Newswriting Reporting

20 tips on covering speeches and meetings

You are the eyes, ears and brains for your audience when you cover a City Council, County Commissioners or a school board meeting. The following 20 tips help you produce an accurate, informative news story on deadline.  These tips also work for speeches and panels.

Use a smartphone and a notebook

Take a photo of the council or commissioners with their name plates. Take photos of people you interview so you can better remember them.

Take notes by hand to be safe but record the meeting. DON’T leave your phone unattended; someone could take it. The other reason to stay by your phone is you can write down the time someone says something interesting. Then you don’t have to listen to the entire recording to find the quote.

At the start of any interview, record people spelling their names, hometowns, addresses. You can also let people print their names on your notebook. Always get contact information.

Before the meeting

Read at least a previous month’s worth of stories about the entity you’re covering. You’ll know what’s new and old business. Know who runs the meeting.

Read the minutes (official notes) from the last meeting. Some bodies also videotape their meetings. Watch the most recent ones.

Get a copy of the meeting agenda and go over it. Government bodies that hold meetings have to publish an agenda 72 hours before the meeting begins. Get familiar with any ordinances or laws, streets or neighborhoods mentioned on the agenda.

Right before the meeting

Sit where you can see all the actors – the council, commission or school board members, plus government officials (like lawyers and city managers) and citizens who speak during the meeting. Also sit where you can best record the meeting.

During the meeting

Use the copy of the agenda to take notes on who’s speaking about what. Write down any quotes that provide color – quotes that have passion, pointed opinion, humor, etc.

Note people who speak from the audience and record their best quotes.  They’re already passionate about a subject or they wouldn’t be there. Be sure to understand why they are stakeholders in an issue.

Right after the meeting

Ask council or board members follow-up questions, especially for clarification or any comment or vote that may be misinterpreted. Also get reactions from citizens who attended the meeting. Also get contact information (phone and email), if not for this story then for possible follow-ups.

If there’s time, interview in person or by phone residents who didn’t attend the meeting but are likely to be affected by what happened. In all of the above circumstances, identify yourself as a reporter covering the meeting for your publication.

Writing a meeting story

Don’t write in chronological order. Tell readers the most important action that happened and its implications, then the second-most important thing that happened, etc. Ask your editor if you should use bullet points for minor news the entity also discussed.

Your first sentence – the “lead” – should tell readers the newsiest event of the meeting. Don’t begin “The council met” or “A meeting was held.” You and your readers already knew that. Start with a key vote or action: “The council voted last night to widen Elm Street.” “The council delayed voting last night on widening Elm Street after residents who lived on the street complained.”

Next tell the readers the implication of key votes or the government body’s action or inaction. Explain why what happened is important.  What does this action or inaction mean to the entire community, or to a neighborhood? Are they winners and losers because of the action (not just the politicians involved)?

If a vote isn’t unanimous, tell readers who voted for or against a measure and who spoke for or against the measure during the meeting.

Include the next steps – for the city, school district, county, etc. Include when the next meeting takes place.

Make numbers real for readers. After reporting the council passed a $5 million bond, write how much each taxpayer or household now must pay.

Use quotes like sprinkles on ice cream. They should be interesting and flavor to your story. A weak quote: “The final vote was 5 to 4,” the mayor said. A better quote: “With this vote, we can make Elm Street the showcase it should be,” the mayor said.

Make sure every name is spelled correctly and every dollar figure is correct. Check and recheck your math. Don’t be afraid to use a dictionary or recheck information.

If you have time, print your story to proofread. Also try reading it out loud to identity awkward phrases.

the future of community journalism

Looking at the future of community newspapers

Editor’s Note:  This blogpost was a speech given by Al Cross at a meeting of the Texas Press Association in January 2018 in Galveston.

. . . First time I’ve been to Galveston, but have been to Texas many times, and always feel at home here; maybe it’s because your state was settled mainly by people from Tennessee, my native state, and Kentucky, my home state.

