The decline of the beat reporter

Journalists who specialize in one field are a rarity in today’s news rooms

By Alison Pudsey and Chantelle Deacon

Photos by Brian Kurokawa

Beat reporting is becoming a thing of the past, as many media outlets no longer have the funds to support it.

Instead of focusing on one area of expertise, modern journalists are required to cover all kinds of topics, while constantly adapting. With fewer beat reporters than ever, those who remain are adamant that specialization is important—though they understand that new journalists have to be increasingly versatile in order to succeed. And the remaining few are hoping to keep their jobs for as long as possible.

Tracy Sherlock covers the education beat for the Vancouver Sun, as well as the weekly book beat. She also manages to do some general reporting when she can.

“The media is shrinking, there are fewer and fewer reporters, and everyone has to be flexible and has to be able to do everything,” Sherlock says.

Beat reporters like Sherlock have had to take on added responsibilities in recent years. “If I work an odd shift, like on a Sunday or a Saturday or a night shift, I have to do general reporting because who else would do it? If there is a fire, got to cover the fire,” Sherlock says. “There are just fewer resources; it’s harder to keep people dedicated to one specific beat.”

Sherlock says that one of the biggest advantages of covering a beat is that the reporter becomes something of an expert on the subject, and potential stories are easy to find.

“It becomes very easy getting story ideas, because people will email you with ideas,” she says. “I have way more things I could be writing about than things I do write about, because so many people are constantly approaching me, on both sides for education and books.”

Building relationships with the people in your beat makes the reporting run more smoothly, according to Sherlock.

“I have been in this role, as an education reporter, since 2013. It’s coming up to four years, and I think it takes a good solid year [to build relationships], but even those same people who I knew after a year are even closer to me now after three years.”

Pamela Fayerman, also a reporter for the Vancouver Sun, has been a health and medical issues reporter for the past 20 years. She says that covering a beat is always challenging, but she finds it very rewarding.

“I thrive on interviewing brilliant people and on this beat, most are very intelligent,” she says. “I’m a curious, keen learner, so the beat also satisfies that need. I love the fact that I am sharing important information with the public—information they need to stay healthy or get better treatment.”

Fayerman enjoys covering a beat because she loves sinking her teeth into a particular subject area. Due to high recognition in her beat, Fayerman says that doctors and other health professionals often share tips, and patients and their family members reach out to share their stories. A typical day for her starts with over 200 emails in her inbox.

“I canvas the major medical journals, as well as journals for health professionals, and then see what health authorities are up to, make calls to the provincial ministry of health and then put together story packages so editors know what I’m working on,” says Fayerman.

She argues that beat reporting is disappearing in the industry because media resources are dwindling, and the reality is that most media outlets can’t afford to have reporters on specific beats. She says the Vancouver Sun is lucky to have a strong following in the areas where they still have a beat.

“Bigger entities like the Vancouver Sun can’t afford not to have a dedicated medical reporter,” she says. “These are stories our readers want and demand, and these are stories we usually have exclusively.”

Along with Sherlock and Fayerman, the Vancouver Sun still manages to keep another beat alive: court reporting. Keith Fraser, a longtime reporter at both The Province and the Vancouver Sun, is the only reporter from any Vancouver-based media outlet still reporting on the B.C. courts full-time.

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The Vancouver Sun and The Province reporter, Keith Fraser, outside the Law Courts in Vancouver, B.C.

Fraser, who has spent the past 13 years covering crime in Vancouver, has an office tucked away at the provincial law courts. He says there were three other reporters covering law from that office as recently as 2004, but due to cut backs he is now the only one left.

Fraser says that at one time CBC had two offices in the courts and there were three reporters in CKNW’s office. Now they don’t have anyone.

“I’m fairly happy focusing on one area. The advantage of doing that is you can acquire knowledge and experience in an area,” he says. “In a case such as the law, the criminal code is a huge book and there’s a lot of stuff to learn in there, so you’re always learning new things and every case is different.”

Fraser has noticed the decline in reporters dedicated to a specific beat, and chalks it up to shrinking newsrooms.

“I think the reason for that is simply the fact that many newsrooms have been cut back quite considerably in the last number of years,” Fraser says. “We’ve all been following that in the news—how they’ve been reducing the staff of newsrooms. That’s the result, that’s what you’re seeing now: I’m the only reporter down here.”

Fraser argues that it is especially important to have strong coverage of his beat.

“The court system is an important pillar of democracy and the rule of law is very important in any democracy, and our job down here is to basically be the eyes and ears of the public—making sure the court system is working,” Fraser says.

“It’s unfortunate if there’s fewer reporters doing that. I don’t think that is good for a democracy.”

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