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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 this story?”

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 newscast.

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 Milwaukee Sentinel.

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 work.

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 employs.)

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 I reached.

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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