Journalism is, in most respects, the backbone of the media industry. Therefore many media jobs require some aspect of journalism. The type of writing a journalist does depends largely on the subject they cover. Another thing which affects a journalist's job is the outlet they produce news for: TV, the Internet, a newspaper, etc.
That being said, a “traditional” journalist reports the news. What does that mean? Well it can mean various things. The standard image of a journalist, and one often portrayed in movies, is of someone working a beat for a newspaper and finding stories. Which begs the question: What is a beat?
Working a Beat
A beat is a media term for the area, or topic, a journalist covers. So a beat could be anything from local crime, to national news to Hollywood movies. Beats can be very specific, or broader, depending on the kind of publication you’re working for. A mid-size daily newspaper, for example, will have reporters covering everything from local police goings-on to local sports.
Why You Need a Beat
A journalist’s job is to report the news. To find the news, you need to understand the subject matter and the people you’re writing about. Let’s say you’re working a crime beat for a newspaper in Chicago. One morning the police report that there’s been a murder in a posh neighborhood of the city. Now, in order to write about that murder, you need to know what’s been going on in the city. Is this an isolated incident? Was there a similar crime two weeks ago? Two years ago?
People always discuss the five pillars of journalism or the Five Ws -- who, what, where, when and why -- and, the “why,” section can only be filled out by someone with a background and knowledge of their beat. If, for example, you were asked to write about the aforementioned murder in Chicago, and didn’t know anything about the city or the recent criminal activity there, you wouldn’t be able to cover the story in the best way. Because, let’s face it, the story is very different if it’s a random act instead of a potential sign of a crime spree or, let’s say, a serial murderer.
The other big reason journalists work beats, aside from developing a deep knowledge of the subject they’re covering, is to develop sources. Sources are people you talk to report a story. Now some sources are obvious. If we continue with the example of working as a crime reporter in Chicago, you would have regular sources in the police department. Now some would be obvious -- you would likely speak to a spokesperson for the department whose job it is to handle reporters (a kind of publicist) -- but other contacts might be developed from relations you foster over years of covering a beat.
A journalist often refers to their sources -- everyone knows the saying, ‘I can’t reveal my sources’ -- because these are people they turn to get inside information, or perspective, on a story. Now that bit about “revealing” sources points to an instance when a journalist gets an important piece of information from a person who does not want their identity revealed. If, for example, you’re working on that story about the murder in Chicago and you get information from someone in the police department that the murder looks like it might be the work of a serial killer, that officer might not want his name given out. After all, he’s giving you information that might get him in trouble. So, when you write the story about the murder, you wouldn't name your source or reveal his identity to anyone. (If you did reveal his identity, no one would ever want to give you secret information, or information that people in business refer to as stuff that’s "off the record.")
When a journalist works a beat over time they develop a multitude of sources. This means that they know who to call when something happens and they know the people who will talk to them. A good journalist establishes solid relationships with his sources so he can turn to them to get information. Although people don’t always like talking to reporters -- especially when the story is about a scandal or something negative -- a good journalist will have sources who recognize that there is a positive in getting a story out, and getting it out correctly. In other words, a good journalist will develop a respectful relationship with his sources.