Covering a meaningful meeting? Give the story a substantive lead

By Jim Pumarlo, Newsroom Trainer

Jim Pumarlo

Newspapers smartly are promoting their roles as government watchdogs to reinforce their strengths in the fractured media landscape. I join the chorus: Vibrant coverage of public affairs is at the foundation of vibrant communities. The theme was underscored in a couple of recent webinars.

What do you lose without a community newspaper? As one editor noted, announcing candidate filings, explaining the whys behind a proposed bonding project, calling attention to salary hikes for public officials – these stories and more collectively bind together communities.

Another editor succinctly said: “To sustain democracy, you need people who care about facts and want to read facts. That’s what we’re here for.”

To no surprise, I find myself nodding in agreement with observations on the importance of delivering relevant public affairs coverage, especially the workings of local government where community newspapers have a ringside view. The strongest meeting coverage boils down to three steps: Alert readers; report the decisions; interpret the actions.

For many newspapers, meeting reports represent the lion’s share of their public affairs coverage. That demands extra attention to produce stories that educate and engage readers.

The first step is to write leads with substance. It’s disheartening to see so many examples that miss the mark. The governmental bodies remain nameless to protect the guilty.

  • The county board held a public hearing and special board meeting to discuss the tentative plan for county and municipal redistricting, ultimately passing it. (The report was void of any specifics of the plan.)
  • Below is the agenda for the city council meeting. (Meeting advances are a great way to preview important topics to provide background information and engage the public. This report failed on all counts by simply reprinting the agenda.)
  • The school board met to discuss a districtwide levy, member wages and more. (The lead gave no indication of any decisions made.)
  • At the school board meeting, the superintendent touched on the district’s current COVID-19 data. (The news was buried halfway into the story: The district had seen a gradual increase in positivity rates with no spikes or outbreaks.)

Reporting on government meetings has its own set of challenges. Sessions can last hours, and you are tasked with turning around timely and relevant reports.

Reporters must prepare. Review agendas in advance and gauge the importance of each item to readers. Which stories likely warrant front-page display? Which ones can be enhanced by a photo and/or graphic? Whose voices should be included in your reports – in other words, track down and include the reaction of those affected by the actions taken.

Above all else, avoid chronological reports. Initial items on many agendas can often be ignored.

I hear the arguments that readers today want to be entertained – that we must stop force-feeding them with public affairs reporting, especially reports of meetings. The hill is even steeper to climb with recent polls showing Americans’ confidence in elected leaders has dropped to a new low. But I firmly stand my ground. I still read newspapers to keep abreast of public policy and its impact on citizens’ everyday lives.

The detractors are absolutely correct if meeting reports read like the above examples. Few people will get beyond the first paragraph.

Public affairs coverage can be interesting, relevant and even entertaining. I fondly remember two experiences when I sat behind the editor’s desk.

Our newspaper led an editorial campaign to unseat four incumbents in their re-election bid to the city council. Fresh voices filled the letters column, and all four were unceremoniously retired. Among the most gratifying comments came from a YMCA staff member: “I used to first turn to the sports pages. Now I turn to the editorial page.”

And this comment from an advertiser after we carried an expose on the local economic development director. “Let me know the next time you’re going to carry such a big story. I want my ad in that edition.”

Public affairs coverage – specifically, meeting reports – can be informative and grab attention. It takes work, and that’s especially challenging in newsrooms operating with diminished resources. These stories will not be accomplished, however, without the support of management willing to invest the time and money to train editors and reporters. Most important, I believe these stories are essential to the livelihood of community newspapers.

Jim Pumarlo is former editor of the Red Wing (Minn.) 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 jim@pumarlo.com.

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