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What is Your Beat, Citizen Journalist?

Three Suggestions for Becoming an Expert

Most aspiring citizen journalists I meet have a favorite topic that interests them and they want to write almost exclusively about that subject. For instance, a good friend of mine writes solely about hunting and fishing in Iowa and Nebraska. Another submits articles to his local newspaper about the activities of his Rotary Club. Another citizen journalist I know submits articles about green issues and the climate change debate.

All newsrooms at one time structured things that way; they would assign reporters a certain beat to cover. One would write on business issues, another sports, another lifestyle issues, another local politics, etc. More recently, with budget cuts and the changing business model for newspapers, journalists have been forced to become generalists rather than specialists.

One publishing company in Colorado owns several community weekly newspapers but can only afford to assign one writer per community. That means each reporter must cover a vast variety of news that sometimes results is less than complete coverage or poor reporting. Not because the writers are unskilled, but because of the pressures of being a generalist and the merciless demands of weekly deadlines are out of balance with good journalism.

Most citizen journalists have the luxury of assigning themselves only the beat they are interested in. The lady who covers green issues would never be interested in writing an article about a Rotary Club golf tournament, and the guy who writes for the Rotary Club hasn’t been hunting or fishing since he was a teenager. The hunting and fishing writer has never attended a Rotary Club and he doesn’t think much of global warming issues. So each are happy with their beat of choice!

What is your area of interest or expertise? What is your preferred beat as a citizen journalist? If you are not assigned a beat by a local newspaper or news website, then your beat is entirely up to you. Once you select your beat or beats, there will be much to learn before you can become a really good reporter.

Here is where to begin – start by becoming an expert on your subject of choice. This means you must know your subject inside out. You may think you’re already an expert on a particular subject but can be taken aback and intimidated when in the presence of someone who really is an expert. Suddenly you feel like a grade schooler in a graduate-level university course.

Here is my three-step formula for becoming an expert in a specific area:

Step one is to read the top three current books on your subject. That will get you up to speed on what is being written about your topic. To find those books, go to Amazon.com and search the topic. In seconds you’ll know exactly what you should be reading. Some books you might want to purchase, others you will likely be able to find in your library.

Step two is to find three or more of the most credible websites on your subject. Search the subject on the Internet and you’ll have at least a weeks-worth of work to do in becoming an expert. Some of the best websites on your subject may not be search-engine optimized so you will have to look a little harder to find them. A good way to do that is to utilize Google Alerts. If you don’t know how they work, just go to Google and search “Google Alerts.” Their search engine will find the right link for you. It is easy to set up and the alerts are free. Over time, Google Alerts will find for you every website, article, YouTube video and other web presence that deals with your favorite topics.

Step three is to write some stories on your favorite subject. Take a small topic within the broader topics surrounding your area of interest and write just on that topic. Let’s take our hunting and fishing writer as an example. He could write an article on bass fishing in small Iowa lakes or how to field dress a dear or how to build a duck blind. When you actually write on your subject of choice, you exercise your writing skills and developing your writing style and voice. Have someone you respect read your stories and offer suggestions on your writing style.

For help in writing in a true journalistic style, consult the “Handbook for Citizen Journalists,” a book I co-authored with Susan Carson Cormier.

More Stories By Ron Ross

Dr. Ron Ross is a publisher, author, speaker, radio personality residing in Loveland, Colorado. He is the author of two published books and several e-books. He is the host of Tidbits Radio on 1310KFKA-AM and on CastleRockRadio.com. He writes a weekly motivational and inspirational column that is published in a variety of newspapers.

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