Covering Meetings

Your assignment due by March 10 will be to cover a local government meeting of your choice.

You can choose from any listed on OxfordMS.net – but you must email me which one you’re planning to cover, and the story will be due 24 hours after the meeting time.

Here are some good tips for writing a story based on meeting coverage: 

Get the Agenda
Get a copy of the meeting’s agenda ahead of time. You can do this by calling or visiting your local town hall or school board office, or by checking the OxfordMS.net website. Know what they plan to discuss — don’t walk into the meeting cold.

Pre-Meeting Reporting
Once you’ve got the agenda, do some reporting before the meeting. Check to see if any of the issues coming up have been covered before — if they are planning to address an ongoing issue, call members of the council or board and interview them ahead of the meeting.

Find Your Focus
Pick a few key issues on the agenda that you plan to 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 is likely to affect the most people in my community?

If the school board is about to raise property taxes 3 percent, that’s an issue that will affect every homeowner in your town. Newsworthy? Absolutely. If 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.

Report, Report, Report
Once the meeting’s underway, be 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.

Make the meeting part of a larger story
A story is inadequate if it offers nothing but facts from an event or about an upcoming event. There’s no need to write long stories on boring meetings. File information on breaking news and then follow up with focused news features on individual aspects of the meetings. Don’t feel compelled to files stories if nothing occurs. Nobody wants to read that. Find a way to make the meeting part of a larger story. The meeting supplies part of the story, not all of it. If someone wants money to build something, go to the location and see how that construction would affect the neighborhood. Interview locals. Don’t rely on a bunch of people in a meeting to tell you what is going on. You are not there to sell an event. Leave that to the PR people.

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