A Reporter’s Guide to Covering a Town Meeting

If you are a newspaper reporter, chances are you will need to cover a town meeting, whether it be the Board of Education, Planning and Zoning or some other governing body. The first time you cover a meeting as a reporter can be difficult, particularly if you are unprepared and on deadline. But with the right knowledge you can meet your deadline and get the meeting story done right.

I still remember the first meeting I covered as a reporter. It was a City Council meeting in Torrington, Connecticut that I attended with a veteran reporter. I was a very green reporter with barely a few weeks on the job. Like a deer in headlights, I wasn’t quite sure what the role of the journalist was in that setting or what I should be doing in the meeting. I picked it up quickly by watching what she did and filed just before deadline.

It was a few years later before I covered another meeting due to the nature of my beat (I was a crime reporter for the first two years of my career as a journalist). Again, I was nervous, but after two years in the field I was also prepared for working on deadline.

No matter where you are in your career as a journalist, you too can be prepared to be the best reporter possible at your first town meeting.

Know The Board
As a reporter, before you even step out of the office you should know who the members of the particular board or commission you’ll be covering are. This information is frequently available on town websites these days, so that is a great place to start.

It’s helpful to print out a list of the board members and take note of whom the chairperson is – they’ll be the one doing the most talking during the meeting. If you have the list with you, keep your ears open for clues as to who is who. For instance, during the meeting role call you can often get everyone’s name. Sometimes a board will even have name plates (very helpful to us reporters).

If you are unable to identify a speaker during the meeting, note a characteristic next to what they say so that you can match up a name later. As a reporter, you need to be objective always so choose something innocuous like “aqua jacket” or “red, curly hair” rather than something more inflammatory like “short, bald, fat man”. Though your reporter notebooks are private, don’t take chances with unnecessary obscurities like this.

If you are on deadline and need to know names, try to quietly pull someone aside if possible to find out the names you need. Or better yet arrive early and introduce yourself as a reporter.

Taking Notes
As a reporter, it’s always okay to take notes during meetings. In fact, it’s more than okay. It’s absolutely necessary and you cannot do your job as a journalist if you do not. Without notes you cannot accurately report on any event or give quotes from anyone.

Never rely on your memory alone as a reporter – it can get you into trouble.

The most efficient way to take notes during a meeting is to bring a laptop computer and input the notes directly into a Word document (title it accordingly – the board name and the date). Remember to save frequently if you do this, as computers can be unpredictable. If you are on deadline, this option is a great one since it will greatly speed up the writing.

Your second best option is to use the tried and true reporter’s notebook – a narrow but long note pad used by journalists all over the world. Don’t forget to bring extra pens or pencils just in case too. You never know when your pen is going to inexplicably run out of ink in the middle of an important quote, so be a good journalist and always be prepared.

When taking notes, it’s important that you, as a reporter, stay organized. Note the general topic, each the speakers name (or description, if you are unsure of the name as mentioned above), and then what they say (when there are more than one speaker on a topic, simply write the next name and dialogue below the first). An organized reporter will have a much easier time meeting deadline.

As a reporter, you’ll naturally want some direct quotes, but everything needn’t be a direct quote so summarize whenever it’s important but not quote worthy and be sure to indicate which phrases or sentences are direct from the speaker’s mouth. I typically will use arrows at the beginning of the line to indicate direct quotes. This is important so that you don’t misquote anyone in the meeting.

Accuracy is paramount in journalism and as a reporter you have high standards to uphold. Your job as a reporter is to present the facts.

How Long to Stay
Be sure to read the meeting agenda before you go and write down the topics of interest (or highlight them on the agenda). This will keep you focused on the issues that you will need to report on later.

Note your deadline. Deadlines are so important to all journalists. If you have to file a story that evening following the meeting (therefore on deadline), take into account how long it will take you to return to the office, write the story and do a brief edit. Subtract that time from your deadline and you have the time you need to leave the meeting. For instance, if your deadline is 9:30 p.m. and the meeting is 10 minutes from your office and you need 45 minutes to write and edit, you would need to leave the meeting no later than 8:35 in order to file on time.

On the other hand, if your deadline isn’t until the next morning and there are a number of interesting topics on the meeting agenda, it’s in your best interest as a reporter to stay at the meeting as long as necessary to get as much information regarding each topic as possible. Not only will this aid in the writing process later, but you won’t have to scurry for information about the meeting the next day making the whole process easier and leaving you available to work on other projects.

The Writing
Sometimes writing a lead can be the hardest part for a reporter. If nothing immediately comes to mind, just start writing the story and go back to it. Wasting time trying to tweak the perfect lead on deadline is simply that. Sometimes when all the writing is done, the lead will just fall into place.

Many things can occur in a meeting, and it’s okay to break them up into separate stories over a few days. Try to keep your story focused to one topic, or at most two. As a reporter, you want to keep the news of the story at the very topic and filter through the details as the story progresses.

Remember that facts are paramount. Keep the commentary to yourself, but give as many details as you can.

If you want to include information on something else that occurred at the meeting, lead with the most important topic. Then after you have finished with that, write something to the effect of “in other news, âÂ?¦” It makes for a smooth transition. Keep the paragraphs short and the sentences simple. Quote people whenever necessary, and have at least 2-3 voices in the story.

Uncertainty
As a reporter, if you are uncertain about any aspect of what you hear or if you aren’t sure that you heard someone right, don’t print it until you confirm. Confirming uncertain quotes, facts and details is important to a journalist. There are integrity issues involved with things like this. If you want to be a journalist and reporter with high integrity then you will only write what you are certain of, and will confirm those things you aren’t. Always err on the side of caution on deadline.

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