Y’know, we share a lot of the same sayings: all hat and no cattle (my states are the biggest cattle states in the East), hot as a two-dollar pistol; old as dirt, rough as a cob, cold as a well-digger’s knee (or a certain larger body part). Close enough for government work; handy as a pocket on a shirt; I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck; and he’s one brick shy of a load. Some of my favorites involve animals: rode hard and put up wet; like a duck on a June bug; that dog won’t hunt; fine as frog hair; as independent as a hog on ice; look what the cat drug in; crooked as a dog’s hind leg; if you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas; even a blind hog finds an acorn now and then; and: there’s more than one way to break a dog from sucking eggs.

I have never figured out what that last one really means, except there’s more than one way to do some things, and different approaches may be needed. And that’s what I want to talk with you about tonight.

When Ed Sterling called to invite me to speak to you, he asked what I would like to talk about, and I immediately replied, “The future of community journalism” – I guess because I wonder about it a good bit, and I’ll bet many of you do, too. Not much is clear, the major exception being that different approaches are needed. Every market, every newspaper, is at least a little bit different, so you must write your own future.

You can’t talk about the future of community journalism without discussing the future of journalism. I think it’s important to remember that we will always have journalism, because we will always need storytellers.

So many times when people say they’re talking about journalism, what they’re really talking about is the news business, which pays for journalism. And the news business is in trouble, because its economic model – mass circulation that drew advertising, which paid 75 to 80 percent of the bills – has been crumbling for more than a decade. Perhaps the best example in the weekly newspaper trade is that if you see a grocery ad in a paper, it’s probably an insert, and those are becoming less common as grocers find other ways to reach customers.

From what I can tell n my own research and discussions around the country, weekly newspapers’ circulation and household penetration, generally speaking, are declining 2 to 5 percent a year, and that trend is not sustainable.

Increasingly, the response to these existential threats has been to live with less revenue but get a bigger share of it from the audience. That’s why paywalls have become common, as newspapers finally discovered that enough people were willing to pay for access. Some community newspaper companies say they want to get 50 percent of their revenue from the audience. They think it can work because there are enough people willing to pay for unlimited access and special benefits for subscribers. It might work in some markets, but I have my doubts when it comes to the smaller, less-well-off markets that community newspapers typically serve.

he idea of getting more revenue from the audience has come more slowly to community journalism, which has been the healthiest part of the traditional news business because it usually doesn’t have competition. You are probably the only reliable, consistent, professional, comprehensive source of news and information for your locality. You probably don’t compete with a television station, and radio news in most places is a ghost of what it once was.

But you are still in competition, with every other source of news and information, for people’s time and attention. There is only so much time the audience can spend with media. It’s more time than it once was, because of smartphones, but those devices are used mainly for social media, not news media.

So you are, for the first time, in a battle with competitors you don’t know or see. And some you may not have even imagined, because local news is becoming less important to some people.

That’s partly because people are paying more attention to national news than they once did, thanks to last year’s unusual presidential election and our very unusual president. One community newspaper chain even put a President Trump button on all its home pages to drive traffic.

A bigger factor, I think, is that people now spend time online, in virtual communities, that they once spent engaging with their geographic communities, like those you serve. That probably makes them less interested in local news.

And another factor, in rural areas, is that your readers – or your former readers – increasingly commute to jobs in more urbanized places. We’ve some research in rural Kentucky and found that the longer someone’s commute to work, the less likely they are to subscribe to, or regularly buy, their local paper.

And these folks are commuting because of a lack of jobs, or good jobs, in the communities where they live. One big reason Donald Trump won the election was a sense in many rural communities they are being left behind. And in many places, they are. They see the shuttered factories, the vacant storefronts and the high-school commencement exercises that amount to a mass farewell to what could have been a big part of a community’s future. That is not good for local businesses, including the newspaper.

So, if we were doing a SWOT analysis – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, those would be among the weaknesses and threats. We would also have to include the growing impact of social media, which usually give people notice of a news event but not a real news story, unless the post includes a link to one and they click on it.

I think one of our weaknesses is that we have not done a very good job of helping our readers understand better what real journalism is, and the difference in the three types of media: Strategic media, which could also be called message media: essentially, public relations, advertising and marketing; News media: that’s us, who practice journalism, the essence of which is a discipline of verification; we’re mainly about facts; and social media, which have little of any discipline, and certainly no discipline of verification.

