Wick Communications

The tyranny of process

In Writing on 5 Feb 2015 at 1:55 pm
The Holyoke City Council Ordinance Committee. Dave Roback / The Republican

The Holyoke City Council Ordinance Committee. Dave Roback / The Republican

Working in community journalism often means covering the boards, councils and committees that approve or deny local projects. Are you bored yet? No? Well, just add in a few acronyms and you soon will be. Here. I’ll give you an example of what passes for community journalism from the Web:

The City Council Ordinance Committee voted 3-2 at City Hall against considering a proposal to establish an ordinance that would require that in official mentions of the decorated tree placed at City Hall this time of year, it be called a “Christmas tree.”

I’m not making that up. Unfortunately, we sometimes don’t do much better.

These stories are a problem but they come from a place we all understand. We feel duty-bound to report government machinations to a disinterested public. We worry that if we don’t report on local government no one will and if no one does the citizenry is bound to be hornswoggled by the powerful.

That’s absolutely true. But it doesn’t mean we have to write 16-inch stories from every council meeting we attend. Or, importantly, that we have to write about the government. Instead think of the task as writing about people. …

The trick is this: don’t focus on the process of government. We would often do better to bury the vote and the acronyms and tell readers what it all means.

Look at that example above once more. (I know… I’m sorry.) What if, instead of focusing on the vote and the committee and the potential ordinance, the writer had told us a story. It appears that some in town – it was a divided vote – think there is a war on Christmas and that we need a law to protect our right to say “Christmas tree.” I can almost guarantee there is a fun story in there somewhere. Who is concerned? Paint me a picture of the guy who first brought this up? Take me on a tour of cities around the country where this is an issue. Or tell me about this ordinance committee. What kind of person signs up voluntarily to review potential ordinances in a small town?

We have to report on the government votes. But these stories have a certain gravity all their own. They tend to suck all of the time out of the air in the newsroom and they become really easy. It can be hard to push yourself up from the committee table and write something more entertaining.

It’s worth the effort. Look at your current story budget and see if you have a process story that would be better told by downplaying the process and putting the story front and center.

If this makes no sense to you, please call me. I’d be more than happy to discuss making your government stories more readable.


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