Covering your school’s board like a Bulldog

O.K. That headline is me continuing my journo crush on the Red & Dead crew. No apologies.

Everyone talks about news that students care about. That  is fine. Features on the local music scene and sports columns and movie reviews have their place. But what about news students need?

The governing boards of colleges and universities make decisions every month that affect students college experience. Programs and courses are approved or eliminated. New faculty are hired, but require board approval. Tuition rates are set. Building projects are approved. Get the picture.

My students will recognize Hanrahan’s Rule No. 1 about covering meetings:

It isn’t usually about what happens at the meeting. It is the stories that are birthed at the meetings.

Although the cursory story about what happened is necessary (even though the basic information will be in the school’s press release), it is the “what’s  next” attitude that makes a reporter’s coverage effective.

So how do you cover the board effectively? Glad you asked. It leads to Hanrahan’s Rule No. 2 about covering meetings:

No lawyer asks a question to which he does not know the answer. You need to know what is going to happen at the meeting before the meeting.

Most boards have a packet of information supplementing the posted agenda required by law. Request it. It is a public document. After an initial request, the custodian of records or person who prepares the materials will likely have one ready for you each month.

Information included in this packet can include the detailed financial reports the board will hear at the meeting, specifics on course changes and other information that can prepare the reporter to ask pertinent questions and not have to spend precious time verifying dry numbers and such.

Even though they likely have nameplates, get to know every board member on sight and by name. You never know when something will spark your interest, like with whom a board member is sitting at a basketball game.

Ask for documents that are distributed at meetings. When a speaker or board member or administrator distributes a document in an open meeting, you are entitled to it. Ask for it. Insist on it.

Never leave early. If the board goes into executive session, wait around. And the first question when they emerge should be “Was a vote taken?” If the board took any action, they have a specified period to disclose that action and how each member voted. Wait around to ask that question.

Every once in a while, ask for emails between the university president and board members. They are public records. They might lead to a story, but if nothing else, they show you are watching.

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