Since Ross Perot and Jesse Ventura left the political scene, term limits for elected officials have become passè. But maybe the moribund reporting business needs a debate about a different kind of term limit — beat term limits.
This is not to say reporters should lose their jobs, as term limited politicians do. But maybe news reporting would be refreshed if reporters were forced to move from beat to beat on a more regular basis, perhaps every couple of years.
Every two years, have the airline beat reporter cover the Legislature, and have the Capitol reporter cover the tech sector. Have the Vikings reporter cover Gophers football, and have the City Hall reporter cover the suburbs. Then a couple years later, scramble it all again.
Shake it up, baby — seniors, Met Council, medical, crime, environment, financial services. Newsical chairs.
Being on a beat for a long time certainly has obvious advantages. Content expertise. Extensive networks of sources. Institutional memory.
But it also has profound drawbacks. There is a perception and/or reality that longtime beat reporters are overly forgiving or critical of subjects, institutions and sources they have come to know maybe a little too well.
Sometimes veteran beat reporters are poor at explaining complex issues to lay readers and viewers, because they come to assume their audience knows everything they have come to know.
Grizzled beat reporters don’t always see new and fresh angles or the big picture, because they have become jaded from overexposure to the same subjects and subject matter.
Entrenched beat reporters who know a subject so well they can write a piece in a few minutes without leaving their desk are pontificating, when investigating is needed.
When long-time beat reporters come to know a lot, it becomes difficult for them to know what they don’t know. So, they stop asking as many questions, the saddest fate a reporter can meet.
Dave Barry once observed ‘We journalists make it a point to know very little about an extremely wide variety of topics; this is how we stay objective.”
Is that a joke, or a model?