For more than a decade, I ate, drank and practically slept in the halls of local government. Most ambitious reporters will have to cut their teeth covering schools, cities or county commissions before editors will reward them with more prominent assignments. And at smaller newspapers, government beats are the most important writing slots available. Don’t fear covering government; embrace the opportunity to find a daily wealth of stories that editors want to run. Realize that this will open new paths for advancement in your career. Here’s my thoughts on how to get started:
Find the hidden political science geek within you.
It’s probably too late to get a political science degree like I did. But you might find a class on local government at your community college or university. Ask your employer to pay the tuition, but take it out of your own pocket if you have to. You’ll get a jump on every government beat if you learn some basic theories about how things are supposed to work at the local level, and you’ll pick up some jargon that will help you connect with the politicians and bureaucrats that you’ll be covering.
Get the budget and last audited statement of any agency you’ll cover.
These records will help you understand where the money comes from and how these agencies are spending it. You’ll be surprised how often you need to know instantly some budget numbers for a story. These documents also will be handy reference books throughout a year as you write about individual departments of an agency.
Find someone to explain how local taxes are collected.
Does your community collect primary and secondary property taxes? Does your school district have “mills”? Which businesses are required to pay sales and use taxes, and which ones aren’t? These questions inevitably will come up, simply because taxes affect everyone in your audience. Don’t let readers and viewers down by failing to understand how changes in tax rates or collection methods will affect them.
Pick up a calculator and keep it close by.
Interpreting budgets and taxes inevitably means you will have to do some math, if only to request those fancy charts demanded by the presentation editor. Whining about journalists doing math can be fun, but it won’t get the calculations done.
Keep EVERY phone number.
You’ve been playing phone tag with the local sanitation director for a fluff piece about all of the hard work the landfill crews do. So he leaves you a message with a cell phone number and the direct line to his back office. You don’t talk to the guy again for two years, when the garbage truck drivers go on strike just before deadline, and there’s rumors of the Mob taking over the operation. Aren’t you glad you still have the director’s top secret contact info?
Learn the rhythm of the place.
Every agency has its own schedule for meetings, releasing reports, reviewing top employees’ performance, etc. Memorize that schedule and keep a special calendar that let’s you look ahead to key events. You’ll know when to start digging around for proposals and ideas that will generate controversy, long before the competition has any clue about what’s going on.
Know the people who make changes happen.
Every agency has key people that handle problem solving or bring plans to the governing board. City planners, curriculum writers, department deputy directors and assistant superintendents are among those in this category. Chat up these folks on a regular basis, and they are likely to tip you off when they are working on an interesting idea or frustrating problem that will become news when you report on it.
Demand to see the records.
Find out when a governing body is going to receive a memo or report, and insist on getting it at the same time. My informal policy is that records become public when they are placed in the hands of officials who make final decisions, unless state law says otherwise explicitly. Being a little forceful on this point, while always remaining polite, usually gets the right results.
Where are the “real” people?
Good government stories are about actions, or inactions, by politicians that affect everyday people. We need to see and hear from these people, or usually we won’t understand why your story is important. Comb through letters,
e-mails and phone messages to see who is complaining to city hall or the school board. Pay attention when Average Joe and Jane speak out at meetings. Sometimes, what they have to say is more valuable than the latest spin from the mayor and city manager.
Read, read, read.
Agenda packets, mind-numbing reports, homeowner notices, legal advertising, changes to government Internet pages. All of these can be great places to find tidbits hidden away for the right people to know, and for the rest of us to miss. Some of the best reporters are data miners who find golden nuggets buried in mountains of paperwork.
Le Templar, senior opinion writer at the East Valley and Scottsdale Tribune (Arizona), has been a government and political journalist since 1992.