Newsical Chairs

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?

– Loveland

4 thoughts on “Newsical Chairs

  1. Joe,

    Fundamentally I agree with you. Many reporters need a fresh start or a new perspective on things, and there’s no reason they can’t keep their existing source network in their new beat. It might even help them put a unique angle on what otherwise might be a tired story.

    However, I wouldn’t want to make it a policy. Could you see Helen Thomas dumping the White House beat? Mark Brunswick off the Capitol beat? Bob McNaney not covering airlines? Sid Hartman leaving sports? (Ok, maybe that one’s not a good example.) Some reporters have the passion and the skill to complement that great network and institutional memory, and they deliver outstanding work for their news organization. I’d want to keep ’em where they are.


  2. Joe Loveland says:

    I’m not a policy kinda boy, but this probably doesn’t work if the sacred cows (and bulls) remain untouchable. Helen surely could do fab work covering Congress or the FCC, and the new Helen could bring the kind of freshness and energy Helen brought her first two years on the job.

    Sid. Need I say more.

  3. I found it hugely amusing that David Broder and Howard Kurtz this weekend on Meet The Press said journalists testifying at the Scooter Libby trial (shouldn’t he be in jail just for being called “Scooter” and having a hand in our fate?) was a bad thing because it would show the close relationships between sources and reporters and make people think reporters are used by sources.
    And nobody on the panel burst out laughing, shooting coffee out their noses!
    Those guys are used every day! Give ’em a doggie treat and they’ll bring you your slippers.
    Too long on the beat means too much incest.
    I.F. Stone said all these private briefings and off-the-record dinners are harmful to the public, because they dull the reporters’ edge for digging in the record of what people do, not what they say, and keep reporters from being tough on dinner companions.
    The Newsical Chairs idea might make reporters actually report what happens, not what sources say happens.

  4. I couldn’t agree more about the incest that comes with longevity. But I disagree that Helen could work her magic elsewhere. That woman’s passion is to make the most powerful man in the world squirm. (And I mean that as a compliment.)

    Some beats are like good marriages — the person is energized by the beat and the beat grows because of the person’s energy. But I realize this isn’t a blog about marriages.

    What I’m saying is in certain circumstances, staying on the beat is best for all, including the public.


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