"Beat" can also be defined as a given individual or group's assigned territory
. It is commonly used in this context to describe various aspects of journalism
A police officer or a reporter may be assigned a particular area in which he or she perhaps has more knowledge or experience than other areas. For instance, a police officer may be assigned to a certain area of the jurisdiction or a certain topic, such as narcotics. A reporter may be assigned to regularly cover crime, city hall, local sports and so on.
Since I know more about reporting than I do about police work, the rest of this writeup will focus on beat reporting.
When a journalist starts out in the industry, he or she is usually either given a reasonably mundane beat or no beat at all. The state of not having a beat is what is commonly known as "general assignment," where the reporter can be assigned any variety of story within the section of the publication for which he or she works.
Beats are usually assigned when a reporter has demonstrated a great deal of agility and competence in a particular area. Those reporters are usually known by their beats -- crime reporting, court reporting and so on.
It's important not to confuse reporters' beats with the sections that exist in the newspaper. Reporters who work for a newspaper's sports section are not thought of as being on a "sports beat." Beats can exist within a sports section, however; individual sports such as hockey, basketball and baseball often have their own beat reporters. Depending on the size and location of the paper, there may be a minor league and college sports beat reporter as well.
Reporters don't generally change beats on a regular basis. Once you're a court reporter, you're a court reporter for a while. There is often some switching between related beats; a court reporter could easily adjust to life as a crime reporter, a city hall reporter might eventually move on to other political reporting, etc.
The upside to having a beat is that you get to know your subject matter and, quite often, the people you report on very well. This means that the reporter will probably not have to research completely new topics every day, and can at the very least have some idea of what he or she will be writing in the future.
The downside is that it might get to be boring. Some beat reporters, such as political reporters, might also find themselves in an uncomfortable position when they find themselves becoming friendly with the people they cover. Even the most cordial professional relationship can get ugly when a politician divulges information to a reporter with the intention of damaging a co-worker's reputation. It's happened.
Despite potential drawbacks, a beat is usually something journalists aspire to obtain. They have to prove themselves as capable reporters in order to be trusted with a beat, and beats generally ensure that their articles will be read. They also help to generate name recognition among the readership, as readers may come to expect certain bylines to be on certain types of stories.
I go to journalism school
. I know about beats.
My grandfather was a police officer, as well. I know about beats.