June 3rd, 2006 09:05 EST
Some practical things to do while you're still in school
There are some practical things you can teach yourself while you’re studying journalism. Ask yourself if you know how our country runs. For example, what is a quitclaim deed? What is a variance? What is eminent domain? What is zoning? Oh, those are matters of concern to lawyers, you say. Wrong. It may be, as many have been heard to complain, that the country is run by lawyers, but if you don’t learn some of these things now, you’re in for a painful crash course on your first job. And, worse yet, you may find yourself trying to sound knowledgeable when you haven’t got a clue. And that’s a big no-no. So here’s what you can do:
• Talk to a friendly town clerk in a small town and ask him or her what she does. That’s a good first step. Town clerks know almost everything that’s going on in their town.
• Talk to the tax assessor. Find out how taxes are formulated, how they’re levied. Find out what a value added tax is, what a flat tax is. Find out how land with no imprzovements is assessed, as opposed to land with buildings and utilities.
• Talk to the town’s lawyer—they’re called different names in different regions—and find out what he or she does.
• Talk to the clerks of the zoning board, school board, planning board, elections board, cemetery board (if there is one), and any other board that exsts to serve the community.
•Study the organizational charts of the municipality. Ask yourself questions. Who has political (policy) oversight of the police and fire departments? Who is responsible for planning the community’s growth? Probably the planning board.
Okay, now you have a rough idea how the community works. The next step is to dope out its politics. It may not be just a Republicans vs. Democrats affair. There may be splinter parties. There may be Greens, Libertarians, Socialists, etc. Who is dominant? Why? Talk to the chair persons of these political groups. Find out what their jobs are.
Now you’re ready to go back to the clerks. Remember, they know everything, especially things they don’t want the press to know. What kind of documents do they deal with? You need to know. You need to know what a deed looks like, a town board resolution, a variance, a petition, the charges that the town’s lawyer may prosecute at the request of the police. You need to know if he or she will just do what the ;police chief asks or whether they give the police guidance.
A community, a city, a county, a state, the federal government, the courts—they all leave immense paper trails. You need to know what thestrails look like, what they’re called, where they’re filed, how they’re filed. This is the nitty-gritty of reporting. You cannot be a decent reporter without knowing these things, and you certainly cannot be a decent investigative reporter without instilling in yourself a love of spending seemingly endless, patient hours going through files and documents. These paper trails belong to the people, but you as a reporter are the people’s surrogate when it comes to shedding light on what government is doing and not doing. Government not only leaves a record of what it does, but it usually advertises what it is about to do.
For example, requests for bids, proposed changes in ordinances, and proposed hearings are all advertised in advance in one of the local newspapers. You need to familiarize yourself with this process. That is the only way to know when bids are rigged. Usually, the specifications that bidders respond to will encourage the rigging-- or not. You will be in the dark about such skullduggery, if it happens, unless you understand how government is essentially built of paper.
This is a tall order, so let’s leave it at that for now. We can return to this subject later when you have thought about it enough to have questions.
— Djelloul (Del) Marbrook Editor/mentor