By Lisa Coxon

When Rod Mickleburgh was a labour reporter for The Vancouver Sun in the 1970s, he worked the night shift. Because that meant no deadlines, he’d sit at his desk, call union leaders at home and have long chats. After more than a decade on the beat, Mickleburgh had the sources and the instincts to predict stories. So, in September 2013, when The Province and the Sun picked up a Canadian Press story about the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) ruling out a strike for September, Mickleburgh knew it wasn’t news. The BCTF couldn’t legally strike because it wasn’t even back at the bargaining table until October. As Mickleburgh says, “There’s an example of someone not understanding the way the situation works.”

Some reporters work for as long as 30 years on a beat, emerging as experts on their topics as a result of strong relationships with important sources and a keen eye for compelling stories. “If you embrace it, it’s fantastic,” says Mickleburgh, who, years later, went on to be The Globe and Mail’s health policy reporter. But as cutbacks continue to roll across the industry, most reporters don’t have the time to do what Mickleburgh did. Now that he’s off the labour beat—one that’s practically disappeared from daily papers—he can see the consequences: less beat reporting means readers who are less informed.

Specialized reporting began in the 1920s as one response to news stories inspired by public relations agents, because it gave reporters greater potential to be critical of their sources. By the late ’20s, focused reporting on labour, science and agriculture had emerged; today, all three are in decline. “The beat system is falling apart,” says Maxine Ruvinsky, professor of journalism at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C., who points to publishers searching for ways to save money—one of the easiest is to pay one person to do several jobs.

Those most recently hired at a paper (young people, generally speaking) are usually the first to be laid off, while those near the ends of their careers (many senior beat reporters) are usually the ones who take the buyouts. Indeed, Mickleburgh is one of 64 Globe staffers who took buyouts this summer. If papers refill these positions, says Vivian Smith, national beats editor for the Globe during the early ’90s, it’s often with young journalists hired as general assignment (GA) reporters.

Sarah Boesveld is a GA reporter for the National Post who also writes “slice-of-life” stories. One day, she might be working on a crime story—the next, a story about the EU trade deal. She starts her mornings by browsing a few headlines at home, then heads in to work to meet with her editor, who might ask her to do a front-page story. Time to look into something that might eventually be a story is time Boesveld doesn’t have. Mondays to Wednesdays are usually GA days, and most Thursdays and Fridays she works on her Saturday feature. But if her editor needs a story right away, it’s her job to turn it around. “Good journalism really is original journalism,” she says. “And I wish—I wish I could do a lot more of it, to be honest.”

1978_CV_newsroom

The Vancouver Sun newsroom in the 1970s, with assistant night city editor Carol Volkart, who at various times was also a beat reporter CREDIT: John Denniston

GA reporters do have some resources they can turn to for assistance on a topic they know little about. Created in 2008, the Science Media Centre of Canada (SMCC) puts GA reporters in touch with experts, scientists and researchers. On average, the centre receives two to five calls a week—often follow-ups to things reporters have seen in SMCC’s Heads Up, a weekly alert full of story tips.

Beat reporters, on the other hand, must be self-starters, constantly hunting for and anticipating new stories. Daniel Dale, a Toronto Star city hall reporter, says he can’t let himself relax, because if he starts slacking, other journalists will scoop him. It’s also about developing relationships and expertise. “As a GA, you’re thrown into something, and you have to, to some extent, fake it,” says Dale. Editors often assign stories to GAs; beat reporters are more likely to generate their own ideas, sometimes based on leaked information from a close source. Dale says the Star’s Rob Ford stories, for example, may never have seen print if the paper didn’t have four dedicated reporters, and one columnist, at City Hall. Readers also come to know and trust beat reporters, says Dale. “A lot of the best stories come from just people cold-calling us or sending us an email about something going on in their neighbourhood or some account they’d had with the mayor.”

Even if they also receive such tips, GAs have a harder time picking out what is newsworthy, especially in stories involving complex subjects, such as science. Fewer reporters on beats, says Dale, is likely to make for “shallower stories, and a public with a shallower understanding of important issues and institutions.”

Journalists benefit from time and trust to really get to know the people involved in their stories and get beneath the surface of an issue. But even beat reporters must compete with experts who now have access to the same audiences through blogs and aggregators. “It’s a tsunami,” says Stephen Strauss, former science reporter for the Globe.

Mickleburgh knows he made the right decision in taking the buyout, but had it been up to him, he would have stayed a bit longer. “I’m in withdrawal, I guess,” he says. “I’m still hooked on the biz.” Today, the recovering beat reporter blogs about labour and health policy, among other things, and occasionally writes for the Globe and The Tyee. “Knowledge on a beat is a wonderful thing, and it shouldn’t be lost lightly.”

 

Update: In a previous version of the story Carol Volkart’s name was misspelled in the photo caption. The Review regrets this error.