Working the beat: Reaction to Chapter 2 of ‘America’s Best Newspaper Writing’

Chapter 2: Local Reporting and Beats

The second chapter of “America’s Best Newspaper Writing” offers a nice introduction to local reporting and beats.

Local reporting is covering events in a local region, in a closer in proximity region.

Local reporting can also have beats. For example, if a reporter was covering education in a town, Burlington, N.C., he may have beats such as: Town beats, county beats, school boards, town council.

The New York Times Media Decoder blog had a post on March 25, 2010 about the Corporation for Public Broadcasting working against the decline in local journalism. CPB set up funds for seven regional reporting projects.

Beats are a topic or similar topics that a reporter focuses on in several articles. The reporter has to go to the location of the beat.

The New York Times describes beat reporting here.

Chip Scanlan of the Poynter Institute describes beat reporting here.

Some beats include:

  • Crime, cops
  • Health, medicine
  • Education (Ex. higher education, elementary education)
  • State government coverage
  • Religion
  • Business
  • Technology
  • Science
  • Cars, automobile reviews
  • Literature
  • Theatre
  • International affairs

Editors Roy Peter Clark and Christopher Scanlan explain and show the importance of focusing on a topic and gaining experience on the beat.

The great writers included in this chapter seemed to have followed a pattern of tightly constructed articles. This focus makes a topic more understandable for readers.

Clark and Scanlan make a point of how important the lead is to a story. The lead offers a point of entry into a story. How a reporter starts the story, when and how a reporter chooses to bring the reader in is extremely important, Clark and Scanlan said. The article’s lead sets up the tone and theme from the outset.

When writing a lead, ask yourself, ‘How do you bring the reader into a story?’

The length of a story should also be given much thought. Brevity can be a powerful and effective technique, but it doesn’t work with all topics or stories. Some articles can be short and be just as effective as if they were 400 words longer. The writing and story must remain accessible and comprehensible. Writing doesn’t have to be dry, formal, dull and lengthy all the time, according to Russell Eshleman Jr. Eshleman Jr.’s articles about the state government were very concise and brief, but the story was still strong.

Articles should have an authentic, distinctive and powerful voice. This gives the story flavor, flair and personality — it makes it different from any other story. Sometimes, directly addressing the reader can work to give the article voice. “You have no idea what that means to a kid like Dewon,” Mitch Albom said about compliments given to a black teenager who grew up in the city. “The bullet life goes on every day in Detroit, right under our suburban noses. But you can’t get it behind you.” This direct address serves to bring the reader into the story, helps push Albom’s point of the column. He ends the column by saying youth have learned the lesson that guns are not toys and shouldn’t be so accessible, from experience, by what’s the excuse for the rest of us, for adults? The direct address makes the reader feel a bit guilty. Boswell also uses this technique when he tells the reader to pick up “a back page of The Sporting News and squint down at the onetime headline names now just fine print at the very bottom of a column of averages.”

Articles that include metaphors and allusions help to broaden cultural knowledge and make stronger connections with readers. Thomas Boswell alludes to a poem by Dylan Thomas and Emily Dickinson in his sports writing. These references and comparisons help readers’ understanding.

The great writers in this chapter also made use of very descriptive, showy details and anecdotes. This figurative language, detail and description helps readers see events, see people, hear dialect and voices, hear the atmosphere, smell the atmosphere and feel. Readers live vicariously through articles, stories and writing, so writers must include many details to help readers along. Writers work hard to set scenes and show places, instead of merely telling readers what happened. Telling is bland, showing is where the details and good writing are found. Writers work hard to allow their readers to see, hear, taste, smell and feel like they were at the event or witnessing the source speaking. Writers work to describe.

The editors mentioned the resonant detail that is evident in good stories, good articles. The resonant detail is a part of the showing of events and people, it sticks out in the article, it remains with the reader after they have finished the article and walked away. It sticks.

