By Jim Pumarlo
My formula for shaping newspaper content is straightforward: Present a blend of stories that people like to read and stories they should read. Under the “should read” category, consider me an advocate of vibrant coverage of local government.
Another basic element to writing any story, whether hard news or feature: Make it interesting. Specific to public affairs reporting, make it timely and relevant.
Poll after poll underscores the value of newspapers as a government watchdog. It’s no coincidence that when local journalism declines, so does government transparency and civic engagement.
Most newsrooms routinely cover local government bodies and the decisions that affect readers’ everyday lives. I encourage broadening coverage through a three-step process:
- Solid advances to inform readers and ensure robust community discussion of vital community issues.
- Meaningful meeting coverage.
- Follow-up reports that interpret the actions taken.
Many newsrooms probably can relate to this course of events. Reporters pick up an agenda maybe a couple of days in advance of a meeting. They might write a couple of paragraphs as a preview, then put the materials away. Worse yet, reporters see an agenda for the first time when they show up at a meeting.
The meeting can last hours, and then reporters face the task, often that same night, of pounding out hundreds of words of copy – all too often on the premise that if something was said at the meeting, you must record it.
The copy is plucked onto your pages, often with little forethought of what news might actually transpire from the meeting and how best to display the stories. That’s just the print edition. Now throw in all the other elements in these days of multitasking – photos and video, Twitter updates, immediate online postings.
I hear the pushback: “You can’t force-feed readers with boring meeting reports.”
That likely will be the case if you do not plan coverage. If you report a meeting as if recording the official minutes, stories will go unread. Here’s one example of how to drive readers away. The report began:
“Following the 4:30 p.m. meeting of the Committee of the Whole, the City Council met Monday night at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall. With no public hearings, bids, petitions, or open forum scheduled for the evening, the council quickly moved through the initial items.
“The following consent agenda items were approved by the council:
“Motion approving the minutes from the April 3 Council and Committee of the Whole meetings.
“Motion approving licenses.
“Resolution amending the fee schedule to include refuse container sanitizing charges.
“Resolution closing out debt service and capital project funds and transferring the balances.
“Resolution declaring items as surplus property and authorizing their disposal.
“After passing the consent agenda and a brief overview of two, updated city ordinances, the next resolution was for the council to voice their support to the state legislature to increase the budget for the Local Government Aid (LGA) grant program.”
I doubt whether even the council members, let alone the broader readership, took any interest in the story.
And we wonder why many reports often raise more questions than provide answers for readers.
I applaud those newspapers that are taking a fresh and substantive approach to coverage of public affairs, especially at the local level. In all cases, however, there likely is room for improvement.
Also, make no mistake, meaningful coverage takes work. It requires planning and it requires newsrooms to look at the continuum of coverage – not just reporting on the meetings.
At the same time, the effort will reap dividends for everyone. Citizens will be more engaged in policy-making. Elected bodies will appreciate the additional attention to and participation in their decisions. And newspapers will increase their relevancy in readers’ everyday lives.
— Jim Pumarlo is former editor of the Red Wing Republican Eagle. He writes, speaks and provides training on community newsroom success strategies. He is author of “Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage,” “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in Small-Town Newspapers.” He can be reached at www.pumarlo.com and welcomes comments and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.