By Up To Speed Course Director Tom Hill
Tip #11 Make The Most Of Meetings
I will be discussing the craft skills used in broadcasting, print and online in future posts, but I’m starting out with more generic tips that can be helpful for all reporters. Today, my advice is to attend more meetings.
The words “meeting” and “committee” can conjure up images of boredom, doodling and hot air, but it doesn’t always have to be that way. Take this picture. It shows men in suits, sitting around a table, at a shareholders’ meeting in Nebraska. You may think, big deal! But look more closely at the picture and you will see that this is no ordinary business meeting. Two of the men in the picture are the richest two men in America, and they are playing cards. That’s how Warren Buffett and Bill Gates like to relax when they get together at the annual shareholders’ meeting of Berkshire Hathaway. Twenty thousand shareholders gather annually at the event, a convention which has been described as a pop festival for capitalists. If you attend this meeting as a reporter, and you land interviews with Warren and Bill, people will want to read your story. On a more day-to-day level, public meetings can be a source of good stories and contacts for journalists.
It may sound obvious, but a reporter’s job is to go out and find out what is going on and to report what other people have to say.
At public meetings people come together to voice their concerns, to make decisions and to debate important issues. Their quotes on these subjects can make great copy. Verbatim reports of these meetings were the bread and butter of local newspapers a hundred years ago. Nowadays, journalists are more selective and try to find tasty items, which will affect or entertain their readers, rather than producing an account of the meeting itself.
If you are a journalist with a new patch to cover, whether it is a town in rural England, or the capital city of a foreign country, it is important to identify the key decision-makers and to look for opportunities to attend public meetings where they will be speaking.
This may sound like a simple plan, but it can be difficult in practice, particularly if you are expected to produce several stories a day. Meetings often take place in the evenings and they can sometimes go on for several hours. Some meetings can simply be an ongoing debate about issues, which remain unresolved for months leaving you struggling to find a top line or to write an intro.
However, attending meetings in person does have its advantages, even if you have to go in your own time.
• you will find stories that you would otherwise have missed;
• you will have an opportunity to meet decision-makers, such as councillors and officials, in person;
• these face-to-face meetings with people, at a time and in a place that suits them, are excellent opportunities for news reporters to put their people skills to good use and to salt away the contact numbers and details they are bound to need at a later date;
• as those contacts become more familiar, it will also be easier for the reporter to find out which meetings will be worth attending in person.
Some would argue that the reporting of the decisions made by our elected representatives, either at local or national level, is a vital cornerstone of British democracy.
The Eighteenth Century philosopher and politician Edmund Burke coined the phrase, the Fourth Estate, to describe the journalist’s role in a democracy and his writings partly inspired the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which guarantees the right to a free press. In both cases the role of the reporter is to shed the light of publicity on the machinations of government and to act as a watchdog ensuring that decisions are made fairly and in the best interests of the citizens. And if you ever need a reminder of this while you are covering a long-winded council meeting, then why not check out the Newsnight website and watch some of Jeremy Paxman’s famous cross-examinations.