There were many resonant details in Jonathan Bor’s article about the first resident in Syracuse to receive a heart transplant. One that was extremely vivid was, “Doctors had used a power saw to cut through his sternum, and a clamp-like retractor to spread his chest apart.” The description is very detailed and offers readers an image to help them be there, in the moment, and not just read about it.

These tightly constructed articles of the great writers is planned and implemented carefully and with rigorous discipline, like Neil’s articles. The construction of the sentences within the article is a key element to good writing. Varying up how sentences are constructed offers relief to readers and keeps the story interesting. Some of the great writers in this chapter varied their sentences by writing one or a few long sentences and then one short one. This creates a sort of rhythm that is so beneficial to writing, to conveying information. Pacing and rhythm is created when a writer provides sentence length variation. Rhythm can give sentences and articles a sense of music, but it also helps the readers to not read the same sentence construction again and again — that can become boring and lifeless. Putting a musical quality in stories, crafting stories with rhythm is more interesting and effective.

The flow or pacing of a story is also important. When crafting an article or story think of telling a story, learn from the great storytellers who told “long, beautiful stories with drama and danger and great detail,” like Rick Bragg did. The flow is an essential part of the story as it helps weave together the complex issues. Journalists must translate complex issues for readers, according to Clark and Scanlan, and their stories must move readers toward a feeling or action. Writing can’t just be telling a good story, it must be reaching for something more, trying to get under the surface level, trying to push for something better or reform or a change. When a journalist writes an article, he must think about the common good, he must think about ethics, he must think about how influential his writing can be.

The take-home message of this chapter is not that writing is easy and one can use these techniques to always create a great, informative story. The message is that a writer isn’t ever done and set in his ways. Writers must always continually learn new ways, better or other ways, how to select quotes and details better, how to describe better, how to tell a story more effectively, how to get more detail and storytelling quotes from a source. Writing and being a communicator, a journalist is being involved in a perpetual learning process.

Top 5 list of local reporting and beat writing articles:

1.Family of Fairfax teen suicide victim wants changes in school disciplinary policies, The Washington Post

By Donna St. George

This story is an example of local reporting, and possibly beat writing on education or local high schools. The article opens up and reveals a debate going on in the education community, about high school rules and enforcement policies and what violations should be given a certain level of disciplinary action. It also brings up suicide caused in part from the pressure and stress of the disciplinary actions and hearings and expulsion of a sophomore from his high school, friends, teachers and football team.

The lead brings the reader directly into the story, into the most recent event: the suicide of a local high school student. This sets up a somber and serious tone immediately. The tone helps push George’s, the student’s and his family’s and a school board member’s point that the disciplinary actions need to be reviewed.

The family of a Fairfax teenager who took his life as he struggled with the fallout of a high school suspension called for changes in the county’s disciplinary policies, in a letter sent Monday to school and county officials.

—George

George has storytelling quotes in this article. George quotes a school board member who completely critically questions the effectiveness of disciplinary actions against students, of requiring disciplinary school transfers

One particularly strong and emotional quote is from the father of the student who committed suicide. The father said he and his wife “are not looking for a pound of flesh,” he said. “It doesn’t get us anything. Nick is still not going to be with us.”

Their goal, he said, is policy change so other families do not “have to endure an abusive system” or face similar tragedy.

The article is shorter compared to others in The Washington Post. George’s article fits on one Web page, while other articles often go on for three or five pages. George’s article is example of brevity, but it still manages to give a lot of information.

The pacing of this article is deliberate and thought out. George gives the reader a background on the Fairfax student’s “stupid decision” as he called it in a letter, the disciplinary actions, his letter that the expulsion was too extreme of a punishment and then his eventual suicide. The pacing and timeline of the article allows the suicide to be more understood by readers.

