As newsrooms shrink and breaking news becomes more digital, more and more media organisations are finding it hard to justify the cost of a beat (specialist) reporter. Stories must be told for the “everyman”, we are told. Specialists are often too immersed in their beats to translate the story for their audience, is an oft-repeated refrain. And so stories become more general, less in-depth and lacking analysis.
A recent opportunity to judge the PwC Tax Reporter of the Year award reminded me of the benefits of specialisation. It’s not that general reporters are not able to adequately cover these issues but the reality is that some stories require more than a quick splash into the subject matter, a clever turn of phrase and a volley of “he said/she said” quotes passing themselves as insightful reportage.
These areas of coverage require in-depth knowledge, a solid network of sources and an inquiring mind willing to challenge conventional views when appropriate. These are reporters who don’t only tell us what happened but why it happened and what it means. They are not solely reliant on press releases to find the story or friendly sources to provide leading quotes. Instead, they find the stories that add value to their audiences and help make sense of their lives.
The reality is that in cash-strapped newsrooms, the specialist reporter is becoming an endangered species. Our assumption is that specialisation is a luxury few can afford. We not only want generalists but we want them to be able to turn a vast range of topics into stories on multiple platforms for different audiences.
So let’s consider then the opportunity cost: In an era when breaking news is digital, when reporters can expect to be scooped by the Twitterati and any internet-savvy person can find almost any information they need if they have the time, what do journalists offer? In an era when everyone thinks they are a reporter, what is the value of the journalist?
Curation. We curate the issues, the facts, the angles that inform. Implicit in the role of the curator is the need for expertise in order to source and organise. Curators of content need an understanding of what issues matter, what facts compel, what angles hook. So the opportunity cost of eliminating beat reporters is the loss of the uniqueness that creates value that our audience is willing to pay for.
In an interview with Time magazine, journalist and popular author Malcolm Gladwell not only advocated for specialisation but did so specifically in regard to financial journalism. “The issue is not writing. It’s what you write about,” says Gladwell, citing the case of Bloomberg columnist Jonathan Weil who broke the Enron story – something which was only possible because Weil knew how to read a balance sheet.
The role of the generalist is diminishing, says Gladwell. Journalism has to get smarter.
The challenge to get smarter is the challenge of expanding the edges of excellence in our journalism in times when newsrooms are under great pressure – pressure of technological change, transformational demands and shifting business models.
But there is also a challenge for the audience. We get the media we deserve. We vote with our remotes, our subscription fees, our clicks and our silence in the face of mediocre reporting.
Without real investment in specialist reporting, we can expect the law of diminishing returns to take effect. No longer confined to local information sources, our audiences will find new sources of information.
Experienced specialist reporters are a reminder of the potential for excellence in media. We should not squander that potential for short-term budget gains.