The Beaten Path: Local Reporting and the Value of Shoe Leather



Graphic by Matt Holzapfel (

By Matt Holzapfel

Phone interviews, talking to multiple sources, seeing it on television, all of these are great ways to get/gather information for your story. There is nothing, however, quite like getting out there and following a story until you’ve squeezed every last detail that you can out of it. The best reporters are persistent, nosy, avid listeners that hang on every detail they get when they leave their office, and that is perhaps their most important attribute, they leave the office. The stories that appear in Chapter 2 of America’s Best Newspaper Writing: “Local Reporting and Beats” are prime examples of the quality reporting that can come as a result of persistent, adventurous reporting done outside the newsroom.

“All She Has, $150,000, Is Going to a University” by Rick Bragg; The New York Times, August 1995

This heartwarming story invites the reader into the home of Oseola McCarty, an 87-year-old washerwoman whose life has been dedicated to making other people look better than herself. Stories of this nature are one-of-a-kind in the sense that they tell the story of a single person or group of people who did something special to deserve the right to have their story told. It is nearly impossible to do these people’s stories justice without spending time with these people, talking to the people that know this person, and using that shoe leather like it was meant to be used.

“Losing It: Careers Fall Like Autumn Leaves” by Thomas Boswell; The Washington Post, September 1980

Acclaimed sports columnist Thomas Boswell knows extremely well the importance of being there and following leads when they present themselves. As a sportswriter, he not only follows teams and reports on individual games when they happen, but Boswell also keeps tabs on individual players, and in this case, he compiles a story about several players who have either aged well in the game of baseball or have failed to find the fountain of youth, and what has become of their respective careers. The way Boswell blends beautiful imagery with just enough baseball terminology so that baseball fans will enjoy reading his work while it is not totally lost on the novice sports followers is impressive, to say the least.

“It Fluttered and Became Bruce Murray’s Heart” by Jonathan Bor; The Post-Standard, May 1984

This narrative is a special case that undoubtedly would not have been the same had the author not been present at the event that is the central focus in this story. The story of Bruce Murray’s heart transplant as told by Jonathan Bor is so descriptive and well-told that it is evident how Bor uses some of the 10 tips included above. He makes the reader see as if they were truly there to witness the surgery, and he decides exactly how he will bring the readers into the story far before he sits down to piece together any drafts of his final masterpiece. The firsthand account of this event along with the extensive research and background that Jonathan Bor includes from his well-spent shoe leather make for a riveting story that many readers probably never even knew they wanted to read.

“Mackenzie Football Star Another Gunplay Victim” by Mitch Albom; The Detroit Free Press, December 1995

Albom aims to hit home with his story about a Detroit teen who wears multiple bullets as scars of his upbringing in the violent streets of Detroit. This is a bit of a send-a-message type story that uses real world stories and people to convey the dangers of guns and lack of gun laws to the public. Albom wants his readers to root for Dewon Jones, the football playing subject of his story, and to despise the way guns changed his life, endangered his football career, and shaped his future. The reader can truly feel as if they are there, in Detroit, watching Dewon walk through the halls of his high school, thinking about what could have been, all without losing sight of this “central idea” that guns do no good, only bad.

“Even for Trees, Age Could Have Its Privileges” and “Domino’s Bites Back at Tax” by Russell Eshleman Jr.; The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 1991 and June 1991

Eshleman proves that even short and to-the-point works can pack a punch and deliver an important message without sacrificing quality. He fills his stories on trees and pizza, two lifeless topics with humorous quips and small jokes that still serve their purpose in telling the story quickly and concisely. Everyone loves a good pizza joke, and they only make it easier to keep a readers attention on such a short story.

“Caught Up in the Crossfire” by Dan Neil; Los Angeles Times, October 2003

Dan Neil likes words. Not just any words, though. He believes that “if it’s in the dictionary, it belongs in the palette of newspaper writing.”Neil combines this ideology with witty metaphors and detailed descriptions to help guide the reader as he reviews the 2004 Chrysler Crossfire. He makes sure to include insights that would appeal to more than just the avid car junkie, he considers a range of readers and gives a “thorough” tour of the Crossfire, making his readers feel as if they were sitting in the car right next to him.

Other Examples of Beat Reporting:

Flint, Michigan Water Crisis Intensifies by Jeff Karoub; US News & World Report; January 2016

When it comes to stories like this, where the central focus is on one area or problem within an area, journalists often find that being there and following any leads that they get is not only the best option, but it is the only option.

Health overhaul revisited: The impact of some GOP ideas by Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar; Associated Press; January 2017

Political writers, especially those as well-known and practiced as Ricardo Alonso-Zalvidar know that the best way to report what is going on in Washington as well as in local governments is to be there. Talk to somebody, talk to everybody,  leave no stone unturned. Political reporting is a prime example of beat writing, whether on the national, state, or even local scale.

Phil Jackson again throws Carmelo Anthony under the bus, but the Knicks remain Phil’s mess by Tim Bontemps; The Washington Post; February 2017

Sports writing, as was seen with Thomas Boswell’s report on aging baseball players is also best done in beat, shoe leather form. Some reporters may even make the mistake of not talking to enough people, and they do not report on the full story. In sports, one lead or one interview can likely lead to another, which will lead to another, slowly but surely giving you more pieces to the puzzle, until you can put together the whole picture and give an accurate report on what is really going on.


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