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Beat reporting evolves with Web-oriented shift in journalism

By eijnews

By Paige Cornwell
The Working Press

Ron Sylvester likes to say he works in the industry formerly known as newspapers.
In his 35 years as a journalist, Sylvester has covered just about every beat in the newsroom, from sports to murder trials to Las Vegas casinos.
He used typewriters when he first started. Now he uses Twitter. “In my career it’s like going from writing stuff on cave walls to the Internet,” said Sylvester, 53, a reporter at the Las Vegas Sun and a former director of the Society of Professional Journalists Region 7.
“I cover my beat as I always have, but the way you deliver the news has changed,” he said.
New technology, like smartphones that allow reporters to send emails, take photos and shoot video, combined with downsizing in newsrooms, is changing the way beats are structured, which ones get covered, and how beat reporters deliver the news.
An upside is that the changes make it easier for reporters to deliver news from their beats; a downside is that reporters have to cover more ground than they used to, said Donald W. Meyers, an open government reporter at The Salt Lake Tribune and director of SPJ Region 9.
“You aren’t getting the nitty-gritty details, but it forces you to prioritize, and ask, ‘What needs to be covered, and what can we let slide?’” he said.
Reporters who have to cover an extra beat or take on more assignments because of the changed reporting environment can try to avoid getting scooped by developing sources that will tip them to when news is about to break, Meyers said.
Sylvester said media organizations are cutting staff but trying to cover news as they always have, “and that doesn’t work.”
Despite the new hurdles, Meyers said he doesn’t see beat reporters disappearing anytime soon.
“(Beat reporters) could almost be an expert themselves,” he said. “Someone who covers the state capital — they build up a wealth of institutional memory, understand how things work so they can give people a better perspective on what has happened.” On social media, it’s journalist thinks like a beat reporter, said Andrew Seaman, who covers the medical beat for Thomson Reuters.
“There are very few journalists who successfully can reach audiences with general topics,” Seaman said.
His 1,426 Twitter followers consist mainly of doctors, nurses and medical researchers, he said.
“For someone who is just a general reporter, covering city courts, the local nursing home, grand openings, it can be a little tougher to build an audience,” Seaman said. “In terms of the industry, social media has been more favorable to the beat reporter.”
Evolving technology has also been favorable to the beat reporter, Sylvester said. He wrote a story about a new buffet at Caesars Palace, a Las Vegas resort, using his smartphone as a Wi-Fi hotspot. It’s a contrast to when, as a rookie reporter, he covered news by going to events, taking notes on paper and then going back to the newsroom to write the story and meet his print deadline.
“I’m using the same skills and working the beat the same way that I did when I was 23,” he said. “But the way you prepare it and the way you deliver it is completely different.”
When he thinks about the changes in beat reporting, Sylvester said he tells young reporters about the original use of the phrase “cut and paste.” It involved a jar of rubber cement and scissors, not a laptop and mouse, he says.
“That’s language that has survived from when we used typewriters to now,” Sylvester said. “Some of the vernacular has survived, but how you do it is different.”