Too often, we just say “media” when we mean “news media.” We need to use the phrase, not the word, to remind people that journalism is different – we have a discipline and a mission: searching for truth to serve the public.

Beyond that broad mission, every news outlet has its own priorities, but they are rarely shared with the audience. I wish every newspaper regularly published a statement of principles – what it stands for – and asked readers to hold it to account if they think it hasn’t lived up to them.

We need to explain these things to our readers, and to former readers and prospective readers, using social media and other platforms. We need to explain how we go about our work, and invite readers’ involvement and feedback. Ask them what they want to read about, and what they think of your work.

Here’s an example, from the Sunbury Daily Item in central Pennsylvania. The editor is Dennis Lyons, who took a buyout as managing editor of USA Today but came out of retirement to edit this small daily. He has a Community Advisory Board that generates good story ideas and sources, and he holds roundtable discussions with community stakeholders before starting to report major enterprise stories, to point the projects in the right direction and identify sources. These things are not wastes of time; they save time, because they are in effect the beginning of the reporting process.

Dennis Lyons talked about his work on a trip he and I made to China a few months ago, to talk about community journalism. That country has a very different political system, but its newspapers have many of the same concerns we have here – an audience that is going elsewhere for information. That shows the depth and breadth of the changes in the news and information business. It’s one of the greatest changes in the history of the world, not too far behind the invention of the printing press.

At the same time the world has changed, and journalism is under attack, most notably by the president of the United States. You might think that has nothing to do with your journalism, but I have heard editors all over the country say it is casting a shadow on their work.           They have begun to feel the sting of the anti-journalism message – yes, it really is a message against journalism as it should be practiced – and they have begun to realize that in a larger sense, we are all in the same boat; that they have an important role to play in restoring, building and maintaining the reputation of, and belief in, journalism.

And this has serious implications beyond our business; this week the RAND Corporation issued a 324-page report about the decay of truth in our society, the lack of agreement on basic facts – partly because people don’t understand what sources are valid, but also because news media have blurred the lines between fact and opinion. Strategic media, or message media, are using social media to trump (no pun intended) the news media.

As you defend journalism, you don’t have to defend the networks or the big papers; you can use some of their failings to explain what journalism is supposed to be. But you are journalists, or employers of journalists, so I think it is in your interest to defend journalism – and to help people understand that it has standards and principles, and that it is to be held accountable, just as it holds others accountable.

But the most important thing you can do for journalism, and the news business that pays for it, is to show its value to your community. That means you must produce journalism that helps set the public agenda for your community; that holds public officials and institutions accountable; that provides a fair forum for debate; and that acts as a leader in the community.

These are not easy things. And, I’m sad to say, a lot of community newspapers fall short. Editorial timidity is a common characteristic in community journalism, and it’s understandable. I teach my students that the fundamental conflict in community journalism is between the personal and the professional – the desire to fit comfortably into a community, and the responsibility to sometimes make others uncomfortable.

One way to successfully manage this conflict is to have a set of clear principles that not only guide your work but let the public know how you think you are supposed to do that work, and invite them into the discussion.

So, in our SWOT analysis, those are some opportunities – most of which, as they often do, are responses to threats. What about the strengths of community newspapers?

The biggest is that in most markets, you have a local-news franchise that no one has really invaded. Now, don’t take it for granted; a newspaper I once helped edit got bought by a chain, its staff gradually lost the local people, and a former editor started an online site that wasn’t really about hard news, but mainly local features and sports. But those are things people wanted to read about, and they had a personal acquaintance with the publisher, so his site took off – and the local paper, once one of the best in the state, now has one of the lowest household penetrations in the state, about 30 percent.

In that story, of course, there’s a reference to another strength of most community newspapers: community connections. They help you understand your community, its needs, its wants, and its preferences. But they may also restrain your journalism, and you have to be careful about that. Always remember you are a public servant.

And in the age of social media, where many community conversations occur, you need to be part of those conversations, and your paper needs to have a presence. You must be where your audience is. They can provide story ideas and sources. And if they are participating in the news, that can make them advocates for your paper.

This doesn’t have to be all that complicated, especially at small newspapers, where many of you are surely doing these things already. But I think it needs to be part of your fundamental approach to our journalism.

And more than ever, that journalism needs to be good.

