Meeting story hydraulics

John Robinson, editor at the Greensboro News & Record, on stepping away from the “meeting story”:

“Welcome to the world of hard choices. It’s always been this way. We don’t cover everything. We don’t even cover what we used to. Newspaper staffs are getting smaller, yet the number of meetings and events, of commissions and government agencies grows. Partly as a result, newspapers are also moving away from devoting as much energy to covering “buildings.” Not only are there fewer reporters, but there is evidence that readers aren’t as interested in what traditionally is produced by that coverage: stories about meetings and bureaucracy. For every big scandal story, there are 100 smaller process stories required to get there.”

Something I’ve heard more than a few times, wise advice from experienced editors: If you can’t find the photo in your story, you might not have a story.

My version: If there’s a meeting in your lede, you need to find a person in your community affected by the decision made at the meeting, then rewrite your lede to include them in it.

The trick: Getting the photo to be of the person in your lede. Never as easy as it sounds.

None of these tips, of course, address the issues of how to cover local government with a shrinking staff.

A scorecard graphic? Still takes reporting time to boil down to facts.

Stringers? Still costs money.

Reader blogs? Works well enough to get the information from meetings to the Web, but this can’t be the best way to give your community a voice.

Video? This can work really well, but it’s time consuming to find the highlights, much like editing lots of football game footage late on a Friday night. But it can work. Check out this h2otown clip.

Now that’s clearly a story about something that happened AT a meeting, which is exactly the opposite of what I’m advising, but would you have a feel for all that emotion in print? Depends on the town and the writer, I suppose.

Thinking out loud about this; feel free to join in.