Routinizing the acquisition of raw materials:
A comparative study of news construction in a single community


Lee B. Becker, Heidi Hatfield Edwards, Tudor Vlad, George L. Daniels, Edward M. Gans and Namkee Park


In order to gather the raw material used to create news, according to the news construction literature, media organizations structure their news coverage using a beat system. The beat, defined either by geographic or content parameters, allows the organization to efficiently acquire and assemble the substantive materials that become news.

Beat structure, in this literature, has been treated as largely nonvariable. The exception has been in observations of television news operations, where beat systems usually have been found to be primitive or nonexistent. Alternatives to a beat system, despite this observation, have been largely unexplored.

This paper begins with the observation, based on a close reading of the literature, that beat structures are variable, and certain media organizations, namely television news organizations, do not depend on them because they have developed alternative methods of acquiring the raw material of television news. It raises questions about the functional nature of news beat structures and about alternative mechanisms for acquiring the raw materials of news.

The paper reports the results of a detailed analysis of the news gathering operation of three media organizations, a daily newspaper and two television stations, in a selected community. Investigators observed the activities of key news personnel in each of these organizations for two days in April of 2001, interviewed key reporters and newsroom managers, and examined the news programs and publications each organization produced.

The analysis showed that each organization indeed had developed routines that guaranteed that it had sufficient raw material to produce its news product each day. Those routines varied across the media organizations, though they also had elements in common. The newspaper, for example, employed a fairly traditional beat structure, while the two television stations did not. The television stations, however, designated specialists within the newsroom to create news “packages” from predetermined content areas or domains, assuring that predetermined sections of the newscasts would be filled in predictable ways even before the news day began. The television news organizations also assigned individuals to make routine observations of activities in the community as the day progressed so as to guarantee that certain types of materials, namely those associated with the police and other emergency services, were included in the final news product.

Differences did emerge between the two television news organizations, as expected based on understanding of the product differentiation strategies employed by the two organizations. One of the stations employed routines that allowed it to represent more fully events in the community, while the other used techniques that resulted in a more selective presentation of community activities. The differences between the two stations were not great, however, in comparison with the routines of the newspaper.

The results are interpreted in the context of a theoretical position that likens news production to the manufacture of various types of consumer products. The role of consumer demand as a determinant of the manufacture of news is discussed.

Finally, the results are interpreted in the broader context of media creation of a stimulus that has the potential to alter public opinion. The influence of the routines used to acquire the raw materials of news on the final news product are outlined, as are their consequences for what the public ultimately is told about key community issues.

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