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.

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.

Newswriting Readability

Four quick fixes any newspaper can use to improve writing

Community newspapers are always looking for ways to improve the reader’s experience.

We’ve improved design and photography and even experimented with larger point sizes and more readable fonts (And somewhere, Ed Henninger is smiling). But nothing improves the reader experience more than readable writing.

Some editors just glaze over when they start thinking about making writing more readable. Just too challenging a task, they assume.

But maybe not.

Let’s say you were getting your house ready for sale. Now in an ideal world you’d bring in Chip and Joanna Gaines and give them $30,000 to work with. Chip would knock out some walls and Joanna would line your den with shiplap. You wouldn’t even recognize the place.

But if you don’t have $30k, you can still make significant changes that’ll help your house sell. Throw out junk or put it in storage. Plant new flowers. Wash down the siding. Paint a few rooms. Steam clean the carpets. For less than $1,000 you can make a real difference in the curb appeal of your home.

And the same goes for your newspaper. Yeah, you really would like to bring in Roy Peter Clark for a week of in-house coaching or send everyone back to take some journalism courses (at TCU, of course). But get real. Nobody in today’s newspaper world has the money for the writing equivalent of a Chip-and-Joanna makeover.

The good news is that there are somethings you can do to improve writing, no matter what your resources or the expertise of your reporters. Now bear in mind, we would all like to do so much more, but here’s a place to begin, something that any newspaper can do, beginning today.

Quick fix #1: Many Texas newspapers are using choke-a-horse paragraphs. Long paragraphs are forbidding to readers. They think the story will be hard-reading before they ever start.

Paragraphs are one of the areas where size really does matter. And smaller is always better. And remember: You were taught in high school that paragraphs are a unit of thought – but in newspapers, they are a unit of typography.

There’s nothing wrong with one-sentence grafs. And can you occasionally throw in a one-word graf in features?


Depending on your line length, most newspaper grafs should not go over about four lines. And when you’re quoting someone, always start a new, full sentence of quote at the beginning of a new graf.

The best rule is that if you’re uncertain about whether to start a new graf, just do it. Your local English teacher may complain, but your readers will love it.

Quick fix #2: Leads should get to the point. If you are talking to a writer working on a story, tell him or her that he has 30 seconds to tell you what the story is about. Whatever that writer says, should be in the lead.

Often, when we are coaching writers, we look immediately to the words on the screen. Stop trying to work with, edit or improve words. Instead, work with ideas. And frame the 30-second query in different ways:

“Joe Bob, let’s assume somebody read that story you’re working on, and somebody else said, ‘Hey, what’s that about?’ What would he say?” The answer to that question should probably be in the lead.

Sometimes, when we are coaching writers at the university, and they are having a hard time with the story, we’ll just turn off the screen and say, “Stop writing and tell me what the story is about.”

Even veteran reporters begin writing without ever figuring out what the story is about and what the reader needs to know first. That gives you stories that bury the lead. Oh sure, it may be in there someplace, but today’s readers are less and less likely to wade into the swamp to find it.

Quick fix #3: Start sentences with subjects, not clauses or prepositional phrases. After all, that’s the way we talk. Let’s say you see somebody running down the street in your neighborhood, calling out the name of her dog. You ask what’s up. Would she say this: “Having distracted myself with helping my son with his homework and neglecting to shut the gate to the back yard, I missed Fido, called out to him, and discovered that he had escaped out that open gate.”

Or would she more likely say, “My dog got out!”

So why do we back into leads? See quick fix #2 – because we haven’t taken the time to figure out what the story is about. And we end up with something like this:

Although city attorney Billy Bob Beasley and city personnel director Hilda Rae Smith said they could not comment on an incident earlier this week in which a Jonesville police officer was said to have stolen drugs from the police property room, Chief Joe Fred Gonzalez said Monday that the officer was being suspended.

Why not get to the point?

A Jonesville police officer accused of stealing drugs from the department’s property room was suspended Monday by Chief Joe Fred Gonzalez.

