Find Meeting Stories That Are More than Just Meeting Stories

CB2 meeting 4.13.2011

The quickest way to lose a reader is to start an article with this lede: “A meeting was held yesterday.”

And yet meetings — of local political bodies, school committees, citizen advisory boards, community organizations — are where a lot of local news happens, and they’re the bread and butter of hyperlocal news coverage. The challenge is reporting the news, not the meeting.

Even experienced reporters sometimes struggle to find news at a dull municipal meeting, so getting your reporters and community contributors to do it can take some coaxing. But if their reporting process is solid from the beginning, your job will be much easier.

The New York Times reporter (and now City Room editor) Andy Newman wrote up some excellent guidelines for community members covering meetings for The Local when he ran the blog. He kept them pretty simple, appropriately, for citizen journalists, and we sent them out to community contributors before they covered a story.

For student and professional journalists, there’s a bit more to covering meetings. Andy’s guidelines are below, and I’ve added a few more guidelines and suggestions:

Dear Community Board Meeting Coverer, Please Do:

* Take good notes on anything that pertains to or affects the neighborhood, including names of speakers.
* Take at least one excellent, or at least usable, horizontally oriented photo.
* Write up the proceedings as concisely as possible. Bullet-points or narrative, your choice, but please keep it below 600 words unless something earth-shattering happens.
* Spend some time beforehand reading other meeting posts we’ve published to get an idea of how others have approached these assignments. Examples here, here, here and here.
* Feel free to question officials afterward if there’s anything you don’t quite get. Better to look clueless to them than to your readers. Explain that you’re writing for The Local, the New York Times blog about Fort Greene and Clinton Hill.
* Paste any links into the text of the document rather than making them into hot links.
* Send words and pix to us before 10 a.m. the morning after the meeting.

Please Don’t:

* Feel obligated to cover every tiny thing that happens. You are producing something for people to read, not the minutes of the meeting for posterity.
* Feel compelled to write up stuff that does not pertain to Fort Greene or Clinton Hill or the Navy Yard. Community Board 2, one of 18 boards in Brooklyn, also covers Boerum Hill, Brooklyn Heights, Downtown Brooklyn and Dumbo, among other places.

Your Local thanks you!

For student or professional journalists, as well as what Andy wrote above, in advance of the meeting:

Always try to get a copy of the agenda before the meeting. Usually the board or agency will email it to you if you call and ask for it. Call a day or two before, and if the agenda is not ready yet, ask when it will be ready, and call back then. Don’t wait until the last minute to ask for the agenda.

Take a moment to look through the agenda, do clip searches on any issue that’s likely to come up, and discuss it with your editor. Your editor might be able to spot hot-button issues that aren’t obvious to someone with less institutional memory on the beat.

Call one or more of the players in the meeting in advance of the meeting (the board chairperson, a district manager, a member of the board) and ask them what’s the scuttlebutt on the meeting, what important issues might come up, what’s not on the agenda but might be discussed. Also, go through the agenda with them, and ask about anything on it that you’re curious about.

Figure out what you think the story will be and start your reporting on it. Call people on all sides of the issue, and take down quotes. Ask if they’ll be at the meeting, and if not, what number you can reach them at from the meeting or while on deadline.

Write a “standup” piece if you’re going to be filing on deadline. Basically, this is an early version of your story, including your quotes and research, which you’ll “re-top” and rework after (or at) the meeting.

At the meeting:

Although you should walk into the meeting with a plan of what you’ll write about, it’s important to stay flexible – the story may not be what you expect it to be, or something more significant or interesting might come up.

Get there at least half an hour early, and talk to board members and attendees. Hand out your business card or contact information to everyone you talk to, and encourage them to call you with news tips or ideas for coverage. You’ll be amazed how many stories you get this way.

If you’re writing on deadline, bring your laptop with your “standup” article to update and freshen with new news, quotes and color from the meeting.

Make sure you sit close enough to hear what’s going on and to get good photographs. Photograph moments of action or passion – someone yelling into the mic, waving their fists, looking at an architect’s model – not dull group shots of the board sitting at a table.

Write down the names of all the people on the board, and make sure you have their correct spellings. Make note of who’s sitting where (for photo captions and to make sure you’re clear on who said what in your quotes). In your notebook, make sure to indicate who said each quote, so that you don’t attribute it to the wrong person.

Make sure you get a copy of the agenda, which may have changed since you got it in advance. Make note of any last-minute items added or removed from the agenda, and find out why if anything looks fishy.

Get copies of any documents related to stories you might write. Even if they’re not handing them out to everyone present, you can always ask the board secretary or the person presenting to the board for a copy.

Be friendly and courteous to any other reporters covering the meeting. No need to tell them what you’re writing about if you have a scoop, but do establish a rapport, and discuss what’s going on in the meeting with them (you might even ask if they want a snack from the vending machine if you’re going for one). It’s a very good idea to enlist their goodwill, because they may well be able to help you (and save your ass) on occasion.

Interview as many people attending the meeting as possible. Get voices from all sides of the issues at hand, and ask those who are not obviously there for one issue or another what brought them to the meeting?

Interview board members after the meeting or during breaks. If they’re not able to speak to you right away, ask for a phone number to reach them at later or tomorrow.

For everyone you interview, ask for a phone number, email address, and cell phone number if they’re willing to give it to you. Tell them, “I probably won’t have to bother you, but I want to make sure I can contact you in case I need to check any of these details with you, to make sure I get the story right.”

Photo by Daniel Terna for The Local