Reporting: How to build a beat
Updated: Jan 18
How journalists find stories, investigate deeper issues, and manage their coverage area.
A couple of weeks ago, my boss asked me to make a short presentation to coworkers about how to 'build a beat.' As of this writing, I'm working as the Istanbul correspondent for The World, a global affairs radio show and podcast distributed by PRX and GBH, and airing on NPR stations throughout the United States. My coverage area focuses on Turkey, but has stretched to include migration issues tied to Syria, Ukraine, and even Kazakhstan.
It can be intimidating to be the person your newsroom calls every time news breaks in the region, but I've figured out a process that makes it a whole lot easier. It's one of the main things aspiring reporters ask me about, so I wanted to share it:
#1 - Find your 'big themes.'
Take a notebook to a park and write this down. What do you cover, and where? What are a few of your 'reporting themes?' Pick five or so. Usually a theme has some kind of time-related arc, where an issue is getting better or worse, and affecting a large number of people. This is not an exclusive list, you'll always want to cover something outside of these ideas -- but it's a helpful guide. A way to focus.
Some examples from our coverage in Turkey include:
The plummeting value of the lira, and resulting economic crisis
Increasing violence faced by migrating people
Ongoing court cases against political rivals
You'll get a sense of these issues quickly by reading the news and having background conversations with experts. Think of these points as more of a general outline. Most breaking news will fall into one of these news 'categories.' They also tell you who you have access to talk to in the country where you're based.
I also like to add a reporting focus that's just for fun -- especially in a 'hard news' country. This can be quirky food stories, the standout from the local music scene, or even surprising archeological findings.
I do this, because when listeners hear about nonstop war, politics, and human rights violations from a certain part of the world, they tend to write it off as a 'hopeless' situation and tune out. They lose their empathy. But if you give your listeners a full appreciation for the beauty of a place, they can understand what it means to lose it.
You've gotta write about the things that make life worth living.
#2 - Prepare for breaking news
It seems obvious that political reporters have to write two versions of an election night story to meet their deadlines as soon as the polls close. And it's logical that obituary writers will prepare columns for famous people long before they've actually passed.
But the news cycle is even more predictable than that. Preparing for breaking news is a regular part of a correspondent's job, regardless of their beat.
"90 percent of news is predictable. You can figure out the rest." – NPR editor, giving advice
Once you have about five main 'themes' from the exercise above, enter them into a word document. For each one, you can start to prepare yourself to file stories on each topic when news breaks.
Background research: What are the main events that have shaped this story? When did it start? Read books, archive coverage, and take notes. If someone asked you to verbally give a summary and timeline of this issue, would you be able to?
Contact information of newsmakers: Who are the main players in this story, and how do they disseminate updates when the proverbial sh** hits the fan? Track down contact information, sign up for mailing lists and press releases, follow them on Twitter. (Use a separate email address, it gets boggy)
WhatsApp and Telegram groups: More and more, I'm finding activists organizing and/or disseminating updates on these services. Some even use Discord. Iran's latest protest movements are a prime example of Telegram used as an organizing tool, and it works well because they're so decentralized. People can add videos and updates from any city in the country. Verifying anonymously submitted information can be a challenge, so we'll cover that in another post.
Track important dates: This is easy if you're covering a bill in parliament, a court case or an election, because dates are published ahead of time. If you're writing about a country's financial crisis, see when the Central Bank, government agencies and NGOs are scheduled to post new data. Keep the dates in a calendar that you check regularly. Droughts, wars, and agriculture-related stories can also have seasonal ebbs and flows. Other timelines might be less obvious, but talking to the issue's main players will often yield tips. You can also write computer scripts to automatically check websites for updates and send you alerts.
Newsletters are your friend. They provide context, potential sources, and upcoming dates to watch. My favorite lately is Turkey Recap.
Once you've done this, it's easy to pitch an editor when news breaks. You know who to talk to, you know where it's probably happening, and you know what the impact will be.
#3 - Map out how to illustrate these themes.
Now that you're prepared for the unexpected, it's time to find your own stories that can be published outside of the breaking news timeline.