Quick fix #4: Start your sentences with subjects. And follow them with a verb. Here’s a New York Times story that backs into the lead and makes it hard to connect the subject and verb:

Asked at a confirmation hearing two weeks ago if he was working with President Trump on a secret plan to replace the Affordable Care Act, Rep. Tom Price, Mr. Trump’s nominee for secretary of health and human services, smiled broadly and answered: “It’s true that he said that, yes.”

There are 49 words in that lead. The subject of the sentence (Rep. Tom Price) is 26 words in, and you don’t get to the compound verbs until 39 and 42 words in, respectively.

One of the best exercises for writers is to take a story and highlight the subjects in one color and the verbs in another. Then ask: Do the subjects come close to the beginning of sentences? Are the verbs right after the subjects?

These four quick fixes are only the beginning, but some newspapers can get a significant boost in reader-friendliness if they put them into effect.

(This blogpost grades out at the fifth grade reading level. It has an average of less than 8 percent complex words and under 14 words a sentence.)


Stop backing in to leads: how to make your writing more reader-friendly

Reporters on deadline often forget two essential truths of journalism:

  1. 1. We’re not just writing to pass along our information – we’re writing to be read. So we need to package our story for maximum readability. In other words, think about the reader.
  2. 2. Readers don’t have much time, and often they don’t have a commitment to read the story. If you write about the city library, the librarians and regular library patrons will read it. Will anyone else?

So what can we do to make our newswriting more reader-friendly? One of the key strategies is to begin sentences with a subject.

Huh? Don’t all sentences begin with a subject? Actually, no. They have a subject, but they don’t necessarily begin with it. We call this problem “backing in” – beginning with long phrases or dependent clauses that readers have to wade through before they get to the point of the sentence.

We don’t talk that way. Let’s say you’re in an unfamiliar building and ask someone where the parking garage is. His answer:

“Having worked here many years myself and having given many people directions because they did not see the sign posted next to the elevator, I can tell you that you need to turn to the left at the next hall and take the stairs down to the first floor.”

You’d probably laugh out loud. Nobody talks that way.

But reporters write that way, even in The New York Times. Look at this lead on today’s front page of the Times:

Punctuating a string of Obama-era moves to shore up labor rights and expand protections for workers, the National Labor Relations Board ruled Tuesday that students who work as teaching and research assistants at private universities have a federally backed right to unionize.

The subject of that sentence, the National Labor Relations Board, is 19 words in.

When you write, begin by asking what the story is about. What happened that caused you to write the story? Then start there.

Why was this written? Because the NLRB ruled that grad students can unionize.

The Washington Post started with the “actor,” the NLRB, as the subject:

The National Labor Relations Board ruled Tuesday that graduate students who work as teaching and research assistants at private universities are school employees, clearing the way for them to join or form unions that administrators must recognize.

Writing is more readable when you introduce the subject as close to the beginning of the sentence as possible. But then you can ask, is the subject something readers can relate to? What kind of mental picture does the National Labor Relations Board conjure up? Unless you a Beltway bureaucrat, probably nothing.

But there is a word picture in this story – the graduate students. So why not start there, like the Los Angeles Times did:

Graduate students who assist in teaching and research at private universities are employees and have a right to union representation, the National Labor Relations Board ruled Tuesday.

Just this week, veteran AP journalist John Lumpkin sent us a blogpost by Pulitzer journalist-turned-novelist Bruce DeSilva that addresses this issue.

Consider the first sentence of the King James Version of the Bible: “In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth.”
Nice sentence. It’s simple, clear, and tells a big story in very few words. But if the typical journalist had written it, it would have come out something like this:
“In a series of surprise moves intended to bring all of creation into existence out of what leading scientists call the ‘singularity,’ before energy, matter or even time existed, God yesterday said ‘Let there be light,’ according to reliable sources close to the project.”
If a journalist had written the Bible, I doubt anyone would have read it.

What’s the difference between the prose of Moses and that of the journalist? Moses summarized creation in 10 words. The subject, God, is four words in, followed by a strong verb – created.

