BROOKE: You’d think that beat reporting has been fundamental to journalism since the birth of the business. But in fact, beats didn’t really take off till a little over a century ago, when New York newspaper editor Charles E. Chapin of the Pulitzer chain, sought to gain competitive advantage over the arch rival Hearst papers. Chapin’ s paper, “The World” published up to 9 times a day. Initially, without beats. But then one day, he had an epiphany. James McGrath Morris is the author of a biography of Chapin.
MCGRATH: He had taken up residence in the Majestic Hotel and he had taken a nap. Now this was a period when telephones are still new - how you ring somebody is hard. He finally gets through, busy said the operator each time. 'Anything happen?' Chapin at last asked?
BROOKE: You describe it beautifully in the book. The operator goes...'yeah...McKinley was shot.'
MCGRATH: Yeah, she had gum in her mouth. Well, this got him thinking a lot more about telephones. And these were really coming into fashion. So the newsroom at The World had these phone booths that were at the end of the room and labeled 1, 2, 3, 4. Well Chapin began moving these phones. He put them at the city desk and eventually gave them to reporters. But what was important is that he took a map of the city and he drew a checkerboard pattern on it. And he said to each reporter, 'You're in charge of everything that occurs in that 3 or 4 block area.' The idea of assigning people with specific responsibility for geographic areas was already done in one sense. You had foreign correspondents...who said these languid letters. 'The Queen has been seen out and about. And the fog lifting here in London.' What Chapin did that really changed journalism was the idea of making the beat a source of facts, a source of information. And he created this rewrite desk of the star writers and they would sit there with these telephones and these beat reporters would file all this information in and they were the ones that put it into the language that inspired people to pick up the paper.
BROOKE: The people who called in mostly they were the staff of the paper. But, sometimes it might just be an ordinary eye witness.
MCGRATH: Oh, frequently. You know, journalism was a very public affair. You would take your date down to Park Row where all the newspapers were on election night and they would on the front of the papers' building, they had blackboards and they would write the news and people would by the thousands, would gather there in fact this was so popular that when the America's Cup race was raced the Pulitzer newspaper had these small yachts and they moved them across the building.
BROOKE: Little model yachts? That they slid depending on whose ahead like a horserace?
MCGRATH: They even did that with a famous boxing match. And they had marionettes re-enacting the boxing match. And it was so popular the crowd wouldn't leave that they re-did it another time. And I like to argue that's the beginning of instant replay.
MCGRATH: The point of all these anecdotes is that journalism was so much more central to people's lives. And so the development of the beat system in the Evening World was one of those innovations produced by the intense competition of that period and it changed journalism.
BROOKE: What made beat reporting different? And how relevant is it today?
MCGRATH: Beat reporting permitted these papers to develop people who had expertise. Writer Jacob Riis who's really known for his photographs was also a print reporter who made poverty on the Lower East Side his beat.
BROOKE: And wrote How the Other Half Lives.
MCGRATH: Exactly and he knew everything about what was going on. And so it gave authority to the newspapers. This is also important to the transition that is going on in journalism at that time. Before that journalism was an immature business. It was very partisan, often supported by political parties, and a failed politicians became editors and successful editors became politicians it was two sides of the same coin. But when newspapers established their economic independence by writing copy that people wanted to buy and if people bought a newspaper you could sell pages of advertising. In conjunction with that was enormous technological change. Paper that was strong enough to go through printing presses at incredible speeds. The telegraph delivering news from around the world. And the beat was part of that. It brought news that was reliable to the front page of the newspaper based on some form of expertise.
BROOKE: It's interesting that the beats that seem to be diminishing are those that are not close to the seats of power.
MCGRATH: No, the change between when Chapin worked than today is incredible dramatic. In his period you could count in any small community in the US that when the school board was meeting at 11 o'clock at night to vote on a contract that there was at least one reporter in the corning of the room with a pencil and pad. One of the things that Pulitzer discovered as he became the most powerful publisher on the globe is that merely lighting the recesses of government has an effect. Even if they didn't file a story they were there. The surprising aspect of creating beats that was not its intention but when a newspaper or a radio station or a television network assigned a reporter to a beat such as poverty, they were saying 'this is important' and by covering it day in and day out, readers began to think 'poverty is important.' And they began to press public officials to deal with it. The disappearance of the beats particularly in those areas where are the least represented members of our society is the disappearance of those issues from the public agenda. So the disappearance of beat reporting is far bigger than merely a change in journalism. It has enormous civic implications.
BROOKE: Now Chapin developed his own expertise. He became and expert in fostering roses, right?
MCGRATH. He certainly did. Towards the end of his career he murdered his wife and was sent to Sing-Sing which was the most notorious prison in the United States at the time and spent the rest of his years cultivating acres and acres of roses. And his rose gardens became so famous that people like Harry Houdini, all these people came to visit.
BROOKE: Is it true that he continued to edit the paper for a while, while inside the prison?
MCGRATH: Not his paper but he edited the prison newspaper. Almost every American prison of size had a prison-run newspaper and he was its editor for several years until the state got upset his style of editing.
BROOKE: Thank you very much.
MCGRATH. Glad to do it.
BROOKE: James McGrath Morris is the author of the biography of Chapin called The Rose Man of Sing-Sing.