Here’s some advice on becoming a beat reporter from Mitch Wagner, tech journalist and fellow member of the Internet Press Guild.
I was a beat tech reporter for 12 years, and a beat reporter on community newspapers for four years before then. I changed beats a lot. Changing beats a lot is great because it makes you a generalist. You need to be a generalist to survive in tech journalism, because technologies become obsolete fast, and dominant companies become unimportant dinosaurs in a few years.
You also need to *specialize* to survive in journalism, but there’s really no contradiction here. Your specialization is technology, and you should strive to become as much of a generalist within that field as possible.
So congratulations! You just started your first day as a beat reporter! You don’t have anybody to show you the ropes, because your predecessor was fired summarily after an unfortunate incident involving the publisher’s niece which nobody’s willing to talk about. Nobody on the publication knows anything about this new beat – including you – but you’re now expected to be an expert! Here’s how to get yourself up to speed.
1) Write a lot. That’s about 90% of it right there. Keep interviewing people for stories, write a lot of stories, and that’ll get you up to speed. When you are doing interviews for your stories, keep asking questions about anything you don’t understand.
1a) If you’re talking to marketing people, they probably don’t understand the issues either, but they’ll pretend you do. If someone keeps talking and talking and you *still* don’t understand what they’re saying, it’s probably because they don’t know what they’re talking about but are pretending they do. Try to talk to product managers instead of marketing managers.
2) Get yourself on every press release distribution list within your specialty that you can. Contact MediaMap and Barrons to let them know your beat. Sign up for PRNewswire and BusinessWire to receive press releases on your beat. This will be a great source of stories at first. You’ll quickly outgrow it, but you can – and should – just write e-mail filters to shunt the press releases off into a folder somewhere and check that folder once or twice a day.
2a) It’s easier to write filters to whitelist good e-mail, and let everything that’s not on the whitelist go into a folder that you check once or twice a day.
2b) You are signing up to receive a ton of spam forever. Alas, that can’t be helped.
3) Learn who the competition is, and read them religiously. Your editors can tell you who the competition to the publication is – read them. Read CNET, InformationWeek, Computerworld, and eWeek. Read the New York Times and Wall Street Journal technology sections. Let Google tell you which are the niche publications in your beat area – type in the name of the technology and beat you cover and see what floats to the surface in blogs and publications. Occasionally ask your sources which publications they read and which conferences to attend. Which brings us to:
4) Get out of the office and meet people face-to-face. I live in San Diego, which is not Silicon Valley or New York but it ain’t Bismarck, North Dakota, neither. I get out for a few days every couple of months to conferences and to meet people who happen to be local. It’s great for developing sources and getting new story ideas, but it’s also exhausting. I’m a freaking Internet hermit, it’s a beautiful Saturday today and I’m still sitting here at my desk on the damn internets. But it’s necessary to get out and meet face-to-face.
5) Here in the 21st Century, it’s also necessary to be on the internets. Participate in discussion on blogs and forums and mailing lists in your beat area. Get on LinkedIn and Facebook and Twitter. It’s a form of networking – just like getting out of the office.
6) Several people on this group have suggested off-the-record background conversations with analysts and vendors to discover what are the big issues. I’m not a big fan of that. To the best of your ability, every conversation should be on the record. You’re not serving your readers if you can’t put it in print.
6a) Casual conversations at conferences – over lunch or drinks – are in sort of a gray area between on the record and off the record. When I hear something juicy during a casual conversation, I run it by the source to see if it’s ok to print it. I’m not asking permission when I do this, but I am listening to what they have to say in response. Possible responses: “Yeah, sure, go ahead and print it,” or “I don’t remember saying that. Did I really say it? Why on Earth did I say a stupid thing like that? They must have put something in my coffee.”
7) See tip #1. Write a lot.
That’s all I can think of for now.