By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

A multitasking, multimedia journalist

Thomas MacMillan covers a finance committee meeting in New Haven City Hall.

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.

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  1. from the story:
    > “… a crucial vote-deciding revelation that Aldermen Greg Morehead is not a member of the Finance Committee (7:53 p.m.). That shocker spelled doom for an amendment proposed by Aldermen Elicker and Lemar.”

    I’ve covered a ton of local-government committee meetings in my day, yet I’ve never described anything as a “shocker”. If I had, I don’t think I’d have used that tabloid term on the effect of finance committee membership on an amendment proposal.

    But perhaps this is just intolerant age speaking … this type of meeting coverage is certainly much more work than “just cover it and write it for tomorrow” (or even “write it tomorrow,” in the PM papers day)

  2. BP Myers

    Can’t help but think of that old SNL skit during the first Gulf war, where Al Franken was walking around the desert with a satellite dish strapped to his head as a one man reporting operation.

    Never thought it would actually come to pass.

  3. BP Myers

    God bless Google:

  4. It’s a bit of a juggle, but it’s a heck of a lot more fun than just the pen-and-notebook. I only drag the laptop out to live-cover the bigger breaking news (which, given that it’s Grafton, means liveblogging Town Meeting and live-covering elections) and it’s interesting to see how people respond to it. It seems to connect people to the website and the story more. Much like the guy with the Christmas tree on his head, I’ve often had people point out interesting things to me or drag people over for quotes.

  5. Jerry Ackerman

    Dan, the first time I saw a reporter using a computer to facilitate coverage was at a Woburn City Council meeting sometime in the late 70s or early 80s – John Rabbitt was mayor, I was there (with only a notebook and pencils) to hear debate about either the “odor” that became the Superfund site or Wells G & H (I don’t recall which). The reporter was from the Woburn Daily Times. He was doing more than taking notes, as I do now on a laptop because my handwriting hss gotten so bad. He was writing full paragraphs and ultimately a story, almost like the old inning-by-inning approach to baseball writing for PM (or early-edition AM) hot-metal newspapers. Next question: Was that you?

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Jerry: That was Charlie Ryan, who broke all the early stories on Woburn’s toxic-waste problems. He was using a Radio Shack Model 100. I remember it well.

  6. L.K. Collins

    Clearly, technology has changed the way that news can be and is gathered.

    But the question left unanswered is whether the employment of technologies as described by your observations, above, have lead to better journalism.

    There is a part of me that thinks it might have been more effective for the reporter to pay attention to what was going on in the meeting rather than do a play-by-play. The reporter may well have missed some significant undercurrents of the meeting session because he was so busy trying his hand as a “breaking news” reporter.

    Faster doesn’t necessarily mean better.

    You’re the journalism professor, Dan; what’s the assessment of effectiveness?

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