As general assignment becomes the norm in newsrooms, publishers save money while the journalism—and the readers—suffer, writes Lisa Coxon for the Ryerson Review of Journalism

By Lisa Coxon, for the Ryerson Review of Journalism

When Rod Mickleburgh was a labour reporter for The Vancouver Sun in the 1970s, he worked the night shift. Because that meant no deadlines, he’d sit at his desk, call union leaders at home and have long chats. After more than a decade on the beat, Mickleburgh had the sources and the instincts to predict stories. So, in September 2013, when The Province and the Sun picked up a Canadian Press story about the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) ruling out a strike for September, Mickleburgh knew it wasn’t news. The BCTF couldn’t legally strike because it wasn’t even back at the bargaining table until October. As Mickleburgh says, “There’s an example of someone not understanding the way the situation works.”

Some reporters work for as long as 30 years on a beat, emerging as experts on their topics as a result of strong relationships with important sources and a keen eye for compelling stories. “If you embrace it, it’s fantastic,” says Mickleburgh, who, years later, went on to be The Globe and Mail’s health policy reporter. But as cutbacks continue to roll across the industry, most reporters don’t have the time to do what Mickleburgh did. Now that he’s off the labour beat—one that’s practically disappeared from daily papers—he can see the consequences: less beat reporting means readers who are less informed.

Specialized reporting began in the 1920s as one response to news stories inspired by public relations agents, because it gave reporters greater potential to be critical of their sources. By the late ’20s, focused reporting on labour, science and agriculture had emerged; today, all three are in decline. “The beat system is falling apart,” says Maxine Ruvinsky, professor of journalism at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C., who points to publishers searching for ways to save money—one of the easiest is to pay one person to do several jobs.

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Those most recently hired at a paper (young people, generally speaking) are usually the first to be laid off, while those near the ends of their careers (many senior beat reporters) are usually the ones who take the buyouts. Indeed, Mickleburgh is one of 64 Globe staffers who took buyouts this summer. If papers refill these positions, says Vivian Smith, national beats editor for the Globe during the early ’90s, it’s often with young journalists hired as general assignment (GA) reporters.

Sarah Boesveld is a GA reporter for the National Post who also writes “slice-of-life” stories. One day, she might be working on a crime story—the next, a story about the EU trade deal. She starts her mornings by browsing a few headlines at home, then heads in to work to meet with her editor, who might ask her to do a front-page story. Time to look into something that might eventually be a story is time Boesveld doesn’t have. Mondays to Wednesdays are usually GA days, and most Thursdays and Fridays she works on her Saturday feature. But if her editor needs a story right away, it’s her job to turn it around. “Good journalism really is original journalism,” she says. “And I wish—I wish I could do a lot more of it, to be honest.” 

Please continue reading this article on the Ryerson Review of Journalism website where it was originally published. Lisa Coxon is the chief online copy editor of the Ryerson Review of Journalism’s 2014 issue. She has lived in Aarhus, Denmark where she studied journalism, multimedia and world politics for five months and her work has appeared in McClung’s and Toronto Standard.

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Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.