Editor's Views: Should we go or not? Meetings are ongoing dilemma
It's an ongoing discussion in almost every newsroom.
There's a meeting. Should we go?
Meetings, especially the government variety, don't rank high on most people's priority lists. Many people go years without attending a meeting, and some never do. Does that mean they don't care about what happens when the city council, school board or plan commission convene?
Meetings, though, take time, and time is precious in newsrooms. If we spend three hours in a room with the city council, that's three hours we don't have to devote to a different, possibly more interesting and relevant story.
As with much of what we do, it's all about balance.
I knew an innovative editor who loved to proclaim: “We don't cover meetings.”
His newspaper covered the issues in different ways, he said, and didn't waste time attending sessions that too often were boring and typically lasted too long.
I admired his boldness. All of us in this business want to find better ways to do things. But I thought his approach was too rigid, and I wondered how a newspaper could live with such a policy for long. That editor ultimately was fired, and I suspect his unorthodox ideas were among the reasons.
Many meetings are not worth attending. We try to be selective and limit how much time we devote to them, but it's not as easy as it sounds.
First, while meetings can be uneventful, at least in terms of decisions that directly affect many people, some have real consequences. We elect officials to make decisions for us, and those decisions affect our taxes and our services.
They can mean a new gas station in your neighborhood or bigger class sizes or the closing of a favorite wading pool.
We usually attend those meetings. We do our best to make the stories interesting and explain exactly how those decisions will make differences in the lives of our readers. Sometimes, we succeed. Other times, we fall short.
We also have a watchdog role when it comes to government and its meetings. We need to keep an eye on officials and, as much as possible, report on their meaningful deliberations and important decisions. To some degree, we attend meetings so our readers don't have to.
Through our reporting, readers can stay informed on those decisions and the positions and votes of their elected officials. That empowers them to hold officials accountable and respond if they choose, and it can help them decide how to vote on Election Day.
Attending meetings also helps us build relationships and credibility with sources in government. Many appreciate our time and effort and go out of their way to offer help when we need it. Conversely, some are reluctant to cooperate if we haven't paid our dues by sitting through meetings and availing ourselves of the information shared during them.
I've been doing this for many years, and it seems we continually talk about ways to spend less time at meetings and more time covering issues that reflect people's strong interests and passions. We're about to embark on another review of how we use our time and resources.
Do I expect a different result? Will we end up covering fewer meetings?
I'd like to think we will, but I also know that the reasons we've covered meetings in the past will continue to factor into our decisions in the future. Some meetings do matter. When important discussions ensue and critical decisions are made, we should be there.
Scott W. Angus is editor of The Gazette and vice president of news for Bliss Communications. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @sangus_.