It helps when you have a story

This is part two in my reminiscing about reporting series. I thought I would use this post to discuss a reporter’s challenge of finding a story.

You may think that a reporter should always be able to find a story. No matter where he is, he should have a keen enough eye to notice a trend, interesting person, or potentially life-changing news item.

Well, I’m sorry to break it to you but that’s not the case. I’m not only speaking from my experience, but from the experience of reporters I’ve worked and spoken with. It’s especially the case when you are under pressure to find and write a story in a narrow window of time, and covering a small town.

When I was a reporter in upstate New York I was on the “towns” beat. You may think, “Cool, that must have given you great experience with town government and local issues that really affect people.” The answer would be “Yes, sometimes that happened.”

But a substantial amount of time was also spent scratching my head, wondering what the story was. Often I’d come to the conclusion there really wasn’t a story, or at least a story anyone would care much about. However, I’d know my editors were expecting a story no matter what, so I’d have to do my best to identify an issue I could extract a small amount of value from.

Like many reporters in rural areas, I had to rely on meetings for news stories. Otherwise, my articles would just be about how Farmer Joe added two more cows to his herd, or how people still like shopping at Walmart. At meetings, things were supposed to happen. Elected officials were supposed to discuss important issues and vote on important matters.

But imagine this. You just finished a long day of work during which you wrote up the police blotter, whipped up four articles about various topics, and conducted 15-plus interviews (some over the phone, some in person). You are beat, hungry, and sick of dealing with people.

Yet your day won’t end for another several hours. There is a town board meeting 30 miles away in a town in your county that gets little coverage. This would be the perfect time to boost that coverage, right?

You get in your grandma’s Buick, and head south. You kind of appreciate this moment of driving, as it is a break from your jam-packed day. You eventually arrive at your destination, and sit through a two- or three-hour-long meeting (sometimes longer).

You admire the country drawl of the officials you’re observing, their simple ways, and their knowledge of the smallest of details about their town (everyone, for example, knows that Jim Smith came home for spring break and worked part time at the Main Street diner).

But then, as the end of the meeting nears, reality hits. You realize you have little written down in your notepad. Your notes read “Town might apply for $200 grant for sewer repairs,” “Road project will still begin May 5,” and “New town parking lot may have  41 parking spaces instead of 40 parking spaces.”

“Shoot!” you think. None of this really matters in the grand scheme of things. Even to country people who know everything about everybody’s business. “What do I do?”

Well, you basically rack your brain to determine what “happening” is most worthwhile. Unfortunately, your editor won’t let you simply write a bulleted list of topics discussed/items voted on.

Once you determine the most newsworthy item  you realize you only have a few facts about that item. So you come up with a list of questions to ask the town officials at the end of the meeting. In other towns the officials let you question them individually. But for some reason, in this town they prefer a press conference format. Maybe it makes them feel more important, or like they can better control the information that’s released to the public.

Because, you wouldn’t want to accidentally reveal that the town has hired a new tree warden, right? That would be a scandal, wouldn’t it?

So I ask my questions. They answer them carefully. Actually, for most of the questions they give me a half response. Like, if I ask “What are the bids for repairs to the DPW garage’s roof?”, they’ll say something along the lines of “Oh, I think they are between $50,000 and $60,000. But it actually may be half that. And we may be getting a grant. I can’t remember who that’s through, or how much it’s for, or if we’re even eligible for it. And then we might not undergo the repairs after all. Or we might do the work in house. Our guys do a better job than the contractors anyway. Hey, have we told you about their work ethic?”

Then the official will go on and on about the town employees’ work ethic, and how we should write a story about this. It will seem to me, like the official is trying to avoid answering my initial question, as harmless as I thought it was. I’ll ask a few more question, and I will continue to get half answers.

Now, if it wasn’t 11 p.m. already I might press the officials more for a complete answer. But I am half asleep, and just want to go to sleep. Plus, I know I’ll have to get up at 5 the next morning to type up a story about the meeting. When I get into work my editors will remind me of holes in my story. I will have to call the town clerk for official figures.

The problem is she only works Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, and it’s a Wednesday. So I try her at home. That’s where she keeps town records anyway. So I ask her for the figures. She says she can’t find them. She says if I want I can look at them myself. But she won’t have them ready for me for another week and a half. And she can’t email or fax them to me. I have to drive 30 minutes to pick them up. Ummm, sorry lady, but my deadline is in one hour. I guess that is not her priority in life, and my article continues to stink.

So, instead of getting the facts, I have to end each paragraph with “So and so declined to say…”, or “So and so did not have such and such information readily available (should have added ‘Or might never have such and such information available’).”

I guess that makes the town official look dumb, but when it’s about such a minute issue it sort of makes your article look dumb, too.

Well, I guess this is the end of this rant. I think there will be more, though.

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