Should I Choose a Beat?
Hello Friends,

I don't know what the weather is like where you are, but fall is definitely my favorite time of year in New England. The air is just a little crisp, the leaves turn pretty colors, and everyone enjoys spending time outside before the deep freeze hits.
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But this year, it feels a little different.

That's because one year ago this week, the job I loved -- the job I thought I might keep until I retired -- went away.


And suddenly, like many of you, I was a freelancer.

Now, for me, this transition has gone amazingly well. I'm super busy. The work I'm doing is fulfilling and fun. And I don't have to commute into the office every day -- which, let's face it, is AH-MAZING!

But passing the year mark has put me into a little moment of reflection. And that makes it a very good time to answer this question, submitted by a Narrative Beat subscriber.
How did YOU get started in your career, and did you always know you wanted to write about sports?

Do you become a stronger writer/producer when you go deeper into a topic over the years? Or does having variety in your story topics/portfolio help you keep fresh and avoid story fatigue?
(I promise you. That's a real question...and not something I just made up as an excuse to talk about myself.)

As you might know, I worked on an NPR sports show for more than 20 years. I held every position, from technical director to producer to reporter to executive producer and host. And even now, in my freelance career, the majority of my projects are set in sports.

But the truth is...I am not a sports fan. Never have been. Never will be.

So how did I end up on this beat? And do I think having a beat is an advantage? Or a disadvantage?

The answer to that first question is strange, but true.

Like I said, my first job on a sports show was as a technical director. And it wasn't a job I wanted.

Not at all.

One day, my boss at WBUR came to me and said, "Congratulations. You're getting a promotion! You are now the technical director of Car Talk and Only A Game."

Me: "Great. Does this promotion come with a raise?"

Boss: "No."

Me: "So...can I turn down the promotion?"

Boss: "No."

And that was that. Suddenly, I was working on a sports show.

About a year and a half later, I took a job as a reporter at a public radio station in Reno, Nevada. I later learned that I had beaten out another candidate when I properly pronounced the name of the state.

It's ne-VAD-uh -- middle syllable rhymes with mad. Not ne-VAH-dah -- middle syllable rhymes with spa.

So, yeah, the bar on "local knowledge" was set pretty low.

About a year after that, I was back in Boston -- that's a story for another day -- and looking for a job. There just happened to be a producer position open on the sports show, and I put in my application.

A few weeks later, the news director called me into his office and said, "Karen, why is it you think you can do this job? You don't know anything about sports."

And I said, "I didn't know anything about Reno, Nevada (except that it's ne-VAD-uh, not ne-VAH-duh) and it didn't matter. You learn your beat. That's what journalists do"

And that was that. I was hired as a sports producer.

Over the next 20+ years, I did learn quite a bit about my "beat." And I'm gonna be perfectly blunt, having a beat -- a topic that you focus on and learn a lot about -- is a huge advantage.

That's because, in my experience, the best way to get an editor to take a chance on you is to pitch a story that is so good, they just can't turn it down.

Many freelancers pitch the story that's in the news. Or the interview with an author who just released a new book. Or something else the editor already knows about and could cover at any given moment with no help at all.

As a freelancer, you are a risk. That's a plain truth.

Even if you've produced a terrific episode for a hit podcast, you're still a risk. Because there's no way for the editor to know whether that episode is a true representation of your talent and ability -- or if that hit podcast just has really good editors.

(As an editor, I learned that lesson the hard way!)

So, when you're pitching stories, you want to make the risk worthwhile. And the very best way to do that is to knock the editor's socks off with a story idea so good -- and so unique -- that they absolutely have to go through you.

Having a beat (or beats) is a good way to make that happen. By focusing on something, you're going to hear about stories that haven't yet been told. You're going to be able to spot trends. And by paying attention to how everyone else is covering that big story, you're going to be better equipped to come up with the fresh, new angle.

And even though I don't actually like sports, I've never actually gotten tired of writing about them.

To be fair, that has a lot to do with the fact that I don't write stories that are ACTUALLY about sports. I write stories that are about friendship or love or triumph or injustice or technology or crime or mental health or business -- and all these stories just happen to be set in sports.

I can't think of anything that's bad about having a beat.

But you absolutely, positively, should NOT focus on just one thing.

Especially if you're just getting started, you don't want to be pigeonholed. And take it from someone who knows, it can be hard to convince an employer that you are perfectly qualified to work on a podcast about business or true crime or history or food when every clip in your portfolio is set in sports.

So if you're just getting started, definitely try to keep your options open. Pitch stories on a lot of different topics, so that you end up with a well-rounded portfolio.

But pay closer attention to two or three narrow-ish "beats." Not "education" or "sports." Those are too broad. Instead, really try to drill down and become an expert on a few things that are of particular interest to you.

Follow your curiosity. Go deep into some rabbit holes. Get immersed. Get nerdy.

I guarantee you, if you keep at it long enough, you're gonna stumble on some amazing story ideas.

And once you're in, you're in.

When I take a chance on a new-to-me reporter, the bar is set very, very high. A story idea really does have to be one-of-a-kind to get my attention.

But once you've done a story or two for me, and I know you're easy to work with and can do a good job, I might start emailing YOU with story ideas and asking if I can commission you.

(Really, it happens. I did it just last week!)

So, yeah, let yourself specialize a little bit.

Just don't focus 100% of your attention on a single beat unless someone is paying you to cover it full time.

Because, I've never found myself feeling story fatigue, but getting pigeonholed is a very real thing.

So mix it up. Don't allow yourself to become the "sports chick" -- especially if you don't particularly enjoy watching sports.

And totally and completely as an aside, if anyone wants to hire me to make something NOT set in sports, I'm all ears.