2. New hope for halting a killer illness, The Baltimore Sun

By Diana K. Sugg

This Pulitzer Prize winning article for beat reporting is about sepsis, a serious medical condition. Sugg provides a short description of the article up front, “Sepsis: In their efforts to fight a degenerative, often-lethal infection, doctors explore a new drug treatment.”

The article uses a character, not just a source, to tell the story through. JoAnn Barr’s experience with sepsis provides the detail, information and tone for the story.

Sugg’s lead sets the serious and grave tone of the article, of how the illness begins and affects people.

She thought it was just a cold. Her throat was sore, and she felt tired all over. But as JoAnn Barr got her son ready for school that morning in March, she started gasping for breath. Within a few hours, Barr was on a ventilator in intensive care, her blood pressure bottoming out, her kidneys failing.

—Sugg

The lead uses details and one woman’s experience to help tell the story and get the reader into the article. It’s very effective.

Sugg describes “the fast-moving, often-lethal condition known as sepsis” through Barr’s experiences. Using such details allows the reader to live vicariously through the writing, to see and feel what Barr did, to understand sepsis better.

Sugg uses strong descriptions throughout the article. One description is, “It’s an illness that rages through the victim’s bloodstream, unleashing a fury of reactions that kill tissues and shut down organs.” Descriptions should work to make the reader understand and have clear images. Sugg’s descriptions do this.

Another strong description is, “the illness explodes with symptoms including violent chills, delirium, a spiking fever or faintness. When Barr felt short of breath, she called a neighbor, but when they arrived at Carroll County General Hospital’s emergency room 10 minutes later, Barr’s blood pressure was so low she was almost unconscious.” Sugg first explains the symptoms of sepsis, but she goes on to show how it manifested itself in one woman, in Barr. This truly helps readers to understand better and connect with the illness, connect with Barr.

Sugg also alludes to an author’s description of sepsis, furthering the reader’s understanding of the medical condition.

One author described sepsis in 1881 as “the rude unhinging of the machinery of life,” said Dr. Gordon R. Bernard, a Vanderbilt University professor of medicine and founding chairman of the International Sepsis Forum.

—Sugg

Sugg’s use of storytelling quotes is extremely powerful in this article. She quotes Barr, many doctors and Barr’s husband.

One doctor’s quote is very emotional: “It’s the most awful, scary thing to actually take care of,” said Dr. Trish Perl, Johns Hopkins Hospital’s epidemiologist. “You just watch people die, and it doesn’t matter what you do.” It took a lot of deep reporting and time on the medical beat and hospital to get such quotes.

3. Government blind to child-care fraud, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

By Raquel Rutledge

Rutledge’s article is one of a series of Journal Sentinel articles about people who con the child care system of Wisconsin. This is an example of local reporting and possibly beat reporting about child care and fraud.

The lead brings the reader into the story at a crucial point, months ago when Sue Meyers, a child care caseworker awarded more than $700 a week of state child-care subsidies to a woman known to be scamming the system. The woman was a convicted cocaine dealer. Meyers retired soon after that. The reporter lets the reader know that Meyers denied to comment for the article, further showing her in a negative light.

Rutledge focuses part of the article on Katria Wright, the cocaine dealer and woman who conned the publicly funded Wisconsin Shares program, a child care system, out of thousands of dollars. This offers many details and personal experiences for the article. The other sections of the article are broken up by subheads and offer different points and perspectives on the story. For instance, one section details the lax oversight of Washington, D.C. of child care fraud.

Rutledge writes with much authority in her voice, with a strong, powerful voice. She isn’t afraid to accuse government officials, especially child care caseworkers, of sharing the blame of fraud.

While unscrupulous parents and providers steal from the system, government officials – from caseworkers and data-entry clerks to lawmakers and Gov. Jim Doyle – share the blame.

They haven’t stopped it.

—Rutledge

The construction of these two paragraphs is deliberate. Rutledge chooses to make the second graf one sentence, a brief sentence with a punch. She varied the construction and length of the sentences, like the great writers did in the chapter.

