Some journalists stay on the same beat for so long you could swear the industry would have to disband upon their retirement. But for most of us, movement is the one constant in our careers.
You might cover high tech one year, shift to finance and banking another, and then report on agriculture further down the line. Career success depends on how gracefully you can make the transitions in a tight timeframe. Publications need coverage today, and waiting for you to get up to speed isn’t in the budget.
What you need is a set of skills to help you gracefully segue from one position to another. Here are some tips that can help.
Talk to the outgoing reporter
The most recent person to cover the beat at your publication will know the status of things. What stories was he or she following? Which companies have been of the greatest interest to the readers? What are the big issues facing the industry? You probably won’t get a lot of hand-holding, but one good conversation can go a long way.
Hit the trades and finance papers—hard
Read everything you can about the current state of the industry. The specific trade publishers covering your beat are a must. But also look at related periodicals. For example, financial publications such as The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times will likely have plenty to say about at least some aspects of your industry.
Check information websites such as Google Finance and Yahoo Finance. Plug in one major company name you’ve learned and look at its competitors and latest news. See what legal and compliance issues are brewing at legal news sites like Law.com or at government agency sites such as EPA.gov and SEC.gov.
Schedule informational interviews
Many sources are happy to talk if you aren’t asking tough questions about them. See what they can tell you about the industry as a whole as well as individual players. You might be able to land some time with equity analysts and academics in the same field. Triangulate all the information to get your bearings.
Thoroughly read your competitors
Devour every word written by other reporters on your beat, particularly those who offer analysis and don’t simply list numbers from reports or filings. Go back over their coverage for the last couple of years and identify patterns in topics and trends.
Take a class, in-person or online
Whether in person or online, there are classes that offer insight into almost any topic in depth, including supply chain logistics, management of innovation or an introduction to credit risk management. Find ones that cover aspects of your new beat, whether R&D, logistics, new regulatory developments, management trends or history. The more you know, the deeper your questioning and the greater a chance you’ll sense when someone is dodging questions.
Master the crossover shift
One of the best aids I know is one you start ahead of time. Look for stories that are bridges between your current beat and where you are going. If you write about finance and need to shift to biotech, you might look at which private equity or venture capital firms are investing in that area. This will give you an idea of who helps to economically drive that industry, and which companies are getting the most investment. Now you have a picture of your new beat’s potential movers and shakers. Look for the points where the topics intersect. You could use the approach to help move from agriculture to high tech, aeronautics to plastics or construction to manufacturing.