A reporter is a reporter is a reporter. Whether you’re covering city council or the regional arts council, every reporter must learn to hone his or her skills on the beat. Features beats can include: arts, music, family/relationships, food, faith and health/fitness. Here are some tips from the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader features department:
Show up at the scene and meet the players.
Good beat reporting requires a journalist to be on location. You can’t write a story about the tradition of being Clara in The Nutcracker unless you’ve seen The Nutcracker. Show up at rehearsals. Talk to the ballerina playing Clara. Talk to some girls who wanted to be Clara but didn’t get chosen. Get to know local musicians by attending jam sessions. Schedule to sit in on a moms-of-preschoolers group, a culinary training session or a Pilates class.
Follow the paper trail.
The executive director of the ballet was recently fired and calls you to complain the organization no longer has funds for her salary. Is it true? Don’t take her word for it. Get the budget. Is the city’s largest arts organization using state grants appropriately? Only the numbers can prove it. Note: Not all organizations get public funds, and therefore aren’t required to release budgets under a state’s open records law. This is when building relationships matters. Get to know the adversarial board member or the secretary to get copies of budgets early in the reporting process.
Stay in touch.
Get sources home and cell phone numbers. Most stories don’t break at 9 a.m.; try more like 10 p.m. Give sources all your digits: work, home and cell numbers. If you demand they be accessible, you owe them the same in return.
Walk the beat when things are jumpin’.
What’s really going on at the city’s nightclubs? Poker leagues? Art walk? You’ll never know artists are being shut out of an elite gallery or that bars are allowing minors inside unless you’re there. You can’t write a solid story about the 18- to 20-year-old crowd being shut out of live music venues because of a new city council ordinance unless you’ve witnessed it. Being present allows you to write with authority and find the best people to interview.
Enjoy what you cover.
The saying goes, “If you don’t like being in church, don’t become a pastor.” If you don’t like sculptures and live theater, don’t become the arts reporter. If you can’t stand different music genres, don’t become the music reporter. You don’t have to be a parent to cover the family beat, but you should enjoy talking to families and be able to interview all ages, including kids. The best quote in a story can come from a 4-year-old.
Be fair, polite and professional.
Never insult a person’s race, religion, age or economic status. Be polite to all people, even when they express anger. You can stand firm about your stories when you have covered all the sides, talked to all the sources and printed the facts. Operate in such a way that you can look each source in the eye and tell him or her you were fair.
Elizabeth Kelly Klay is features editor for the Springfield News-Leader in Springfield, Mo.