In Praise of Beat Reporters
How a bit of fumbling reminded me of the importance of these journalistic specialists. Plus: Reporters name their favorites.
I like and respect Bruce
Murphy, and his recent column on the changing fortunes of Milwaukee social justice agencies
advanced an interesting thesis, built both on his own reporting and on work appropriately
credited to others.
Then in the comments I found some people who took him seriously
to task. The critics weren’t your typical Internet ideological cranks. They brought some
important factual questions to the surface that, at first glance, could
seriously undercut the column’s arguments.
So had my old editor been seriously misled? Hey, I’m always
looking for a media angle, and the right gotcha is gold for this column,
however close to home it hits.
Digging further, I found hints that some of the critics
might have overstated their claims. But there was still enough smoke to tempt
me to hunt for fire.
Within a few minutes, though, I realized I knew no one to
call for a disinterested, 30,000-foot assessment that would help me gauge
whether this was a story worth chasing – the sort of old-timer who could
answer, even if only off the record: “So what’s going on here? Did Murphy blow
I’m sure with a day or two of doing nothing but making phone
calls, I probably could piece together enough to know who was right: the
commenters, Murphy, maybe both – or neither. But heck, I’m busy enough as it
is. I don’t have time to run after a “…well, maybe…” story. So nearly as
quickly as I thought of it, I dropped it.
To his credit, Murphy himself gave the criticism another
look – and last week acknowledged his omissions. But he’s not really the point
of this column.
Instead, it’s this:
My brief, 15 minute spin through my contact list of more than 1,000 people,
hunting for the one who could help me size up the issue in short order was a
sharp reminder of the power and necessity of beats in the news business.
If social welfare agencies like the ones Murphy wrote about
were part of my beat, I might have already understood most of the background so
that I could tell from the start if he’d gotten the story wrong, or not. But
even if my knowledge didn’t extend to that, I at least would have had a
considerable network of informants to help me suss out the real story.
“A good beat reporter is especially important on beats where
sources are essential if you want to venture beyond the press release,” says Rich Eggleston, who covered the Capitol
for the AP and before that got his chops in the rough-and-tumble news
competition of Chicago. “The beats where sources are especially important are
cops, courts, City Hall and the statehouse. I've known many solid beat
reporters since my days in Chicago, but today they’re an endangered species.”
Too often editors seem to think “anyone” can do a particular
beat. Some – not all – place little value on the institutional understanding
that spending a lot of time on a beat can impart, and the result is shallower
and shallower news coverage.
“Everyone I see seems to be dealing with a shortage of
people to do the time-consuming work of good journalism,” says one newsroom
refugee. TV is even worse off, this insider adds. “They’re too busy running
from assignment to assignment to develop depth, and the consequence is the raft
of he said, she said reports and all the weather stories” that lead the evening
Another journalist traces the shrinking of the beat system
locally back to the demise of newspaper competition. “The merger of two
once-highly-competitive newspapers has really diminished beats,” this person tells
me, referring to the Milwaukee Journal and
I don’t disagree –
yet at the same time, I think the Journal
Sentinel remains a laudable bastion of beat reporting. That includes, but
isn’t limited to, the enterprise reporting of specialists like environmental
writer Dan Egan and
business-of-medicine investigative reporter John Fauber.
Folks I emailed last week reeled off a wide range of expert
beat reporters at the paper: Tom Daykin
for real estate and development (“very competitive with the Business Journal’s Sean Ryan, another excellent beat reporter,” one informant points
out); Guy Boulton on the
ever-changing healthcare industry; Steve
Schultze on county government (“well-wired and doesn’t play favorites,”
says a veteran journalist). Patrick
Marley and Jason Stein in the JS Madison bureau get kudos as well
(which they probably should, given that they’ve written a book about the
tumultuous first year of Gov. Scott Walker’s rule). Tom Content is singled out for his coverage
of energy, with particular authority on renewable energy.
It’s true that there’s not the saturation of court coverage that
there once was – federal court reporter John
Diederich tends to focus more on big projects, for example. And as a man
covering both City Hall and the business side of sports, Don Walker is stretched pretty thin – but still produces solid
For his part, Walker
points to another colleague in a surprising slot. “I think Bob McGinn, one of our Packers beat writers,
is one of the best beat reporters around. He is authoritative, knowledgeable,
accurate and provocative. He works as hard as anyone I know, has sources across
the country (though I do have some issues with his use of anonymous quotes) and
he is usually ahead of the curve … I think he would be a helluva beat writer
even if he was covering the sewerage commission. His journalistic skills are
superb.” (Alderman Nic Kovac once
told me he wished the public’s business was covered with the sort of depth McGinn
Walker also credits JS
political writer Craig Gilbert, and not just for his way with voting
statistics. “One of his most underappreciated skills is the ability to
interpret and write a readable story from a politician’s speech,” Walker says –
analyzing the content putting it into perspective on a deadline.
Skeptics of the beat system sometimes fall back on the claim
that beat reporters get too close to their sources. I won’t deny that’s a risk.
Either the beat reporters become so ingrained in the culture of the
institutions they cover that they don’t even see some of the stories waiting to
be uncovered, or they actually shy away from those that could cause important
sources to clam up.
It’s always good to open up to fresh eyes who can see what
the old hands have been missing. But the answer isn’t to throw out the old
hands. Editors who encourage reporters – and reporters who encourage each other
– to balance their “inside” knowledge with “outside” views are one remedy. Encouraging
beat reporters to cast a wider net for sources on their beat is another. Send
police reporters into high-crime neighborhoods to ask residents about how
authorities treat them. Send education reporters into the homes of
schoolchildren to learn how their parents experience the school system.
Rethink beats but don’t throw them out. “When too many experienced
reporters are laid off or quit out of frustration, there is no one to mentor
younger reporters and teach them nuances and ethics,” says one of the correspondents
Certainly good editors can help, but they’re no guarantee.
“They’re busy, they may not have significant field experience, won't be versed
in the particulars of every beat, and may not be much older than the reporters
they supervise,” the reporter continues. “As a result, readers can expect to
suffer with shallower stories for years until we build another cohort of
skilled reporters—assuming they don't quit out of frustration first.”
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