Back when I was covering city council, school committee and board of selectmen meetings in the 1970s and ’80s, the only tool I brought with me was a notebook and a pen.
How times have changed. On Tuesday evening I connected with Thomas MacMillan, a reporter for the New Haven Independent, so I could watch him cover a finance committee meeting. (Click here for a video feature on the Independent, a non-profit community news site.) We met outside the aldermanic chamber in New Haven City Hall just before 6 p.m., and I followed him to the front row.
MacMillan accepted congratulations from a few city officials for a national reporting award he won last week, then settled in to live-blog the debate. He was a bit harried — he’d just come over from covering another event, and he hadn’t had time to write the introduction. A few minutes later, though, he was good to go.
For the next two hours I watched as MacMillan posted a series of updates on what was going on, pored through budget documents, moderated and posted reader comments, periodically jotted a few things down in a notebook (how old-fashioned), and took photos.
Alderman Darnell Goldson, who was sitting in our row, whispered, “Hey, Thomas!”, and pointed behind us, where an otherwise-dignified looking man was wearing a lighted-up Christmas tree on his head. His aim was to protest Mayor John DeStefano’s proposal to save money by not erecting a tree on New Haven Green this year. MacMillan turned and shot.
And when two aldermen got into a semi-heated discussion about cuts to the education budget, MacMillan pulled out another camera and shot some video, although he ended up not using it.
Despite my front-row seat, I would have had little idea of what was going on if it weren’t for MacMillan’s updates, which I read on my BlackBerry.
I left at 8; the hearing ended at 9:30. Later, MacMillan took his blog items and notes and turned them into the story that you can see today, and posted a few photos as well.
What MacMillan did last night was impressive but not unusual. The technical skills he brought to bear on his assignment were nothing that couldn’t be mastered in a few weeks. It’s the mindset that matters. Journalists today must be prepared to juggle a variety of tasks and to perform them with minimal supervision.
And to think that there was a time when the biggest challenge in covering a meeting was to stay awake.