Good business stories start at City Hall

by April 20, 2016

Business reporters are a rare bunch at local newspapers. Many papers no longer carry business sections, but this isn’t exactly new. As early as 2008, Columbia Journalism Review, CJR, noted the trend of the decline of the standalone business section.

The trend didn’t get the coverage it deserves, said Elinore Longobardi, a CJR writer. In a 2008 article entitled “RIP: Stand-Alone Business Section,” Longobardi wrote, “That’s too bad, because who else but local business reporters and editors are going to report on the ups and downs of the local economies and the goings-on of the small-to-medium-sized businesses that have huge impacts on individual communities but never grace the pages of The Wall Street Journal?”

However, traditionally trained business reporters (myself included) should chin up. A farewell to business sections doesn’t mean one can’t write good business stories.

Start at City Hall

A great place to start is City Hall. And what local reporter doesn’t have to familiarize themselves with local government? At the local paper where I last worked, I quickly learned that the heart and soul of business starts at city council meetings. The meetings might run on forever, but provide a treasure chest for digging up business stories.

The economy, specifically jump-starting the economy, is a big story in most local cities with municipalities desperately seeking to bring in more dollars. Some keywords to listen for at the meetings include “economic development,” “tax revenue,” “industrial park,” “revenue generator,” “big box shops” and “startup.”

Last August, when editing a weekly paper in Parlier, just south of central Fresno, I discovered a wealth of business stories by religiously attending the marathon city council meetings.

Parlier, a poor farming community, hoped to attract big box stores and were courting Walgreens-Rite Aid and McDonald’s. Council members attended national retail and economic conferences while the city hired economic consultants and the city manager tried selling off land in the industrial park.

All of this activity helped generate one of my first big stories on city officials’ attempts at economic development– I found eager sources — and you will too. Almost every city has an economic development director or a city manager.

Attend county meetings for fodder

Now in Monterey County, I find the county meetings equally as rich in business news and evergreen stories, like the annual budget. If the economy is soft, stories about layoffs and cuts in funding surface too. At the county level, financial analysts make good sources.

Offbeat and unexpected stories related to the economy also surface. Here in Monterey County, lawmakers create laws around the sales and cultivation of medical marijuana. This trend creates more than a pot or public safety story, cultivating marijuana ties into tax revenue and new jobs. Once again think keywords “economic development.”

While government meetings can become lengthy, most cities now post their agendas online and live stream the gatherings allowing you to watch the meetings remotely, even from home.

Knowing that local government meetings can spawn some good business stories, consider attending a meeting a worthwhile investment.

Tips for covering business stories in your community

1. Get a schedule of city council and county meetings and mark them on your calendar.
2. Get to know the city manager, council members and the economic development director.
3. Bookmark the city or county’s website to gain a copy of the agendas and watch the meetings live from your computer or mobile device (though attending in person is optimal and the best way to connect with sources).

Amy Wu is the government reporter for The Salinas Californian. She has 23 years of reporting experience and has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle and Time magazine. She earned her master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University and is working on a textbook on community journalism.