13 point-plan for getting up to speed on your new beat

by July 23, 2013

Beat transitions have always been haphazard. At their best, the former beat reporter gives you her beat book (more about that later), takes you around to meet key sources and gives you the important back stories about companies and personalities. Or suddenly you have a new assignment and you’re on your own. Based on anecdotal evidence that comes my way, the latter is happening more often.

Here are a few tips to get up to speed fast (is there any other way?):

The Wire newsroom

Sharing sources and resources can make or break a beat. Of course this collegial newsroom is fictitious – its from The Wire.

1. Have a conversation with your boss. What are the expectations? Will they be measured? Any changes in the way the beat is supposed to be covered? Agree on a timetable for you getting grounded, as well as some initial areas of inquiry (I think this is a healthier way to approach it than with hard-and-fast story ideas, at least starting out). What kind of productivity does the boss expect? Can the wires be used for routine stuff leaving you to pursue exclusives, or are you expected to cover everything?

2. Read everything you can from the electronic morgue. Start with your immediate predecessor’s bylines and then go back. Get a sense of how others have covered it, as well as the most important issues, people and conflicts (including lawsuits and regulatory issues). Learn the history and culture of every company. Read the comments — sometimes they can give you a deeper understanding of the conflicts and criticisms facing the companies you’ll be covering.

3. Read other authoritative coverage on the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, plus the local business journal. Check out industry Web sites, the best online coverage and, when they exist, guerrilla sites that take an oppositional stance but can still contain useful information (Mini-Microsoft was one example, although it hasn’t been updated lately).

4. Make a list of key executives you need to meet and start setting up coffees and lunches. Be sure to ask them what the press has gotten wrong about their companies, as well as the usual questions such as the most important issues facing them. Work the flacks, of course. Get on every relevant email list, including regulators’. But remember: You want to see around corners and anticipate turning points, not react to press releases.

5. Start an experts list of the analysts, regulators and academics who cover the companies and industries. If it is unionized, find out the union leaders. Meet them if you can. Try for a phone conversation otherwise.

6. See if the newspaper will spring to send you to the industry’s No. 1 trade show. This is the best way to meet analysts. A face-to-face encounter will make it more likely that they will return your call. You’ll have a chance to meet competitors and academic sources, too.

7. Do the beat mapping” exercise developed by Michael Roberts of the Arizona Republic, and formerly the Cincinnati Enquirer. It’s worth your time.

8. On all your major and other “touchstone” companies, learn the bios of top executives and board members. Who are the comers and the has-beens, the powers behind the throne? What other boards to the directors sit on — and do they “interlock” in the community or industry?

Peter Falk as Columbo

Peter Falk’s character Columbo was famous for the line “Oh, one more thing … “

9. Don’t be afraid to be dumb in a smart way. As I’ve written before, Columbo is a great role model for a reporter. So consider writing some spec stories on some companies and industries that answer your basic questions — and then add value with new news. Readers will learn as you do.

10. Spend time on the Bloomberg terminal, the WSJ and Yahoo Finance getting a handle on each company. Who are the competition and how is your company doing in comparison? How have earnings and other metrics been holding up? How is the stock price compared with the S&P 500? Is the company heavy on debt or loaded with cash? Seeking Alpha keeps an archive of earnings call transcripts, where you can not only learn about issues but also get the names of analysts. Read every SEC document, especially the fine print where they hide real news.

11. Be aggressive. Your goal should be to become the most authoritative source on these companies and industries. Thus, you may want to do earnings stories at first just to get your feet wet (avoid cliches), even if in the future you let wires handle routine earnings.

12. Always try to find out how things are supposed to work. That way, when they deviate, you’ve got questions and maybe a story.

13. Use Twitter. Don’t just tweet your stories, but retweet interesting articles and reports on your new beat. It will get you followers who are interested in it. And follow your competitors (and hate them, beat them, even as you respect them).

That’s a start. I’m a believer in compiling a “beat book,” which is a one-source stop with all the information listed above and more. Include source phone numbers, cells and emails. It is useful if you’re on vacation and a colleague needs to pick up a story. And it’s a gold mine for when the New York Times calls and you move on. Just hand it to your successor. Back in the previous century, I asked reporters to compile beat books in three-ring notebooks (isn’t that quaint). Now we can use the cloud (and back up). You’ll always have some highly sensitive sources you may not want to include. But do pass them on to your successors.

Now hit the beat.