Wick Communications

Lead with the good stuff

In Writing techniques on October 11, 2012 at 8:27 pm

I was reading a Wick newspaper this morning and happened upon what I consider a common mistake. Without “outing” the writer or the newspaper (the accompanying photo has nothing to do with the story… just thought it illustrated how city hall sometimes sees the world), I wanted to talk a little about where I think this story went wrong.

The story was above the fold. It dealt with the local government budget. And it began something like this:

The city of X gave unanimous approval to the 2012-2013 budget during the first reading of the document at last night’s City Council meeting.

For the fiscal year beginning Jan. 1, city officials will spend $23,123,456 and that is 20 percent less than last year. Public comment began at 6 p.m. and no one spoke. City officials say the lack of public discussion is evidence that everyone in town is happy with their decisions….

Two things.

First, I submit to you that virtually no one cares that the city approved a budget last night. The $23 million is too amorphous to mean anything. It’s a big number readers can’t really understand. They also don’t care that there was unanimous approval. …

Secondly, those city officials are making a leap suggesting that the lack of public comment amounts to tacit support. Their constituents have lives. While the city council toils, your readers are driving home from their second jobs, feeding the kids, paying the bills, visiting their mother in the hospital. On a good day, .00000001 percent of the city’s residents show up at city hall for the city council meeting. Feel free to challenge assertions from city hall – or leave them out entirely.

If I were writing that story, I would have probed that 20 percent cut. What services will be affected? How did the city council prioritize those cuts? Will there be layoffs?

The actual story in the newspaper hinted at some of that. There is one mention of layoffs in the seventh graph. It says that city employees were surveyed about their budget priorities and the city manager says those surveys were given “careful consideration.” After the jump there is mention of a four-figure bonus for the city manager because he did such a terrific job preparing the budget.

So here’s my lede, based on what I know from the story and the questions I would have asked:

Parks employees, police officers and garbage collectors will work fewer hours as the city of X slices 20 percent from its budget for the coming year. Though city council members cut across several departments, City Manager John Jones was given a $5,000 bonus for his work on the budget.

No one spoke at last night’s public hearing. City officials say that is because constituents agree with the city’s priorities and appreciate earlier outreach efforts. But Bob Smith, a sanitation supervisor for the city, said that may be because his customers don’t understand what’s at stake.

Feel free to quibble with my take. The point is that budget stories are unimportant without telling readers what the annual exercise means to them. It’s also important to question authority. If you only quote the mayor and the city manager you can be sure they will tell you just how wonderfully they are doing their jobs.

Clay

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