I read Steve Buttry’s blog post today on what beats local news should cover with great interest, mainly since local news has always been my biggest passion. One of the reasons I’m so passionate about local news is because I find it to be the best way in journalism to help people, something I’ve always worked to do. And you’re not going to help people unless you listen to them and what their important issues are.
It pains me to see that so many local journalists don’t really listen to what their communities want, what issues are most important to them. Certainly there are things that we should always cover, but, as Steve points out, perhaps we should rethink how we do it.
But listening to your community isn’t just about talking to your sources or even talking to people at meetings. The people who are at those meetings have agendas and I’ve always believed to never fully trust a politician, even a local politician. They have to earn your trust, but at the same time you always need to check out what they’re saying.
Listening to your community is meaning you need to be in the community, talking to people. Go where those people are. Let them know where you are. But also eavesdrop, something we all need to be good at in journalism. Read comments on articles, and really read them. Don’t be dismissive of questions or comments and be open-minded. Be involved by asking your own questions of your audience and people in the community. Ask them about what’s the biggest issues on their mind, what they’re most curious about. Use social media, monitoring what people are saying in the community that way too.
And walk around. Always walk around. You see so much more walking around a community than you do driving through it. You’re not going to see much if you parachute into a community, as so many do (and I admit I have done in the past too). I used to be accused of being handed stories in Westport and Millburn-Short Hills, but I never was. I observed a lot and then asked questions. I’m thankful I always received answers rather than “I can’t talk about that.”
But never be dismissive, especially if you think something is “boring.” Traffic issues, including pedestrian problems, have always been a problem in every community I’ve covered. But who wants to write about crosswalks and speed humps and stop signs? But it’s what people care about because it affects their every day life. Think outside the box in how to cover it, too. One of my favorite projects I ever did was a video on what it was like to drive over a speed hump in Millburn-Short Hills. Everyone talked about speed humps both positively and negatively, but it’s another thing to show people what the experience is like.
If one thing is universal in journalism is that everyone hates to cover planning and zoning. Who wants to sit through those meetings? But development issues always are of major interest to people. It’s how their neighborhoods are changing and therefore their lives. It’s beyond NIMBY, and it’s certainly beyond covering those planning and zoning meetings. Knowing how to read an application and break it down and explain it to people is a great skill. I actually always have been interested in covering these issues because I know how important they are, even if it could be boring. Plus covering it enough means you can spot trends — like people designating their homes as “historic” to curb the mcmansion trend, which is something I wrote about in Westport.
As far as meeting coverage, which Steve addresses in his post, I do think you can’t completely escape it. Something always happens at a meeting, and you can’t make up for it if you miss it. I skipped a Board of Finance meeting back in Westport because there was nothing of note on the agenda. Instead, the board decided to discuss school funding matters after the meeting had been adjourned. In other words, no one from me to school officials to parents knew this was happening, which was its own drama in its own right because it violated freedom of information.
There are lots of ways to cover meetings other than your straight stenographer process and giving us the score. What are the issues beyond the meeting? How does the meeting work? Why should people care enough to go to those meetings? Who is at those meetings constantly and why are they there? Is the meeting process broken and how can it be fixed?
I could write so much more about how to better cover local news as someone who has both done it (and I like to say quite successfully — my sites have always been called “the gold standard”) and as someone who consumes it (frustratingly so, since I never know what’s happening in my city). But the key here is to listen. It’s good to have a plan on what to cover, but it’s also good to be flexible and change your plans based on what you see and hear.
Quick update: I realized after I hit publish that there are many news organizations that have established community newsrooms in a variety of forms. I want to applaud those efforts because those kinds of things will help any journalist understand how best to serve their community.