pen/paper and used a recorder. The bulk of my stories came from the notes. I never transcribed entire interviews, waste of time. The recording was for reference if I felt I didn't understand what I had written down or thought there was a great quote I wanted word for word. The iPad replaced the pen/paper, but I still recorded.

    I also saved the audio file to a hard drive, in case some dumb ass tried to dispute something he said.
  6. Mark2010

    Mark2010 Active Member

    Yep, I learned to do this, especially when covering something the length of a meeting. A 10-minute interview isn't so bad to transcribe, but a two-hour meeting? That's killer.
  7. Batman

    Batman Well-Known Member

    The time crunch is the reason I typically limit my use of the recorder to short postgame interviews. Anything longer than 10 minutes is just too much of a slog to pick through. Too many pauses, too many tangents, too many "Ummm ... so then ... What was that dear? Yes, the lemonade is on the counter" type exchanges. Any long feature interview I do, I rely on the handwritten notes. Your mileage may vary, though. I'm pretty good at identifying memorable quotes on the fly and separating them from information that's more of a bullet point item. Others might not be as good at it.

    Looking back, something that really helped me was my lecture classes in college. More than the course material itself, those really prepared me well for picking out important items in a sea of boredom and laid the foundation for the note-taking method I still use today.
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