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Tips for Covering Meetings as News Stories

Find Your Focus, Do Plenty of Reporting

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So you’re covering a meeting – maybe a city council or school board hearing – as a news story for the first time, and aren’t sure where to start as far as the reporting is concerned. Here are some tips to make the process easier.

Get the Agenda

Get a copy of the meeting’s agenda ahead of time. You can usually do this by calling or visiting your local town hall or school board office, or by checking their website. Knowing what they plan to discuss is always better than walking into the meeting cold.

Pre-Meeting Reporting

Once you’ve got the agenda, do a little reporting even before the meeting. Find out about the issues they plan to discuss. You can check the website of your local paper to see if they’ve written about any of the issues coming up, or even call members of the council or board and interview them.

Find Your Focus

Pick a few key issues on the agenda that you will focus on. Look for the issues that are the most newsworthy, controversial or just plain interesting. If you’re not sure what’s newsworthy, ask yourself: which of the issues on the agenda will affect the most people in my community? Chances are, the more people affected by an issue, the more newsworthy it is.

For example, if the school board is about to raise property taxes 3%, that’s an issue that will affect every homeowner in your town. Newsworthy? Absolutely. Likewise, is the board is debating whether to ban some books from school libraries after being pressured by religious groups, that’s bound to be controversial – and newsworthy.

On the other hand, if the town council is voting on whether to raise the town clerk’s salary by $2,000, is that newsworthy? Probably not, unless the town’s budget has been slashed so much that pay raises for town officials have become controversial. The only person really affected here is the town clerk, so your readership for that item would probably be an audience of one.

Report, Report, Report

Once the meeting’s underway, be absolutely thorough in your reporting. Obviously you need to take good notes during the meeting, but that’s not enough. When the meeting has ended, your reporting has just begun.

Interview members of the council or board after the meeting for any additional quotes or information you might need, and if the meeting involved soliciting comments from local residents, interview some of them as well. If an issue of some controversy came up, be sure to interview people on both sides of the fence as far as that issue is concerned.

Get Phone Numbers

Get phone numbers and email addresses for everyone you interview. Virtually every reporter who’s ever covered a meeting has had the experience of getting back to the office to write, only to discover there’s another question they need to ask. Having those numbers on hand is invaluable.

Understand What Happened

The goal of your reporting is to understand what exactly happened at the meeting. Too often, beginning reporters will cover a town hall hearing or school board meeting, dutifully taking notes throughout. But at the end they leave the building without really understanding what they’ve just seen. When they try to write a story, they can’t. You can’t write about something you don’t understand.

So remember this rule: Never leave a meeting without understanding exactly what happened. Follow that rule, and you’ll produce solid meeting stories.

Try this newswriting exercise about a school board meeting.

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