The Big, Wide World of Narrow Journalism Beats

From a New York Times Insider column by Sarah Diamond headlined “The Big, Wide World of Narrow Beats”:

Kenneth Chang, a Science writer who reports on outer space, says he has “the wonder beat.” The “future of work” reporter Emma Goldberg writes about, as a teammate once said, “business vibes.” Talya Minsberg, who covers extreme sports and adventurous feats, says her stories usually fall under the umbrella of “things that could maybe kill you.”

For seemingly niche and narrow corners of The New York Times, these coverage areas often present some of the most universal themes in the news report. They allow journalists to ask big questions like “Are we alone in the universe?” and “What drives a human’s ability to endure?” and address them through a specific lens.

Newsroom coverage is often organized into beats, specific subjects that journalists specialize in covering. Beat reporting allows writers to use their expertise to dive deep on different topics, but finding fresh stories in a narrow framework can be a challenge. Even within a specific coverage area, stories must connect with a wide and diverse audience.

“It’s about finding the bigger question in a great story,” Mr. Chang said. “The stories I am most proud of are the ones where people read them and go, ‘Oh, I never thought about that.’”

Beat reporting started at the end of the 19th century, and beats were usually geographically based. In the digital age, newsrooms expanded on the traditional beat structure to include topics and ideas, and over time beats have become more and more distinct. The Times now covers a range of specific beats such as extreme weather, Broadway, labor and unions, and the W.N.B.A.

Sometimes, beats emerge out of cultural moments. For example, when remote work became a reality for over a third of America’s work force during the Covid-19 pandemic, The Times’s Business desk carved out a new beat on “the future of work.”

Ms. Goldberg has since covered a range of specific workplace culture topics as we navigate a changing world. “There are so many stories that can count as a workplace story,” she said. Though her beat might be just one sliver of broader business coverage, the specific scope allows her to explore a variety of topics that many readers can relate to, including overly emotional bosses and the power of work friends. “I think of my beat as so broad,” she said.

Other times, narrow beats materialize around hobbies or sports. Ms. Minsberg writes about extreme athletic competitions such as triathlons and Ironmans. Even though few readers are running ultramarathons, she still wants her articles to connect with a broader audience. Instead of focusing on stats, Ms. Minsberg tells stories about motivation and endurance. “Even if it relates to surfing an 80-foot wave or climbing Everest faster than anyone has before, an athlete’s drive is identifiable and relatable,” she said.

Other times, narrow beats materialize around hobbies or sports. Ms. Minsberg writes about extreme athletic competitions such as triathlons and Ironmans. Even though few readers are running ultramarathons, she still wants her articles to connect with a broader audience. Instead of focusing on stats, Ms. Minsberg tells stories about motivation and endurance. “Even if it relates to surfing an 80-foot wave or climbing Everest faster than anyone has before, an athlete’s drive is identifiable and relatable,” she said.

Creating a connection with those beyond a specific community is a reporting hurdle that Mr. Chang, who covered general science before taking on the space beat in 2008, is familiar with. He says the biggest challenge throughout his tenure has been connecting the hard science to broader themes. For example, in 2006 Mr. Chang used the buzz around Winter Olympic figure skating to teach readers about the science behind why ice is slippery, “which turned out to be a more complicated question than you would think,” he said. He applies the same technique now to his coverage of outer space.

“People love to talk about Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and asteroid mining but the question that’s interesting to me is: Can you actually get to Mars?” he said. “And what does that look like?” He finds his work is most rewarding when his reporting opens the door to wonder: “I get to ask the bigger picture questions, then hopefully, I can convey some of that to everyone else,” he said.

Ms. Minsberg is a runner herself and says her own experiences help her find common ground with both professional athletes and readers. “We both understand what it feels like when the lactic acid starts building up and you’re doing everything you can to get to that finish line,” she said.

No matter how narrow the beat, a good story finds a way to connect with all kinds of readers. This often means drilling down to what matters most — even if the reader doesn’t know what a buildup of lactic acid feels like, they can still see the big picture. “We’re always looking for the story behind the story,” Ms. Minsberg said. “At the heart of it is what drives the human spirit.”

Sarah Diamond manages production for narrated articles. She previously worked at National Geographic Studios.

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