Town governments and school boards deal with a wide range of issues. Some are important and interesting, some are mundane and, frankly, dull. So the reporter covering these meetings must quickly learn to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Let’s say you’re covering the Centerville City Council. At the start of the meeting the council agrees to purchase more paper clips for the town secretary. At the end of the meeting councilors vote to raise property taxes 5 percent.
Which issue should come first in your story? Obviously the tax hike is bigger news. It affects far more of your readers, and in a fairly significant way. Chances are, the only person interested in the paper clips vote is the secretary. Generally, reporters covering government meetings focus on the most newsworthy issues being debated. Less important items are put at the bottom of the story or left out altogether.
Editors generally want meetings stories to have leads that focus on one issue. Avoid leads that are too general, or that try to cram too many issues into the top of the story. Here are two examples:
The Centerville City Council met last night to discuss property taxes, parks maintenance and upcoming elections for mayor.
The Centerville City Council last night took up the issue of property taxes.
The first lead reads like a laundry list, and the second lead tells the reader nothing, other than the fact that property taxes were discussed. Readers want leads that give them hard information quickly. Find the most important issue discussed, and make that your lead. Also, focus on specific actions taken at the meeting. As the old saying goes, actions speak louder than words.
Here’s a much better lead:
The Centerville City Council last night raised property taxes 2 percent amid howls of protest from local residents who said taxes are already too high.
See the difference? This lead tells readers what the city council actually did – raise property taxes – and it focuses on an issue that will affect many people. It also makes it clear that the move was controversial, which makes the story more interesting.
Walk into a town council or school board meeting cold, and you’re bound to be dazed and confused within minutes. Councilors and school board members will be discussing complex issues you know nothing about, and you’ll be struggling to keep up by scribbling notes. But all the note-taking won’t help if you don’t understand what’s going on. And you certainly won’t be able to write a clear, lucid story if you don’t have a clue what’s going on.
When covering a meeting, it’s a good idea to get a copy of the agenda ahead of time (these can usually be obtained from town hall or the school board office). Doing so gives you a head start on deciding what’s important and what’s not. It also gives you an opportunity to research issues you’re not up on. Don’t be afraid to call school board or town officials before a meeting to make sure you understand what’s going to be discussed. And make sure to do plenty of interviews after the meeting has ended – again, to aid your own understanding of the discussion.
Make sure you get the correct spelling of everyone’s names. And jot down phone numbers for everyone you interview. Reporters sitting down to write a story often find they have a few more questions that need answering or facts that need checking. Having phone numbers handy makes such checks much easier.
-Don’t cover meetings in chronological order. Put the more important information at the top of your story, less important info. at the bottom.
-Focus on one issue in the lead. You don’t want your lead to read like a laundry list.
-Focus your lead on any concrete actions taken by the town council or school board. Actions speak louder than words.
-Look for issues and actions that affect people. The more people affected by something the town council or school board does, the bigger the story.