Go to your themes, and think about what your audience already knows about this situation, what questions you have, and what you want to learn. Here are some ideas to get you started on stories to pitch. Surprise surprise, this process usually follows the 'Who, What, Where, When, How" paradigm.
Who are the main players in this story? Profile them.
What is the human impact of this story?
What's the surprising exception?
Where, geographically, is it felt most acutely? Go there, and ask people how it affects them. How do they adapt? What would they want to say to those in power, if given the chance?
When did this story start, and what is the backstory? Try writing a history of the case, to bring out the context and nuance.
Why are we talking about this now? What are the greater impacts that we might not be seeing yet? The global repercussions?
How does this work? Which elements of this theme are the most confusing to detangle? Try writing an explainer.
How does this issue impact a specific group in a particularly challenging way. What about undocumented people? Children? The elderly?
Not every question you answer will be a new 'story,' but many will be. And if they don't, you'll learn new information that will help you pitch better angles.
Often, if there's an issue that keeps popping up, but none of the tiny updates feel like 'news,' it's helpful to just call a couple of people related to the story and learn more. Once you go deeper, you will find something.
Now go ahead and write!
#4 - Diversify your sourcing, and discover the unexpected
I have a theory that if you're a journalist with writers' block, it just means you haven't talked to enough people yet. Interview people until you're confident you've found the truth, and you can comfortably summarize each side's deeply held beliefs and assumptions.
There are highly talented writers who can tell you about their craft and innate skills, but I'm of the opinion that the most helpful pieces of news reporting are written by the person who just worked a little harder and talked to more people. Will you spend weeks of your life writing emails and making calls that never get an answer? Perhaps. But that fraction of people who actually DO get back to you will make the difference between a 'quick hit' and real journalism.
So how do you talk to more people? It can be work.
Just ask. Find out which organizations, advocacy groups and commercial enterprises are related to your topic, even tangentially, and call them. See what they think about X.
Make friends and listen to what they're stressed about. If you work with a translator, ask their advice -- value their opinion and pay them well.
Walk around new neighborhoods, duck into random stores, and be friendly. Build a balance for yourself with hobbies and free time to experience and appreciate the country you cover. Real life is a much better source of story ideas than the internet. If something is happening and you're excited to participate, maybe your listeners would want to hear about it too.
Learn the language, if at all possible. Watch local TV, read local news. Don't forget the indie blogs and opposition papers and journals published in minority languages. You're covering the WHOLE country, not just the majority or the people who are the easiest to talk to.
Check yourself and your bias. Look through your coverage and make sure you're reaching out to a representative sample of people. Men, women, old and young, right or poor, religious or not. To understand a community you have to really listen to and represent people from all sides of the political spectrum. You're doing yourself and your listeners a disservice if you don't. I actually keep a map of Turkey near my desk, and check off cities that I visit for work so I can see which areas I'm geographically missing.
Keep phone numbers. Send people the stories they contributed and thank them. One, it's the right thing to do. Two, one story will often spiral into a new one. When you've established contact and trust, it's easy for them to ping you when there's an update.
#5 - Pitch it!
If you've been reading my posts, you might already have a list of editors you're planning to pitch these stories too. Send each one a few sentences outlining the story, who you'll speak to, and why it matters. A few things to keep in mind:
Check the publication's earlier coverage of this issue. What's missing? What's next? Are you wading into another journalist's turf -- is a friendly phone call in order?
Some outlets require an angle that has a clear connection to their audience in the U.S. or Europe. Others are hungry for lighter stories, or stories from a particular geographic area. Know what they want -- it's ok to ask in a quick phone call -- and pitch accordingly.
I avoid outlets with a clear partisan bent, but if that's your cup of tea you'll want to tailor your pitches to that.
It ain't rocket science!
I really do wish more people knew how journalists found their stories. Maybe then there would be fewer rumors about us being spies or conspiring with politicians. It's actually really easy and straightforward to keep track of what's happening around you. You just have to pay attention.
What method do you use? Let me know in the comments.