Matt Weiser is a reporter for the Sacramento Bee, a well-respected daily newspaper. I first met Matt a few years ago at a journalism conference in Pittsburgh. As a result of our conversations, Matt -- who was doing freelance writing at the time -- agreed to prepare an article on the changing nature of manufactured housing that we published in the Planning Commissioners Journal.
While in Sacramento yesterday, I had the chance to turn the tables on Matt (so to speak) and interview him -- perhaps a novel experience for most reporters. While Matt primarily covers environmental issues for the Sacramento Bee, over the years -- and at several different California papers -- he's had the chance to report on plenty of local government and planning commission meetings. I wanted to get his perspective on how planning commissioners can most effectively deal with the media, and what approaches to take when they feel a story wasn't fairly or accurately reported.
I started our discussion by telling Matt that one of the frustrations I had while serving on the Burlington, Vermont, Planning Commission was when the Commission felt it was dealing with an important issue -- but it received little or no press coverage.
Matt said that planning commissioners, in dealing with reporters, "should behave more like city councilors do." That is, as Matt explained, they need to go out and personally call the reporter who regularly covers local government meetings with a "heads up" about -- for example -- what they feel will be an important agenda item. Basically, "pitch" the story idea to the reporter in a short phone call. And then offer to send or email any back up materials about the item.
While that won't necessarily guarantee coverage -- as that will depend on what else might be on the reporter's plate -- it will help build a relationship with the reporter.
Another failing is not contacting the reporter early enough. Matt told me that a local newspaper reporter will usually have several things in the hopper that they're working on at any one time. Providing a week or so of lead time can help a reporter fit in what you've pitched into their schedule. Matt also said that providing photos or graphics, when available, is often helpful.
Interestingly, Matt also told me that setting up an informal meeting with your local reporter -- without any particular "story" in mind -- can be of value. This can help the reporter view you as a good source of information.
I also asked Matt what commissioners should do when they feel a story was inaccurately or unfairly reported. If you, as a commissioner, have a problem with story, Matt replied, you should contact the reporter directly about it -- and not go first to the editor with your complaint. A call to the reporter will often resolve things. If it doesn't, then go to the editor. As Matt noted, "I'd rather know about a problem than not." And while contacting the reporter about your concerns may not lead to any change in the story (unless there was a significant error or inaccuracy), it will help to establish trust and a good working relationship.
One difficulty planning commissioners in smaller communities can face, Matt acknowledged, is the frequent turnover in reporters. Given salary scales, there's incentive for reporters to move up to bigger papers or media markets. That puts the burden on commissioners and staff to have to regularly "educate" new reporters about the planning commission's role in project review. Unfortunately, there's little way around this.
The last question I posed to Matt was whether it made sense to have the chairman serve as the "spokesman" for the planning commission in dealing with the media. Matt disagreed with the idea. "Every planning commissioner should see it as part of their job to be prepared to speak to the media," he replied.
[for those of you interested in another perspective on how planning commissioners can best deal with the press, see an article we published by journalist & planning commissioner David Essex, Think Like a Reporter]
p.s., after our discussion, Matt took me (and Lila) on a quick tour of Sacramento. We then headed to his home where his wife, Alexa Mergen (who works for the animal rescue organization, United Animal Nations), treated us to an excellent dinner -- using ingredients from the morning's Sacramento Farmers Market. I also had the chance to meet their dogs, Molly and Sascha; but just got Sascha to tolerate being phtographed.