She interviews many people from different perspectives and parts of the story, including caseworkers, government officials and state representatives. She is holding people accountable. “Accountability dissipates,” Rutledge writes. “Many counties haven’t reported any cases of child-care recipient fraud for years. Investigators who consistently find fraud in their counties say investigators elsewhere simply haven’t been looking.”

Rutledge also effectively chunks the information. She uses subheads, bullets to break out the information, many infoboxes or infographics, pictures, a graphic of documents and legislation, an infographic of a timeline of important dates in the story when the child care system was conned and there was neglect from caseworkers.

4. Serious crime on Metro hits 5-year high, The Washington Post

By Ann Scott Tyson

Tyson uses statistics, interactive graphs and storytelling, descriptive quotes to tell the story of crime rates rising on the Metro transit system in D.C. and Md.

The lead gives sufficient background to the readers. Tyson explains that serious crime has increased in the Metro by 12 percent last year. She also includes what the crimes have mostly been: robberies of electronic devices and aggravated assaults.

This is Tyson’s beat — Metro and crime.

In the article, Tyson breaks down the statistics to show how individual types of crime have risen in number.

Tyson also includes descriptive quotes and resonant details. One in particular is of a woman who recalls being robbed on the Metro, how a thief took Jennifer Schell’s iPod so fast the iPod buds were “still in her ears and a dangling wire left where the device should have been.” It is these details that stick with the reader and help him understand the story better.

Tyson also reaches to connect the story to nationwide statistics and trends. “The electronics thefts, following a nationwide trend among big-city transit systems, became so prevalent,” she writes.

5. Montgomery College sued over illegal immigrant policy, The Gazette

By Erin Cunningham

Cunningham starts the story out in a great place. The lead includes a personal anecdote about illegal immigration, education and how one student at the local community college couldn’t afford to go to school without paying the lowest tuition rate available. The ability for illegal immigrants to pay the lowest rate is being threatened in a lawsuit. The lead is one sentence and offers an emotional pull: “Yves Gomes has been supporting himself since his parents, who were in the country illegally, were deported in 2008.”

Gomez is attending community college and getting an education — but several government officials and Md. residents believe he is cheating the system and taking away tax dollars. Three Md. residents filed a lawsuit against the college “seeking to overturn its practice of granting the lowest tuition rates to some illegal immigrants, like Gomes,” Cunningham wrote.

This article is an example of beat reporting and local reporting. The beat is education and falls under an issue of much debate — illegal immigrants’ rights and education.

Cunningham includes storytelling quotes from Gomez, other students, lawmakers and officials from Judicial Watch, the watchdog group that is representing the residents in the lawsuit.

  • “It’s taxpayer waste, fraud and abuse,” said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch.
  • “Basically, they are trying to make it hard for us,” Gomez said.

The voice in Cunningham’s piece is clear and sure. Toward the end of the article, Cunningham writes, “Montgomery County Council President Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring said helping make college affordable for all students will benefit the local economy.” Allowing people with differing opinions to have a voice in the article is important. But Cunningham makes the choice to have Ervin end the piece. Ervin’s opinion sticks with the reader.

Ervin’s quote is especially powerful, and Cunningham again made the deliberate choice to construct the article to leave the reader with her voice and opinion. “I see no problem with allowing children of immigrants to attend college and not make it cost-prohibitive for them to participate in our economy,” Ervin said. This construction may show that the reporter believes more strongly with Ervin’s side, so the construction was chosen this way. But the reporter does not show bias in any way or through voice, it is through selection and construction that the message and story is told.

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About Marlena Chertock

Marlena Chertock's first collection of poetry, On that one-way trip to Mars, is available from Bottlecap Press. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Marketplace, and WTOP. Her poems and fiction has appeared in The Deaf Poets Society, Moonsick Magazine, and Paper Darts.

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