11 commandments of beat coverage

I seem to pull this out every time I go searching in my email history for something else. I used to give this to my new staffers to read back in the day. Enjoy.

11 Commandments of Beat Coverage

By JOHN SWEENEY
Wilmington, Del., News Journal

1. Know Your Readers

Know who your readers are. Know where they live, work and play. Learn
what forces affect them. Know the demographics, know the history, know the
traditions.
Learn — and never forget — what your readers want from your coverage.
To avoid the trap of writing for your sources, remember your readers’
N-I-C. That stands for Needs, Interests and Curiosity.
Need deals with essential information. Readers may need information to
act, such as how to order concert tickets, how to file for tax relief, how
to avoid a jammed highway.
Interest deals with the information the reader wants. Readers’ special
interests may demand thorough coverage on the news, including background
and strategies. Interests vary in scope and intensity. Compare the limited
range of people interested in historic houses to the much larger range of
the sports fans.
Curiosity deals with story elements that no appeal across the board.
Human drama, winners-losers, courage, love, danger, and, above all,
suspense. If you can put a human face on an issue, if you can show the
clash of forces and the human element, you will pull readers into
supposedly boring public policy stories.
Know what your readers know. If few people in your area know anything
about lacrosse, your story must do some explaining. Always remember the
reader.

Six questions you must ask of every story:

1. What is the news?
2. What is new about it?
3. Why is it news?
4. Who is it news to?
5. Will they know it is news?
6. What will it take to get them to read it?

2. Know Your Calendar

Know the official-announced calendar: meetings, contract lengths,
holidays. Know the unofficial-unannounced calendar: budget seasons,
training trips, reports, reviews.

3. Keep a Tickler File

One file for next year, one file for each month of the year, one set of
files numbered 1 through 31 for daily stories, one file for folo ideas.
Keep clips, notes, questions, ideas. Feed and review the files every day.

4. Get Four-Deep Files

Gather names, work and home phone numbers, titles, e-mails, addresses of
the top people and second-level, third-level, fourth-level people. Know the
lines of authority: who reports to whom.
Get to know secretaries, assistants, service people. They are the
gatekeepers. They can give or deny you access. Above all, treat them as
real human beings. They will respond in kind.

5. Understand the Laws, Limits and Powers

Know how the law empowers and limits the boards, businesses and
organizations on your beat. If it’s a zoning board, know how far the board
can go and where it can’t go. If it raises taxes, know what constraints the
board deals with. If it spends money, know where that money comes from and
when.

6. Know the Constituencies

Know the constituency your subjects serve. Make sure you know the
difference between the official and unofficial constituency. For example,
state boards serve all of the people. But the agricultural department
listens more closely to the big-time grower of a vegetable crop than the
consumer. A sewer authority may seem to have independence, but in reality
all of the members may be indebted to a political boss.
A good way to find out who is being served is to follow the money. The
major employer in town may get special privileges because its pays a lot of
taxes. Or a corporation may have easy access because it and its employees
contribute heavily to candidates.
Know who makes up the “permanent government.” Elected officials may come
and go, especially on the local level. School board members, in most
communities, hold full-time jobs outside of the school district. No matter
how diligent the member is, she won’t wield as much immediate influence on
a low-level school official as the superintendent will. In those cases, the
power may seem to be in the power of the elected officials, but teachers
answer to their principal and the principal answers to the superintendent.
Understand that power relationship.

7. Find the Wise Men and Women

They exist on every beat. These are the “go to” people who command
respect, wield power and dispense advice. Sometimes they hold a title of
power, sometimes they don’t. For example, a union official or a businessman
may be calling the shots for the local party. Know the ones your sources go
to. Develop your own wise men inside, outside and alongside the beat.

8. Understand the Dollars, Problems and Jargon

Boards, authorities and other official and semi-official entities
operate amid budget limits, industry-wide forces and technical language.
Know them. Translate the jargon ahead of time. Learn how to give readers
clear examples. For instance, know how a tax increase will affect the
typical home owner. Work this out in advance if you can.

9. Question Every Government Story

1. What is the service being offered or being taken away?
2. Who gets it? Who loses it?
3. What do residents have to pay?
4. How will it affect people? At what point in the process will they
feel the effect? When?
5. How can we judge it a success or a failure?
6. When can we judge it a success or failure?

10. Know How Meetings Work

Where are the meeting notices posted?
How much in advance is the agenda available?
Where does the board advertise its bids and other legal notices?
When do they run?
Is there a press packet or a board member packet that you could get
regularly?
Who is the best person to give a more useful description of the agenda
if it lacks detail?
Does the board hold briefings, background or workshop sessions to hear
reports and technical discussions? When and where are they held?
What are the procedures for a board to go into executive session and
under what conditions may they meet in private?
How do you get the minutes of an executive session?
If a majority of a board is gathered in the same room, do the members
have a quorum that is subject to all FOI laws? What constitutes a quorum of
your boards?
Does the FOI law extend to board committees?
What board decisions require a simple majority to pass? Which ones
require a super majority?
When is the public comment period in the board meeting schedule?

11. Follow, Follow, Follow

Use your calendar, use your tickler file, use your contacts. Spin the
story forward. Ask what happens next, then get that story in your planning
book. Look beyond the daily stories. Look for trends. Start keeping two
notebooks. Use one for filing daily stories. Use the other for feature and
long-range ideas. Save string, as the saying goes. Save the odd bit of
information about a subject. Save the good quotes and the ideas. Every now
and then tie the strings together.

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