Shoe-leather journalism still core of local and beat reporting

by Andie Diemer
Sept. 22, 2008

Covering the weather or local government on a regular basis can become mundane or repetitive, but the information presented in local reporting and beats is pertinent to the community. While the occasional controversy may draw attention to a specific topic, regular reporting can be equally as enthralling as long as writers take the steps necessary to make their stories pop.

One instance of outstanding reporting is The Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Russell Eshleman Jr.’s story, “Even for Trees, Age Could Have Its Privileges.” Here, Eshleman uses humor, word play and short stories to keep readers in check. In The Conta Costa Times, reporter John Simerman’s story, “Watching Williams Die,” gives a descriptive lead of watching a man be executed on death row. Immediately the entire audience picks up on the tone and continues since they are curious as the process unfolds, since only a very select few beings have witnessed such an event.

But despite the author’s specific style of writing or how they decide to present their story to the readers, there are several aspects that consistently make local reporting and beats a better quality:

Shoe-leather journalism

This includes remembering to not only be informative but entertaining. It’s important to get local concerns across, hit the streets and talk to average citizen and consider the audience. This is the most important aspect of this style of writing; any newspaper can cover a similar story, but it is the job of the beat reporter to illuminate the local side. They’re covering a specific region: How will the town be affected by this? Why should they care? How do they receive the issue?

It’s all about action, reaction and interaction. People want to know how this is going to impact their life. The Commercial Appeal reporter Bartholomew Sullivan uses many of these tactics in his story, “Tornado sneaks into Manila, killing 2 kids just as sirens wail.” He talks to over 10 sources to tell their accounts of the tornado and to display an array of impacts across the community.

Making it relatable

The easiest way to make something relatable is to always remember to keep the reader in mind. By sharing a story, giving an allusion to pop culture or using a metaphor or analogy, the audience has an easier time relating. “By the time she got there, the wall of her mother’s house had been torn away, but her children had escaped injury wedged between a bed and a couch,” Sullivan wrote. In this small town where the tornado struck, everyone was a witness to the damage.

They may have even known the family that lost members. But they also all remember their gut reactions to hearing the sirens themselves and may know someone who had a similar survival situation like being wedged between a bed and a couch. He also uses vivid detail, such as “he crunched through hallways strewn with glass,” to connect with readers. Any audience member who had damage to their house knew how they felt when they heard that sound the next morning while surveying damage. Being able to evoke those feelings through writing is what sets Sullivan apart.

Breaking it down

By talking to the best sources and using the most credible information, any story becomes stronger. Sullivan put the most important facts of his story first, starting with the loss of the two children’s lives, the resulting damage and the play-by-play of how the storm turned into a tornado. He then went on to detail several personal accounts that people could relate to.

In Simerman’s story, he illuminated both sides of the issue. He gave descriptions of the person who was advocating for William’s innocence as well as the stepmother of a victim slain by Williams. By presenting each side, the reader is torn: Is the founder of this epic gang really guilty? But at the same time how do you cope with the pain of losing a loved one to such a ruthless crime?

Presenting information

In “The cases your judges are hiding from you” by Seattle Times reporters Ken Armstrong, Justin Mayo and Steve Miletich, they broke the story of how the town’s local courts were hiding information and files from the public. They use repetition and quick blows to present new information in a relevant, stunning manner. “Document after document, file after file, has been sealed — and sealed improperly — by the judges and court commissioners of King County Superior Court. A wrongful-death lawsuit against Virginia Mason Medical Center? Sealed. A lawsuit accusing a King County judge of legal malpractice? Sealed. A lawsuit blaming the state’s social-services agency for the rape of a 13-year-old girl? Sealed.”

Even though this is an instance where new information is surfacing and that is what a majority of the public is going to be most interested in, the way they structure the story draws readers in and makes them think twice about their community and even themselves.

Other article cited or related to local and beat reporting include:

“Final Bishop offers his resignation” by The Palm Beach Post reporters Joel Engelhardt and Elizabeth Clarke.

“In seconds, elation turned to horror” by The Boston Globe reporters Ellen Barry and Raja Mishra.

“Taft must decide if doubts justify reprieve for Spirko” by The Plain Dealer reporters Bob Paynter and Sandra Livingston.

“Tornado sneaks into Manila, killing 2 kids just as sirens wail” by The Commercial Appeal reporter Bartholomew Sullivan.

“Watching Williams Die” by Conta Costa Times reporter John Simerman.

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One thought on “Shoe-leather journalism still core of local and beat reporting

  1. Janna

    I enjoy the writing you do on these assignments, because in your words I can read all of the experience you have already gained from your practical work as a reporter who has done a lot of real-world work already. I know you are taking away all the right things. Dig deep.

    Please start pulling out your “Three Top Tips” from each of these assignments and putting them into a graphic to drop into this posting each week. It’s not hard to do. Just follow my advice on using “Grab” – type an info box in Word and make it an image with Grab and just dump it into the layout like you would do a photo… By the way, YOUR SUBHEDS ARE GREAT – keep doing it!

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