Tuesday, November 27, 2007

News Features and Profiles

Need some models for your in-depth news feature? Check out work of your fellow journalism students nationwide at the Hearst Journalism Awards Program. Look at the Features, In-depth and Personallity/Profile entries.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Keep Those Ballots Coming

If it's too late to get your municipal ballot in the mail, you can drop it off at the Missoula County Elections Office, 200 W. Broadway. County officials also will accept ballots at the following locations, from 7 am. to 8 p.m., on Election Day only:
  • Rattlesnake School, 1220 Pineview Drive
  • Paxson School, 101 Evans
  • Russell School, 3216 Russell
  • Hellgate Elementary, 2385 Flynn Lane
  • Cold Springs School, 2625 Briggs

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Is Justice Served?

Cops and courts writers face such a steady stream of daily stories that they sometimes overlook articles about how the justice system works. It's a rich field for enterprising journalists. For great story ideas, check out Covering Crime and Justice, a Web-site produced by some of the nation's top justice journalists and featuring basics of beat coverage and a great assortment of story ideas.

Another thing to keep in mind is your obligation to see that the system is fair. Sometimes cops and prosecutors go too far. Check out the National Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers for examples. The folks at Truth in Justice have some resources too.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Endorsements Assignment

Here's what I need from each candidate group by midnight Monday:

1. How much money has the candidate raised and spent as of Monday?
  • List the totals for each category. (You may have to add up the totals from a couple of reporting periods).
  • List the major donors (say $100 or more) and provide their city and occupation, if available.
2. List the organizations and prominent people ((Parties, business groups, etc.; mayor, other council members, politicians, etc.) who have endorsed them.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Resources on the Justice Beat

Missoula Police Department daily public reports
Checking these skimpy reports is a start. Look for more serious sounding events and those with A8 or A9, indicating they were serious enough for a report to be written. A good beat writer will also make daily calls, early in his or her shift, on routine sources, usually, detectives, to see what's new.

Missoula County jail roster
The public jail roster reflects charges listed at the time of booking. For the current status of the charges against an individual, contact the Missoula County attorney's office 258-3246. The roster can tip you off to arrests that didn't appear in the city public reports because they were made by other law enforcement agencies.

The Laws:

Monday, October 08, 2007

The Budget: It's About People, Not Numbers

By now, you should know that writing about public affairs is writing about people, not processes, not dry statistics or numbers. That goes for even the most number-driven story: budgets. The critical questions are the same as always:

  • Who wins?

  • Who loses?

  • Why?

  • Whose taxes are going up?

  • Whose services are being cut?
Once you understand the the answers, the trick it to write about them without getting lost in the numbers. One key is to use only the meaningful numbers and make comparisons that readers will easilty grasp. Here are some tips that might help.

One of the pitfalls in writing about spendig or taxes is making accurate comparisons over time. Because inflation eats a way at a dollar's buying power, you'll need to adjust for its impact. Here's a handy calculator that can help you do that.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Resources for Backgrounding Candidates

Ask for a résumé or CV. Smart candidates these days have Web sites and post résumés and other interesting stuff there. Ask them to help fill in any unexplained gap, and double-check items that sound unusual or too good to be true.


A. Education: You can’t get their grades, but you can confirm the dates they attended a school and degrees conferred. Be on the lookout for exaggeration.

B. Awards and honors: Check for publicity concerning such by contacting people or associations that confer them. Again, be on the lookout for exaggeration, especially in things they tout, as in a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War.

■ You can verify claims of military service by checking Military.com.
Poynteronline has a good tip sheet for military info.

C. Occupations: If there’s reason to be skeptical, check these directly. How long did they work there? What positions did they hold? How did they leave? Voluntarily? Check employer Web sites, association directories, etc.

D. News history: Check the archives of your local newspaper for mentions. Go back several years. Why were they in the news? (If they’ve moved here recently, check the paper where they used to live.) Always check Lexis-Nexis, Newsbank and other news databases.

E. Criminal and legal history: Check with the Clerk of District Court for felony charges or civil suits filed in Missoula County. Justice and Municipal courts have misdemeanors. You can check the state’s criminal history database, but it will cost you $11.50 per request. However, searching the state’s correctional offender network to locate people in prison is free. So are the state’s sexual/violent offender databases. You can get federal information though a database called PACER, but it costs. (I have an account.) Again, the Web is a good starting place.

F. Political/Public service history: Again, start with a basic Web/News search, but there are other databases, including minutes of government meetings and government directories. You can also check to see if they’ve given money to state or federal candidates. If you’re researching the voting record of a state or federal elected official, check with the good folks at Project Vote Smart.

