Newsrooms' "greatest prizes are the reporters who know and care about their beats," says journalist Dan Froomkin in this short piece about the importance of beat reporting (from the Nieman Journalism Lab).
"Beat reporting: What does it take to be the best?" asks Chip Scanlan—and he offers some answers from effective beat reporters. You may have to scroll down a bit. (from the Poynter Institute)
The best reporters cover their beats as completely as possible by talking to diverse sources. See this advice from journalism professor Yanick Rice Lamb (from the Society of Professional Journalists website).
Journalist Laura Amico says that using a deep beat reporting model means her reporting has a guiding principle and keeps people at its center (from the Online News Association).
FOIA—FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT
Both state and federal governments say that most public business should be conducted in public. But at some point, every journalist will encounter an official who tries to keep secret information that should be public. When you do, you need to be clear about how to proceed. Below are some especially good sites to help you.
Here's the U.S. Department of Justice's Web page on how to use FOIA.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has a FOIA Wiki with helpful links and information.
You can generate a FOIA request, make sure it goes to the right agency and organize multiple requests at RCFP's iFOIA page.
Beats Are Key to Watchdog Journalism
A lot of watchdog journalism happens through beat reporters doing their regular coverage. In fact, the outlandish salaries paid to public officials in Bell County, California, might never have happened if local news organizations had maintained their regular beat reporting, according to this NPR "On the Media" report.
Until 2007, the Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting was awarded "for a distinguished example of beat reporting characterized by sustained and knowledgeable coverage of a particular subject or activity." Pulitzer dropped the category in 2007, saying that excellent beat reporting stories could be submitted in multiple existing categories. In 2006, the prize went to the Washington Post's Dana Priest for her reporting on the government's counterterrorism campaign. You can read some of her stories here.
A Frequent Freedom of Information Request?
This turns out to be the photo of President Nixon and Elvis, says Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive in this talk about freedom of information requests and how it can help journalists report their stories. "We look at practically any action in the public arena—done by a corporation, done by a government agency—if the action took place and affected anybody, it will leave some kind of record."