What is a beat?

NBCU Academy 101

Reporters can cover a variety of topics, from the latest breaking news to deep investigative features that can take months of digging. At NBC News, we have general reporters, who cover just about anything, who know a little bit about everything, and beat reporters, who are experts about one topic.

Joy Wang, NBC News senior editorial director for planning and diversity journalism, Joy Wang talks you through what a beat is and how you can start reporting on one.

What exactly is a beat? In journalism, a beat is an area of specialization where you have developed sources and have proven your expertise with your published stories. Think of it as a cop on the beat. If news breaks within your territory, your editor will know that you’re the best person to quickly produce an article or appear on camera with an accurate report. You already know everything about the topic and have the right sources in your phone contacts. 

There are three main kinds of beats:  

  • Territorial are defined geographically and can be as broad as “the Midwest” for a national outlet or as specific as a neighborhood for a local newspaper.   
  • Jurisdictional are defined by a government agency, like the Justice Department, or a corporate entity, like Facebook. Jurisdictional beats can also cover such things as a school district, local government or even a major local business. 
  • Topical beats focus on specific issues like politics, weather and health. It might be helpful to be more specific within those broad areas, such as being an expert on one particular politician.   

How do you pick a beat? Start with your interests or subjects you know well. Maybe you love trying new foods, or you’re always reading up on the latest tech gadgets. Whatever it is, there may be a beat for it. 

Define exactly what your beat entails. Figure out what topics and issues fall within your beat. From an editor’s perspective, a narrower beat is better. If you’re covering business, for example, should you focus on the stock market or a particular industry? Do you keep track of specific companies within your realm? Whom should you be reaching out to for any updates? The nature of your topic and your news organization may shape how much your beat covers daily news versus longer-term enterprise reporting.  


Smartquote
Start by asking yourself: ‘What am I most interested in? What do I know a lot about?’ Then really become an expert at it because that will make your work more compelling.
Joy Wang