Monday, August 31, 2009

Choose a beat and let's get rolling

By 8 a.m. Tuesday, send me an e-mail with your first and second choice for a beat to cover. I’ll let you know your assignment by the day’s end.

The choices are:

The local economy – Lots of stories here. How are people in your community faring in this recession? What’s the market for jobs? Housing? Energy? Retail trends? A good way to start is update an ongoing story or localize a national one. What challenges to business owners face? What challenges to their workers face?

Missoula K-12 schools – Everyone knows somebody with a kid in local public and private schools. Education is about preparing people for change. So how’s that going? It’s also a big cost to taxpayers. How’s that money being spent?

Higher education – You’re a consumer as well as a student, so start asking questions. How well is this place preparing you for change? What works and what doesn’t? What’s new? What big projects and changes are leaders working on? Who’s running the place?

The justice system – Again, lots of stories. This beat is big and newsy. You’ve got city police, a county sheriff’s department, the highway patrol, campus security and an array of federal cops (FBI, DEA, Homeland Security, ATF, etc.) You’ve got city, county and federal courts too.

City government – These folks are responsible for the safety and well-being of everyone in Missoula. You name it, the city deals with it. It provides police and fire protection, plans for growth, and maintains clean air, clean water, parks, streets and sidewalks. That’s just the short list. This is a big beat with lots of news potential.

County government – Take the previous beat and apply those responsibilities over an area of roughly 2,600 square miles. Counties also act as an agent for state government. County courts prosecute crimes against the state. Counties collect property taxes and run elections. County officials maintain rural roads and plan for growth. They also share responsibilities with city officials for things such as transportation, libraries, public health, etc.

Health – Here’s another huge beat, especially today. From the latest on swine flu to the quality and availability of health care, this beat has lots of interest – and lots controversy. Think about breakthroughs in research and new treatments and care. Who’s providing what health care in your community? How good is that care? What does it cost? Who isn’t being served?

Natural resources and the environment – There’s no better place to cover this stuff than right here. The issues include climate change, wilderness policy, timber and mining policy, wildlife management, water and air pollution, environmental health, recreation on public lands, recycling, sustainable agriculture and industry. This beat is global with lots of local players.

Other – No list can cover everything, so if you have an idea of something with significant public policy angle, let me know. Here are a few I would consider: agriculture, sports/athletics business and regulation, transportation, media/communications business, etc.

Friday, August 28, 2009

New to the beat? Try updating an ongoing story

Getting up to speed with an ongoing story is a good way to start on the beat. The first thing you should do is read everything you can about the issue. Let's use Missoula's ongoing debate over panhandling to get started.

1. Has this been covered in the press? It's useful to see what's been reported before, but remember that you need to verify or credit anything that you didn't witness. Look particularly for what IS NOT in the story. Are there unanswered questions? (If so, answering them could make for a story.) How could this be updated?

New West's story
The Missoulian's story
The Wall Street Journal (Really? No kidding?)
A Wall Street Journal video (Wow.)

2. Can I find original documents on this? Chances are good. Laws and policies don't come out of thin air. In this case, everything springs from Missoula's city government, and the City Council, in particular. It all started as somebody's idea and then went through a, gasp, process.

Writing about process is boring, but knowing the process can help you find sources and records. In this case, it helped me find the following:

>Minutes of a debate, in which elected City Council members argued the pros and cons of a new panhandling law (cities and counties call laws ordinances.)
>A draft of the ordinance itself.
>One council member's e-mail discussion of the issue.

So what new angle are you going to take?

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