Defining a beat


In this assignment, you will define your beat, the geographical or topical area that your multimedia reporting will be tied to. Then you will gather information about your beat and use one of two software programs to display it to the public. This assignment has multiple parts, so I suggest you NOT wait until Sunday to start it.

Part 1: Defining a beat

The first thing you need to do is determine what your beat will be. You will need to choose between two types of beats:

Geographical: This area-based beat could be your hometown, the town next to yours, your neighborhood or some other area you know well or have time to learn about and visit frequently (at least three times a week). Your beat does not have to be an incorporated area, though it should be one whose geographic boundaries you can define. For example, if I were doing this assignment I might pick my neighborhood in NYC, Inwood, which is bounded by Dyckman St. to the south and the Hudson and Harlem Rivers to the west, north and east. Be careful to avoid a geographical area that is too large (New Brunswick, Montclair, Trenton) or too small (your subdivision or apartment complex). Areas that might be about the right size include Highland Park, a single ward in New Brunswick or Rutgers’ Livingston and Busch campuses. Be careful to choose an area you can easily visit several times a week. Cape May might be a great beat, but if you cannot get there at least three times a week, it will not work for this course.

Topic-based: A topic-based beat should cover something you are 1) interested in and 2) have access to. Some ideas: New Jersey Transit, environmental issues in Middlesex County, the basement music scene in New Brunswick, beach erosion and renourishment in New Jersey, religion on campus at Rutgers, community theater in your county (or a couple of counties), the visual arts in your city or county, live music in your city, an amateur or semi-pro sports league (just be careful that you can gain access AND that the sports is in season this semester), crime in your city or town, scientific research at New Jersey’s smaller colleges and universities, hyperlocal journalism in New Jersey (your beat would be covering what other people are doing in hyperlocal journalism, not doing hyperlocal journalism), recycling in your county, farmers’ markets in New Jersey. There are many, many more possibilities. Notice, however, that all these topic-based beats also have a local geographical component. It would be impossible for you to develop adequate expertise this semester if your beat were all sports, the environment everywhere, all music or beaches anywhere in the world.

Other considerations

When selecting a beat, it’s important that you:

Consider the competition. Are 20 or 30 news outlets already covering the beat you’re thinking of on a regular and substantive basis? If so, it may be hard for you to get time with the sources you will need for your coverage. (And you will need sources! This semester you will be doing fact-based digital journalism that relies on primary sources, not merely rewriting information gathered by other news operations or sharing your opinion.) There are, however, many, many communities and topics that get little coverage, as your reading about Bell, Calif., indicates. My neighborhood, Inwood, would be good in this respect, because it gets little coverage from the three New York City daily newspapers and the local TV news operations beyond breaking news. Reporters for several hyperlocal news sites do cover Inwood, but they have various interests and responsibilities and do not get to every good story.

Select a beat where you can get access. As much fun as it might be to define your beat as the New York Yankees or the lives of celebrities, it’s extremely unlikely that the Yankees would allow a grad student journalist into the clubhouse during their stretch run or that Kanye West and Kim Kardashian will decide to give you an interview about their relationship. Government bodies, however — such as town councils, city councils, boards of public school, planning boards, courts, etc. — are required by law to keep their meetings open to all citizens except in very narrow circumstances.

Think about whether your beat will produce stories all season. Even if the Yankees did allow you into the clubhouse after their last home stand, they would not be an ideal topic for a fall beat because their season will be over in a matter of weeks.

Make sure you are neither duplicating the work from your day job nor creating a conflict of interest with it. Several of you work in corporate communications or other types of strategic communication. It would be inappropriate for you to “cover” as part of a journalistic beat an entity or individual you represent in strategic communication. Doing so would make your journalism suspect; to an outsider it would appear that your coverage might be sympathetic or favorable toward your client, rather than balanced. Similarly, it would be inappropriate for you to cover a competitor to the client or clients you represent in your day job. If you did a good job of covering the competitor, you might actually hurt the client or clients you represent in your work. Likewise, it is probably not a good idea to make Johnson & Johnson your beat if you work for that company. However enlightened a corporation is, it is unlikely to appreciate one of its employees trying to cover it with the persistence of an independent journalist. Finally, your coverage in this class should be separate from any work you do as a journalist so that I can see that I’m grading you on coursework, not on how well you do your job!

Make sure that things happen on your beat regularly. For the third week of our course, Sept. 17-23, you will be assigned to cover breaking news or an event as it happens with 140-character Twitter posts. So you need a beat that is lively enough to have something going on then. It’s hard to think of a beat that wouldn’t have something you could cover during that one-week period. If your beat is a community, there is likely to be a public meeting, festival, fund-raiser, sporting event, garden clean-up, weather event (such as our recent snow) or some other happening you could cover. For example, even in my neighborhood, there are several events this week that would make for good live Twitter coverage: community board committee meetings, events in the parks, open-mike nights at local bars that specialize in live music, etc. If you come up with a topical beat, say farmers’ markets in New Jersey, you will want to check that there is one going on during that period and you can get there or that there is a meeting of people planning a farmer’s market. If you’re covering visual arts, make sure there’s an exhibition opening or exhibit you can attend. I will give you some leeway on this assignment in case you need to start it early or do it a few days late to capture a particular event. But you want to choose a beat that is lively enough that you don’t get behind in the course.

Choose a beat where you can develop expertise over the course of this semester. There are amazing things going on in theoretical physics, and some of them are no doubt happening at universities within driving distance of your home. Unless you have an unusual background, however, it may be difficult to for you to develop enough of an understanding of theoretical physics in one semester to make developments in that field a good beat. That doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t find good stories on a beat you don’t know much about. You just need to think about the complexity level of any topical beat you’re considering.

Note: I’m happy to consult with you about your beat via email, Skype or phone. Although you are not required to get approval of a beat beforehand, you might want to discuss your ideas with me so that you don’t wind up with a beat that has serious disadvantages that weren’t obvious at first.

Part 2: Researching the beat

Once you have decided on a beat, you need to research it a bit to determine:

Locations of key sites (if your beat is geographically based), such as government buildings, law enforcement agencies, community or civic centers, large parks, places where people gather (coffee shops, teen hangouts, malls)

Major issues

Recent major events

What media, if any, are covering the beat and how regular their coverage seems to be

You can do this in several ways. You might search on Google News or on local news media sites for keywords related to your beat. You might got to Twitter and search for keywords related to your beat. You might read publications of government or organizational entities relevant to your beat. It is unlikely that you will learn everything important about your beat this week, but you should make a start.

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