Every now and then, students and aspiring journalists write to me for advice about entering the field. Here’s an email I sent recently, published with permission.
Been reading your book and what you’re seeing about choosing a beat really resonated with me. I realize part of my problem journalism wise has been being too much of a generalist.
What I’ve been struggling with has been nailing down exactly what my beat is. The topics I’ve reported on are so varied and all of them seem important to me that it’s hard to give any one of them up, but I also feel spread thin enough where it’s difficult to call myself an expert in one.
I feel like where I need to make a decision is whether to cut down on the things I’m writing about and focus on one or two or find someway tie all those things together.
It’s questions like this that make me realize a book is never finished. When I wrote that chapter back in December 2012, I was covering fandom, visually oriented social media (like Pinterest and Tumblr), and Internet pop culture in general.
Today I’m covering robotics, DIY hardware projects with Raspberry Pi, DIY software projects with HTML5, 3D printing, and plenty of high-tech explainers for non-developers who want to learn about development. And of course, I write about anime on my blog.
So here are a few of my latest discoveries about building a reporting beat:
A beat is linear
A linear beat helps you focus
Just in the time I’ve been at ReadWrite, I’ve covered about 10 or 15 different topics. But right now, I’d say I’m only focusing on five. I am a journalist, not an expert, and I can’t be expected to know a ton about a lot of subjects. But through practice and repeated coverage, I can be an informed and informative go-to on a couple of things at a time.
You can have a work beat and a personal beat
I keep a lot of topics on my Google News homepage like “Raspberry Pi” and “Drones.” But I also have an alert on “anime” because I want to be the first to know when the English-speaking press writes about it. I will never cover it for my day job, but since it’s interesting and important to me, it is something I still report on, just elsewhere.
How does this answer your question? I think the reason you’re having difficulty deciding on a beat because you’re worried that if you make the wrong choice, you’re stuck with it. But what I’ve realized is that a beat isn’t permanent. It is always changing overtime.
“But what kind of journalist do I brand myself as, if my beat is always changing?” you are probably thinking. The answer to that is your portfolio, which shows five to 10 of your latest stories on the topic or topics you want to cover. And if you decide you’d rather be hired to cover something else, you can rearrange your portfolio to reflect that.
You listed anime, videogames, and comics as some of the topics you’re interested in being hired to write about. [Note: I shortened the email to preserve anonymity.] I don’t think that’s too wide at all; it all fits under a “geek reporter” umbrella. I know that I could hire you to write about alternative culture for Wired or the new Avengers movie for the AV Club. If that’s still uncomfortably vague for you still, you could try to narrow it down by the type of reporting you like to do best. Maybe your specialty is thought provoking interviews with the creators of these things? Or maybe your plan is to become best known for your think pieces that review TV shows through a philosophical lens? Just spitballing here.
But let’s say your beats don’t quite all fit under one umbrella. In that case, it might also be helpful to have two portfolios. Even though everything I write about is pretty geeky, I do this by having both a portfolio and a blog. I’ve gotten job offers from potential employers who have come to each, and the job offers are as different as the way I portray myself on each site.
I hope this gets you thinking about beats in a more optimistic way. Just focus on the subjects you’re most interested right now, and let it evolve from there.
Got the opposite problem? Check out my advice to a reporter who didn’t want to generalize.
Do you have a question you’d like to ask? Drop me an email or visit my Tumblr Ask box.