The subject of the fictional journalist’s lead is 29 words in. And it’s preceded by: two prepositional phrases, a participle phrase, then three more prepositional phrases, then a noun clause used as the object of a preposition, then an adverb clause. Then: the subject.

So are you backing in to your sentences, and especially your leads? You find out by doing something you probably haven’t done since the ninth grade. Read your story and underline the subjects and verbs. Then look at these writing issues:

  1. 1. Are your subjects reasonably close to the beginning of the sentence?
  2. 2. Do your verbs come quickly after the subject, so that readers aren’t likely to forget what the subject is by the time they get to the verb?
  3. 3. Have you chosen strong action verbs?
  4. 4. Are your leads relatively short? Readership begins dropping off past 30 words, and you should almost never write one that’s longer than 35 words. The Times lead above is 43 words; the Washington Post lead is 37; the LA Times lead is 27.

Today’s readers won’t wade through verbiage to find the news. So let’s make it easy for them.

By the way, the blogpost you just read tests out at the sixth grade reading level. It averages 13.10 words per sentence and an average 1.4 syllables per word as calculated by the Readability Test Tool – check it out because it’s a great newsroom resource. (The calculations do not include the long leads from the Times and DeSilva, which would have increased the score. If you’re curious, the NYT lead tested out at a grade level of 24.2 – a post-doctoral level. The DeSilva Genesis lead tested at about the same level)


AP finally changes spellings — look at the hyphens we’ll save

Tell your reporters to put down their cell phones and check their e-mail – there could be a message there from your correspondent in Calcutta. And other than the obvious fantasy of having a correspondent in Calcutta, there are three errors in the first sentence, according to the latest style changes from AP. Last week, the sentence would have been OK. This week, AP joined the rest of the 21st century in changing e-mail to email and cell phone to cellphone (same with smartphones). And under the theory that we should go along with the spelling favored by more than one billion Indians, Calcutta has become Kolkata (how long will it take you to remember that one?). Last year, AP changed web site to the more popular website. But we’re sure you’ll find a use for those extra hyphens somewhere . . .

New media Newswriting Social media

Stylebook includes new social media guidelines

So is it smart phone or smartphone? Ereader or e-reader? And can you use “friend” as a verb now? The AP Stylebook has the answers in its new revision, which now includes guidelines for references to social media.


Great site for copyeditors and grammar nerds

Copyeditor-types, if you just can’t find someone to engage in a deep discussion of comma splices and arcane points of word usage, check out this weekly column online from The New York Times.  There’s enough there every week to delight you and bore the pants off anyone around you.  And if that still doesn’t satisfy, check out writing coach Roy Peter Clark’s fascinating new book, The Glamour of Grammar:  A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English. Fascinating book – you’ll agree when you read the Times’ interview with Roy at


Conquering the semicolon

If you have reporters (or maybe even yourself, but I’ll never tell) who have trouble knowing when to use a comma and when to use a semicolon, check out this hilarious explanation. It’s well-illustrated and it answers questions some folk have had since eighth grade. Of course, in journalism we don’t use that many semicolons — periods and new sentences often work better. But check this out anyway; you’ll enjoy it; I promise. (Three in one sentence; are you impressed?)


Avoiding errors in news copy

You’ll want to read this one and then post it in several places around the office, and maybe put it in your online stylebook (if you don’t have one, that’s another issue to address). There are actually 44 tips for reducing errors, and they’re down-to-earth, common-sense ideas. Like #3: Always find the first reference to a person in copy. Make sure that on first reference you have a first name and title, and doublecheck to make sure the first reference hasn’t be omitted rearranged or deleted in trimming copy. To which I would add: Make sure the reporter hasn’t omitted the first name of the mayor, just calling him Mayor Smith on first reference. Simple stuff, but really valuable as a review for new employees.

Blogging Newswriting Online news

Must-read tips on blogging from some of the best

Steve Buttry from Gazette Communications has put together a great tip sheet on blogging, composed largely of tips from some great journalists/bloggers. It’s a must-read post if you’re thinking about blogging or already blogging for your site.