Just about every manager in journalism or the news business realizes the importance of unique local content. That is nothing new to this crowd; unique local content is the main reason community journalism has been the healthiest part of the traditional news business. But now that you are in competition with every other information source, that content has to be quality content.

Newspapers need to step up their game and prove their value to their communities. That means fresh and helpful enterprise stories, with good storytelling that gives readers information an perspectives new to them. It means real watchdog journalism, which send the message: “We’re important to you because we’re looking out for your interests.”

You’ve got to take on the local bullies. Here’s just one example, from Texas: The Weatherford Democrat found that the county judge had hired his mistress, first as an office manager and assistant, though she was unqualified (no high-school diploma, and lied about it on the application), then gave her a raise and made her head of the emergency medical service.

Bill Ketter, the news vice president for CNHI, which owns the paper, shared with me a note from editor James Walker, who told him, “Circulation folks just told me that we had a guy renew his subscription this morning and urged us to “please, please keep covering our crooked judge.”

Quality journalism also means being careful, ethical, fair and respectful, especially on social media. You may not have any substantial competition for local news, but increasingly there are blogs and sites, groups and individuals, who have it in for you, or at least want to hold YOU accountable.

So, back to that old saying: There’s more than one way to do things. Each market is at least a little but different, but I think I’ve laid out a few principles, strategies and tactics to follow to make sure your community journalism has a bright future: Keep public service at the top of your mind, engage with your audience, defend journalism, prove your value by giving your neighbors coverage they can get nowhere else, and make sure that is quality coverage.

It’s a pleasure to be with you this evening. If I can help you, let me know. My short job description is “extension agent for rural journalists.” Good luck in your work!



Newswriting writing improvement

Stick to the basics: Present all sides of a story

Most reporters can likely relate to this scenario. Someone speaks up at a public meeting to unleash criticism about an individual or organization. Reporters have little difficulty presenting a balanced report – recording all sides of the story – if the accused is at the meeting.

But what happens if the individual is not present? And what if deadlines do not permit time to get the other side of the argument?

It’s the classic case of a “single source” story. These types of stories are no doubt the easiest to write, and they are the most likely to prompt calls of “foul play” from readers – for good reason.

Consider this editor’s note which prefaced a story.

Note: The following article pertains to a presentation which represented one side of a highly controversial topic. Representatives for the alternative position were not available to contest or counter statements made and statistics shared. As such, that perspective is not a component of this report.

Give the newspaper credit for acknowledging the shortcomings in its report, but say what?

The editor’s note – the newspaper’s lack of initiative in pursuing and presenting the other side of the story – is rather remarkable in today’s 24/7 communications landscape. Multiple avenues are available to get the opposing view from picking up the telephone to sending an email to checking out organization websites.

Blind-sided attacks are a common occurrence in reporting the news. Newsrooms, as the clearinghouse of information in your communities, are often in perfect position to anticipate the circumstances and double down your efforts to present all sides of a story.

A simple brainstorming session at a staff meeting can reveal additional opportunities for broader coverage. The more voices in a story, the more balanced a report. Coverage of public affairs affords ample opportunities for including multiple voices.

A school board is prepared to act on a recommendation to switch from half-day to all-day kindergarten; the packet of materials accompanying the agenda details the reasons. A preview of the meeting is a chance to provide “pro” and “con” arguments including interviews with a variety of individuals. Follow-up reports on a variety of board actions present similar opportunities.

Review other everyday coverage in your newspapers.

A community’s selection of a “citizen of the year” is an automatic feature story – usually a one-on-one sit-down with the honoree. Inject some flavor to the story by including comments from other individuals.

A big-box retailer comes into a town with great fanfare. A sidebar is appropriate to capture the sentiments of those who believe existing local retailers will be helped or hindered.

Most items in police blotters are sufficiently summarized in a few sentences. On occasion, take the time to quiz police on some incidents, and the circumstances can lead to an interesting story.

Tracking down all the voices – all the perspectives – of a story is just the first step, however. Two other points are important in the spirit of fairness.

No. 1, give the opposing voices equal prominence. Court proceedings are a great example. In other words, don’t put the prosecutor’s arguments on page one and bury the defense’s rebuttal on jump page. Readers’ attention is limited on the web, too; present the opposing viewpoints in the first few paragraphs.

