He's got a finger on the pulse of a designated section of town, been down the block extensively and knows its real flavor including all its nooks and crannies. This is someone who's trustworthy and credible, with full access to the local people, and on point the moment it happens. The split second there is something occurring that is newsworthy, it's a beat reporter that captures the true essence of that story. There's no flim-flamming involved.
A beat reporter is someone who is specialized, covering a particular segment of the population or a select geographic area, neighborhood or business sector. This journalist will cover a distinct locale that defines his or her beat, such as the criminal courts or the police, education or perhaps the schools, religion or the church, sports, business happening on Wall Street or Main Street, local or state government, medicine or healthcare, the environment or science, downtown or Chinatown, hence the reference, "She works a beat."
Derived from the conventional definition, a beat is a circuit, such as a police officer's beat. It is a road, pathway or regular route taken, and for the beat reporter, it is the usual niche allocated or designated normally and routinely.
But the beat reporter is much more than someone that delivers the news associated with the day's events in local politics or the criminal justice system. A beat reporter provides much more than the who, what, when, where and why of his or her corner of the world and the particular story of the day. This reporter goes way beyond the superficial, delves in deeper, enriching the reader, the viewer and the public who have the right to know.
The smaller news organization may not have the ability to dedicate scarce resources exclusively to beat reporting, at the risk of not covering basic news gathering, but the larger news media can and many do.
It takes special qualities to meet the demands. It is no simple matter stepping into the skin of a beat reporter. First of all, they are not green or inexperienced in their craft. Quite the contrary, they are established and seasoned journalists. There are several vital qualities that define this individual.
Know your sources. It is not sufficient to know the cops in the local precinct, the neighbors who witnessed a horrific event and the store keeper who may even harbor a security video of the occurrence.
Cultivate and grow relationships while fostering good will. This includes protecting your sources and treating them fairly. In most cases, journalists are protected under the 1st amendment, which includes their right to protect sources.
Build trusting relationships. This is before any sort of event necessarily unfolds. Ultimately it will yield information when needed.
Follow-up regularly. Making contact only when you need to build a story is not effective. Building a meaningful business relationship with sources means taking the necessary time, which may not be convenient but will definitely pay-off.
Persistence, perseverance, tenacity and an overt sense of mission are all required in order to clarify, follow-up on the many details and ultimately provide much more than the basic story. The beat reporter delivers commentary. This journalist sniffs-out the story beneath the story. The trusting and sincere relationship with sources allows the beat reporter to learn the inside information and deliver the goods.
Identifying who knows the real story, and getting to it, is key. Understanding the language of that segment of the society, means truly understanding the issues and how the pieces fit together.
The role of the beat reporter is also to interpret, translate, into a comprehendible story. Much like the legal profession has its own proprietary language, so too do many regions, neighborhoods, sectors and specialized businesses. It is the role of the beat reporter to understand the language and convert it for general consumption, for the reader.