Chapter 5

Challenge No. 4: Rethinking beats, retraining reporters

For many local newsrooms across the country, it took a global pandemic to demonstrate how quickly and successfully newsroom leaders could restructure their coverage to truly meet readers’ needs. Reporters were reassigned to urgent topics of the moment: health and the medical community, racial justice and disparity, unemployment and business.

Two young reporters at the Hartford Courant, for example, had little experience in state government coverage and even less in pandemic coverage when they were moved to COVID-19 coverage last year. Suddenly becoming the lead coronavirus team was in itself “a crash course,” one of the reporters told Nieman Reports. That scenario is familiar to news organizations around the country, as sports reporters began covering government press conferences, features reporters were sent to cover protests, and editors had to become experts in unfamiliar issues.

Now that these topics are an essential part of many newsrooms for the foreseeable future, managers are faced with the task of finding deeper training for their reporters. And it’ll be difficult to make an excuse for not getting that training: In the past several months, nonprofits and universities have responded with free training and self-paced training sessions. The Knight Center partnered with UN agencies on a four-week COVID-19 training course, with more than 4,000 enrollees. Many, though not all, annual journalism conferences have gone virtual and free. The Thomson Foundation has a self-paced, free course on pandemic coverage in seven languages. Through its emergency fund, the IWMF has a free, online course for reporters new to covering protests and social unrest.

Other promising efforts, suggestions and ideas:

There’s never been a better time to Marie Kondo your newsroom, get over the “stop-doing” inertia and get serious about making room for new coverage areas and projects. A recent American Press Institute report provides solid guidelines for prioritizing beats and staffing by using a consistent method to measure Outlier Media’s Sarah Alvarez has a small staff and a plan for directing their time: She asks: “What is affecting the most people? What is the level of harm? Where are there gaps in what people need to know?”

The Buffalo News analyzed its food coverage and found that some of those resources could be better used elsewhere; and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel killed a Facebook Live show that didn’t spark a lot of metrics joy.

But as you discontinue or change beats and projects, advises Joy Mayer of Trusting News, be sure to tell your audience first and tell them why. “When people don’t understand something about our work, they will not give us the benefit of the doubt,” Mayer says. “They will make assumptions, and those assumptions will likely be negative.”

As many newsrooms expanded their education coverage due to the complicated impact of the pandemic on schools, reporters and editors in some cases were suddenly assigned to cover new topics. In February, the Education Writers Association created a virtual “caucus” as a way for “education reporters on the front lines to help the public make sense of the pandemic’s impact on schools and students.” EWA also has a “New to the Beat” program for less experienced reporters.

The intersection of the pandemic and the 2020 election also has changed the way local journalism needs to approach political coverage. Local government and policy reporting have become more relevant, and more reporters will need to be prepared when national leaders show up in town to talk about the local impact of federal policies. Look for free and grant-funded training, like this series of workshops on covering state legislatures from the National Press Foundation.

For new reporters on new beats, managers can consider providing targeted, in-house — and importantly, free — training led by knowledgeable staffers. The Detroit Free Press conducted an all-encompassing training session to show reporters how to verify and check information, no matter what their coverage area. The journalists learned how to use the latest fact-checking apps and tools in their work. But newsroom managers should also recognize when they need to go outside the newsroom for specialized training. The NewsFuel directory is a good resource for searching relevant opportunities, as well as this updated list of free and grant-funded workshops for journalists.