Reap rewards with meaningful meeting coverage
May 1, 2015
By Jim Pumarlo
Newspapers devote significant resources to reporting on meetings of governmental bodies, and for good reason. The decisions—action and nonaction on a variety of issues—affect the everyday lives of readers.
But long gone are the days when newspapers can simply regurgitate a body’s proceedings from beginning to end. Readers have limited time. Reports must be substantive.
Stories must go beyond summarizing the discussion at a city council or school board meeting, and then recording the votes.
The most meaningful stories are those that interpret the practical impact of policy-making decisions. It’s essential if you want to connect with readers.
Here is one checklist to enhance your coverage of public affairs.
Identify the news. Write the headline and a summary paragraph. It will help focus your writing. If you don’t know where you’re going with the story, your readers will be lost, as well.
Avoid chronological reports. The first item on an agenda is rarely the most important, if it’s even worth mentioning. Don’t feel obligated to report each and every item.
Lead with the news. Announcing that a group met is not the lead, especially when writing for a nondaily and the story appears two or three days after the meeting.
Put items in descriptive terms. Brighten your writing by making the content understandable to readers. For example, which sentence are more readers likely to connect with: “The city is looking to develop a three-acre parcel of land” or “The city is looking to develop a parcel of land about the size of three football fields.”
Readily translate the impact of decisions. Reports are often filled with numbers, and percentages can be meaningless. For example, a 5-percent increase in garbage fees is better reported as the specific dollar impact on households, retailers and manufacturers.
Include the voices of those affected. Deadlines might dictate reporting only the specific actions of a government body. Depending on the amount of detail provided in meeting previews, focus follow-up stories on the impact of decisions. How will families be affected by higher extracurricular fees? What’s the impact of an ordinance to eliminate all neon lights on storefronts?
Track issues. Prepare a summary paragraph of the issue that can be inserted in all stories. Track key dates and votes on the issue to insert as a sidebar, where appropriate. The information is also great background for reporters.
Providing accurate and meaningful reports is the primary task. But words may well go unread unless equal attention is given to presentation. Editors and reporters should review agendas in advance to brainstorm ideas for graphics and photos. Consider which agenda items may warrant a full-blown story, which can be included in a package of briefs, and which can likely be ignored.
And don’t stop with the print edition. Your coverage should span the range of digital platforms at your disposal. Are you tweeting your meetings? Are there opportunities to post video? What about creating a hashtag to convene and enhance a communitywide conversation on topics of particular importance?
The Web is useful on two fronts. It allows for immediate reports and places nondaily media on equal footing with daily competition. It has no space constraints and therefore allows for publication of variety of reports, speeches and detailed statistics.
The strongest coverage of public affairs is two-pronged—solid advances to inform readers and ensure robust community discussion, and follow-up reports that provide meaningful interpretation of actions taken by elected bodies. As part of any beat, reporters should have regular contact and dialogue with elected and appointed officials. Some of the most important stories can occur between meetings.
Make no mistake; it requires hard work to produce solid coverage of public affairs. At the same time, the effort will reap dividends for everyone. Citizens will be more engaged in policy making. Elected bodies will appreciate the additional attention to, and participation in their decisions. And newspapers will increase their relevancy in readers’ everyday lives. © Jim Pumarlo 2015
Jim Pumarlo writes, speaks and provides training on community newsroom success strategies. He is author of “Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage,” “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in Small-Town Newspapers.” He can be reached at www.pumarlo.com and welcomes comments and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.