No. 2, don’t be afraid to hold a story if it means delivering a more complete – and more fair – report. That’s especially the case with nondaily newspapers where it can be a few days to a week before readers receive the “other side.” In these cases, the web is a great friend. Newspapers can wait a few hours to pursue all the voices and still deliver a timely report.

Seeking and incorporating the many varied – yet pertinent – voices in a story is not always easy. It can take time and hard work – solid journalism that benefits the newspaper and readers alike.

writing improvement

If your new year’s resolution is to improve your writing, here’s a good place to start

If your new year’s resolution involves improving your writing, here’s a good place to start – an idea you may not have considered:

It sounds almost counterintuitive.

Reporters who want to become better writers often think in terms of classes or workshops or coaching by veteran writers.  And all of those are good things. But maybe one of the best ways to improve your writing is just to read.

But don’t all journalists read a lot?  Actually, no.  We do read reports and meeting minutes and the results of Google searches.  And of course, our own newspaper.

That’s a start.  But are you reading some of the nation’s top journalists and other really good writers?  How often do you read something and say, “Wow.  That’s really good.  I wish I could write like that.”

It has never been as easy as today for writers everywhere to read the best journalism produced in the world.  So let’s spend a few minutes looking at why this is so important and how you can improve your writing, just by reading.

The first step is expanding the amount of great writing you are exposed to every day.  The best way to do that is through social media. On Facebook, follow The New York Times and The Washington Post.  On email, sign up for newsletters from these papers that will deliver a sampling of great writing to your inbox every day.  And on social media, follow some important news feeds for community journalists.  TCCJ has compiled a list for you here. Click on several of these that look interesting.  In a few minutes on email and social media, you can have an exciting sampling of great writing coming to your computer every day.  Often, you’ll just skim through without reading anything – but if you read three or four great news stories or feature stories or depth journalism pieces a week, your writing will definitely improve over the next few months.

Just by reading. Nothing else.

Of course, you can maximize the experience by collecting great sentences or great leads or passages of description you admire.  Within a few months, you would have, say, a collection of maybe 20 leads you love.

Then, when you’re stuck, go back and read through that list.  Find something you can model your own lead on.

That isn’t plagiarism, unless you copy word for word.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, schools taught writing by what they called “copywork.” Students just copied from books acknowledged to be great writing.  It considered an effective way to teach students handwriting as well as grammar, punctuation and syntax.  Good writing is more than copying, but it can be a great first step toward improving your style – sort of like using training wheels when you are learning to ride your bike. Copywork meant that students had to read good writing and then copy it – and perhaps absorb the style and feel of well-written prose.

You’re not going to copy great writing, but you should at least be reading it.

When you read good journalism – not necessarily study it, but just consume it as a reader, you’ll get a better feel for what to write about.  One of the best places to get story ideas is from great stories.  You’ll see all kinds of articles you can localize for your paper.  Or at least the article you read will spark an idea that you can develop for one of your own.

How can you ever write great prose unless you read it?  Sports psychologists have urged basketball players to practice free throws in their heads, imaging themselves with perfect form, launching a shot that swished the net.  And those who practiced in their minds were as successful as those who practiced in the gym. The pictures in our heads help to determine our performance – so we need to get lots of “pictures” of good writing into our minds.

And while you should read great journalism, you shouldn’t limit yourself to journalism.  Read novels and non-fiction, too. You can learn a lot about descriptive writing and dialogue from a well-crafted novel.

The novelist William Faulkner came to the same conclusion about the value of reading:  “Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.”

Also consider poetry.  There’s no better way to develop a feel for language and meter and word-choice than poetry. Go to a used book store, where you can find a poetry anthology that some poor undergraduate probably paid more than $100 for.  You can probably get it for less than $5.  Then try to read a couple of poems a week – maybe even memorize some lines that you especially like.

Novelist Stephen King has said that “the real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing.” He’s right. Journalists tend to be of a practical turn of mind, so we think of writing improvement in terms of workshops and classes.  But don’t overlook settling back with a good magazine article or a well-written news story or a novel – even a poem – as a way of improving your journalistic writing style.