G. Property and taxes: If they own property in Missoula County, you can look up its physical description, location and tax information. To see if they own property elsewhere in the state, check the Montana Department of Revenue’s Web locator.

H. Business records: If people own businesses, you can check to see what type they are and who represents them. Remember that incorporated businesses can own property, so search the property-tax databases for that information too.

I. Bankruptcy: Bankruptcies, in which individuals or businesses seek protection from their creditors, are filed in a special federal court. You can get this through PACER. The nearest U.S. Bankruptcy Court is in Butte.


For information about a Montana candidate’s past fund-raising, check the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices site. It can lead you to information about lobbyists, too. For information about groups running so-called issue advertisements (“527 groups”) , see Opensecrets.org.

Covering the Candidates

Besides covering tonight's City Council meeting, I want you to file a photograph and a short biographical report on your council candiates this week.

Due by 5 p.m. Friday, Oct. 5 -- A jpeg. photo and biographical information on your candidate. Keep it short and answer the following:

Name and Ward (also indicate whether your candidate is an incumbent) :
Marital or domestic partnership status:
Education: (degree and major)
Professional and military experience:
Public service:
Party affiliation:

Due by class Monday, Oct. 8 --
  • Q&A (10 questions)

  • Background report

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Writing on Deadline

It's rarely easy, but you will get better with practice.

Preparing -- even for a few minutes -- helps tremendously. Otherwise, get in the habit of thinking of a simple lede or headline as you report. You'll tweak it as new information comes in, but the process gets you ready to write.

One trick that works for me is to write a bare bones version of the story without looking at my notes. I'll flesh out the details and add quotes from my notes on the second run-though. That way I don't get bogged down in details at the start.

Here's some other advice on deadline writing from the pros.

Monday, September 24, 2007

This Week: Council, Taxes, Election

We'll be covering tonight's Missoula City Council meeting. The story deadline is midnight. You're on your own as far a prepping for the assignment, but you know the drill by now. Don't go tonight without an idea or two for the story. Bring questions to class.

No beat story this week, but I want you to start digging into the City Council candidate you'll be be assigned to cover today. We'll draw for candidates and teams.

We'll be talking about the property tax in today's class. Here's some official literature on the subject from the Montana Department of Revenue, which administers taxation. The tax, which provides money for cities, counties and schools, is collected at the county.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Let's Hear it for Hillview Way

Barring any surprises, it's the public's night to tell the City Council what it thinks of the a $3.3 million plan to rebuild Hillview Way, a twisty, dangerous road serving Missoula's South Hills. Missoulian reporter Keila Szpaller gave you a good look at the project last week, so you should be well prepared. She followed up with another good piece Monday.

If that's not enough, here's a map of the project and a fact sheet produced by the city's Public Works Department.

Take good notes so you can give readers a sense of the debate. It's hard to say if the council will vote on this after the hearing. If it does, you'll want to build your story on the decision and reaction. If it doesn't, then give readers a sense of the hearing (without getting lost in the process.)

You might even draft a few grafs of background ahead of time.

Your other assignment this week: A story from your beat.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Assignments for the Week of Sept. 9

Here's what's due this week:

  1. A story from Monday's Missoula City Council meeting. Deadline: Midnight Monday.
  2. A story from your beat. Deadline: If you've got breaking news, the story is due by midnight of the day it happens. News features are due no later than noon Friday.

Local government reporters: There's a city primary election Tuesday. See me after class for details.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Covering City Hall: Preparation is the Key

The action starts at 7 p.m. Monday night at the weekly Missoula City Council meeting. Get there (140 W. Pine St.) early and grab a seat where you can see who's talking. Before you go:
  • Read the agenda and follow the links on issues you think might be newsworthy.
  • Read Missoulian reporter Keila Szpaller's story in Sunday's paper about "roundabouts."
  • Go to the paper's archive link and click on advanced search. Look for any other articles on "roundabouts" over the last 12 months. (Hint: You'll have to change the search dates.) You should find an earlier story about the Miller Creek Road project.

You should also take a look at Keila's Monday story about a controversial plan to rebuild Hillview Way, a dangerous road that curves through Missoula's southern hills. The story anticipates a public hearing on the project scheduled for Monday the 17th. Good beat reporting like this gives people a chance to participate in the process.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Welcome to Public Affairs Reporting

I'll use this space to continue class discussions, post assignments and publicize your best work. It's also a handy reference guide to links that can help you on your beats. Don't be shy about diving in. For starters, you might check out these tips from the pros for covering a beat.