Rick Smith, a long-time Gazette reporter who has covered City Hall in Cedar Rapids for more than a decade, visited one of my classes this morning.
Students in CO 281: Newspaper Reporting will cover a Cedar Rapids City Council meeting later this month, and Smith was kind enough to give students some suggestions.
The resulting conversation was wide-ranging and open-ended. Rick just opened up and shared anecdotes and context for city issues, and I didn’t see any reason to reign him in. In fact, I felt a bit guilty glancing at the clock, because he thought I might be done with him. Nope—please carry on, Mr. Smith.
Anyway, as often seems to be the case, what he told my students shouldn’t have been new or news to them—but it’s always useful for students to hear how another journalist articulates basically the same advice I give them.
For example, Rick emphasized the importance of the story lead—the first sentence.
On this blog post, I don’t have a particularly good example, although to be fair, this isn’t a news story, either, so there. Anyway, getting a good lead—recognizing what salient point will serve as the theme of the news story and summing up that main point in a compelling and interesting sentence that both communicates the main news and yet still motivates the reader to carry on—well, that’s a big part of the battle.
Especially in a City Council meeting which offers so many false data alleys and information dead ends. I like that Rick had prompted students to look at the city’s web site for agendas and minutes—something the class did as a group on Wednesday, and that I will expect them to do individually before the meeting they cover.
Anyway, what else do I hope students will recall from Rick Smith’s visit?
- What happens at a meeting is always part of a larger story. For example, he spoke about a new development in the works for the corner of Edgewood Road and Blair’s Ferry. The policy question is whether the city should provide tax incentives to the developer. Those incentives traditionally were given to manufacturing companies, but a decade ago the city used them to help persuade HyVee to go ahead with plans for a new store in an economically poor neighborhood—and now someone wants them for a swanky new shopping and office complex in an upscale area of town. The city’s materials explain what the tax incentive is, but don’t tie this decision to the context of earlier decisions—and that context is what a journalist provides. The rule is bigger than just this topic—on any beat for virtually any story, a journalist needs to seek the context and deliver that valued insight. I think that’s increasingly the role of the profession, tying the news of the minute to the larger saga, as events themselves are more universally experienced without information intermediaries.
- A meeting is partially a public performance. TV, even small-audience local cable TV, changes whatever it pays attention to. There used to be five members of the Cedar Rapids City Council—now, with nine, when something important happens, “you have to listen to nine speeches.” I suspect those speeches are for the benefit of the home audience of potential voters.
- Brevity is one of the keys to good news writing. If he were professor, Rick says, part of the assignment would be: “See how short you can make it.” Students, Rick isn’t the professor and I’m going to want you to cover the full meeting…but “covering” does mean recognizing what’s important (and writing about it) and what’s not (and leaving it out). And whatever you report, if you’re a journalist, always try to use a few words effectively rather than deploy too many for the job. Write short.
Anyway, much of the talk was Rick telling stories that I think give students some context to try to understand what will happen before them later this month. He gave students and me a lot to think about, along with good advice, and I’m grateful he was willing to speak with my class.