Your beat is a particular area that you cover. This might be a geographic area — the city of St. Paul or the Frogtown neighborhood, for example. Your beat might be topical: higher education or restaurant reviews.
If you are working for a news outlet, you might be assigned a beat. If you are writing as a freelancer, you can choose your own beat, based on your expertise, your interest, your passion. You develop a beat by deciding to become an expert, researching and reading about the topic; building a virtual rolodex of sources and contacts; pitching story ideas to the right places; writing, writing, writing.
Focusing on a specific beat allows you to develop greater expertise in the area. Let’s say your beat is Frogtown. Here are five tips on covering the beat:
1) Get on all the press release lists — city council member, legislators, community groups, business organizations.
2) Meet the people. You don’t need a specific story idea to sit down for coffee with the director of the district council. Just talk to get acquainted with the person, the organization and the community. If a specific story idea surfaces, that’s great, but it’s not the purpose of the meeting.
3) Read the competition. What are the local newspapers and radio stations and other media saying about your community?
4) Go to meetings. They might be boring, but you make connections, people see that you care, and you can pick up some ideas.
5) Use social media: get on internet forums, follow neighborhood people and organizations on Twitter, friend (or subscribe) to their Facebook feeds.