The beat system, under which reporters cover their beats — and only their beats — hasn’t existed in many TV newsrooms for years. And some believe that it's contributed to a decline in the quality of local TV news. Although the new economic realities of the business make the widespread return of full-fledged beat reporters unlikely, some are trying to bring them back in different and limited ways.
Are Beat Reporters Key To Better TV News?
Remember the rush of earning and covering a coveted beat?
Cops, crime. Or perhaps City Hall, schools or consumer fraud — meaty subjects, all ripe and ready to sink your teeth into, accumulating contacts and sources along the way.
But those formal beats under which TV newsrooms used to operate are fast disappearing at the majority of stations. And the dismantling of the system may be taking broadcast journalism down with it.
In the FCC’s Future of Media report released in June, author Steve Waldman takes a swipe at the declining use of the beats, saying it is one of the primary reasons why in-depth, public service stories have declined.
Way too often, local TV reporters follow stories rather than find them. Today, a reporter is more likely to recap a hospital-issued press release or news feed than uncover a public health concern, the report says. Local election coverage is particularly lacking, the report claims.
Greg Caputo, the news director at WGN, Tribune’s flagship CW affiliate in Chicago (DMA 3), says the beat system, under which reporters cover their beats — and only their beats — hasn’t existed in many TV newsrooms for years and the reason behind that make perfect sense.
“A beat reporter may go days without filing a story,” says Caputo.
Instead, WGN reporters with particular expertise or interests track certain beats, but do not cover them exclusively, he says.
“It’s not a traditional beat system, but they know what’s going on,” Caputo says. The only WGN reporter dedicated to particular coverage is a medical specialist.
It comes as no surprise that money and time constraints are cited as reasons for the demise of exclusive beats.
The concept of reporters spending the bulk of their time working a beat for stories, often coming up empty handed, would be considered a luxury at best and an impossibility by many.
Jerry Gumbert, CEO of AR&D, a local media strategy firm, says the No. 1 reason why TV news is flagging “has been a failure of news management to sustain focus on a formal beat system.”
News leaders have to realign priorities and reinstitute beat systems — and the kind of enterprise reporting that comes with them — if broadcast journalism is going to survive, he says.
Otherwise, TV newscasts will become increasingly indistinguishable from one another — a phenomenon already underway — as they become outlets for regurgitated or old news, he says.
“The result of this is catastrophic. It’s killing us because it dictates that we can only do superficial or reactive storytelling.”
In the last 15 years, the number of TV newsrooms operating with beat systems has plummeted to just one in 10, he says.
Stations in top 20 markets largely maintain beats, as do the “the great shops out there,” Gumbert says. Other stations may assign reporters to beats but require them to do general assignment reporting as well, he adds.
Today, Gumbert and others say, reporters will react in full-force to breaking news like fires and car crashes, but the concept of breaking stories through discovery is increasingly obsolete.
Bill Hoffman, EVP, Cox Media Group, sees the situation differently. “I see a world out there where there is more local news coverage going on by strong news brands than ever before.”
However, Hoffman says the kind of “beat reporter” labeling that once tied a reporter to one particular area of coverage has indeed changed. New systems, such as assigning reporters to particular geographic areas, have the same merits, such as fostering a familiarity among reporters, sources and community members.
And creating such relationships is even more important now then in the past, he says. “If you are a super brand in the marketplace, if you are the market leader, you are trying to super serve your viewers more than ever before because the contact points of that station are richer than ever before.”
Proponents of beat systems say the structure is indeed fundamental to their success.
Susan Sullivan, news director at NBC O&O WNBC New York (DMA 1), says the proof is in the number of top-tier news stories that WNBC reporters have broken on issues including widespread political corruption in New Jersey and the Martha Stewart insider trading case.
The station is reestablishing the consumer affairs and health beats, which were cut when business was bad, she says.
Greg Dawson, Sullivan’s counterpart at KNSD, the NBC O&O in San Diego (DMA 28), says he understands “if you have fewer resources it’s certainly hard to carve out beats.”
But during recent tough times his station consciously invested more in building a beat structure to distinguish KNSD from its market rivals, he says.
Dawson says station executives figured there would be bigger payoff in producing the kind of in-depth and enterprise reporting that beat reporters are known for than making everyone a general assignment reporter just to get the job of basic news coverage done.
“We have the only political reporter, the only education and only military reporters for TV and we have one of a couple of consumer reporters in the market.”
KNSD reporters spend at least four out of five days on their beats, “more time and more days then they used to,” Dawson says. “These are important issues, so covering them I think was what helped set us apart.”
Diana Marszalek writes about local TV news every other week in her Air Check column. You can reach her for comment on this column or with ideas for upcoming ones at [email protected]. For other Air Check stories, click here.