Beats and desks are organizational structures for larger newsrooms. Beats apply to reporters. Desks apply to groups of reporters.
The beat system is an effective way to organize your newsroom so that individual reporters can focus on a specialty.
Ideally the beat system allows you to divide your team in a way that all your news content falls into one of the beats — though this usually requires a fairly large staff and a broad interpretation of the beat subject.
Even a modest size staff can support a beat system provided the beats are flexible and all reporters retain some responsibility for general assignment coverage.
In no case should the beat system hamper your news coverage. For example, it isn’t acceptable to miss an important story because “it wasn’t on anyone’s beat!” or “that was Joe’s beat and he was out sick!”
Typical subject beats (and possible “side beats”) include
- Health (and medicine)
- Business (and economics)
- Justice (and public safety)
- Education (and children)
- Science (and technology)
- Environment (and land use)
Examples of geographical or institutional beats include
- The state
- The city and county
- The military base
- The school district
- Local government
- Police and fire
Beats based on subject matter usually provide broader story opportunities than beats based on geographic regions or institutions. (For example, an environmental reporter may trace a pollution issue from a city waterway to a state and federal agency, whereas a city reporter may not trace the matter beyond the city’s jurisdiction.) Often an institution figures prominently in a subject beat (like the school board figures prominently in the education beat) but doesn’t define the contours of the beat.
No matter the basis of the beat system, it is important that reporters share across beats and collaborate in the best interests of the public. Sometimes it makes sense to set up temporary beats — say, for an election or after a disaster — to provide a short-term emphasis on a subject.
Before forming a beat system, a News Director should carefully consider staffing levels, coverage area, and coverage priorities. A beat signifies a priority and should be defined in terms of your news mission.
Desks are similar to beats except they imply a larger unit of organizational structure. Where beats are normally associated with individuals, desks are usually manned by teams. A desk typically includes an editor who manages the desk, and reporters and/or producers who supply the content.
Desks may follow the beat logic — based on subject matter, for example — but allow for greater specialization within the subject matter. So, an environmental desk may task reporters to several beats such as energy, endangered species, etc.
Desks are effective ways to organize the newsgathering in big companies with multiple news shows or channels (which share the central reporting provided by the desk). This reduces duplication of effort by individual shows or channels. An example at NPR is the Science Desk with its team of editors and reporters and assistants. From this desk, spots are fed to the newscast unit, features are fed to the magazine shows (Morning Edition, All Things Considered, etc.), science correspondents are invited on shows, and all science stories are vetted.