PRESENTING THE CITY COUNCIL ASSIGNMENT

I get a lot of requests from instructors just starting to use CITY COUNCIL in their classrooms for advice on how to approach the assignment. There are the dull, but important issues and there are the emotionally charged issues. What do you emphasize?

There certainly are many ways to do use this assignment, from having students choose just one topic from the agenda and writing about that to having the students cover all the relevant topics.

I choose the latter in my class and have students write stories that rival term papers. It might be argued that few newspapers today would run stories of that length, but I feel it is important for students to learn to write long versions just so that they understand all the issues and how they relate and so that they can practice using a lot of the writing tools I introduce in my beginning newswriting class – inverted pyramid, summary leads, multi-element leads, interviewing, use of quotes, AP style, etc.

I originally meant for the story to be written under deadline pressure, but since have reverted to letting students work on it in pieces over a couple of weeks.

The first class period I introduce the project by explaining the parts of the assignment: the agenda, the extended agenda, the notes and the interviews. I usually do this by walking them through the Flemish Fence issue.

    1. Start with the agenda item.
    2. Click through to the extended agenda to find out what the item is about and read the letter.
    3. Check the notes from the meeting to find out more and to find out what happened.
    4. Check the morgue item to confirm the reporter’s recollection that the mayor has a tall fence.
    5. Call the home phone number and talk to Lottie. Explain how you click on the question to ask it. The answer to the first question is emotional and she doesn’t really answer it. So you try the next question where you get an interesting quote. I skip the third question to show that you don’t have to ask all the questions or ask them in the order they are presented. Of course, question No. 4 has a follow-up question that you probably shouldn’t ask. But everyone does, so they get hung up on.
    6. Next we look up the mayor’s number to call him. I do this to show that with some subjects you have declare the topic first, then ask the questions. The first question has a couple of follow-ups, including a tough, but important question.

After Day One the students are to go through the agenda items and compile general notes on what each agenda item is about. On Day Two we review that and list them on the board. Because they are going to write a multi-element lead, they then have to start prioritizing the topics: either by chronology (yuck!) or by importance/interest. Because there are so many topics I encourage them to find commonalities to group them. For instance, the budget adoption, the walking patrols issue and the senior citizen request are all connected. You can find commonality between the National Cold Storage issue and the Flemish fence issue.

On Day Three we discuss story structure and I give an example of how to get started.

I recommend the following inverted pyramid format story structure to my students.

1. Lead = Introduce items A and B

2. Brief summary of item A (1-3 sentences/paragraphs)

3. Brief summary of item B (1-3 sentences/paragraphs)

4. Introduction of items C-Z. This can be one paragraph, multiple paragraphs with transitions or bulleted paragraphs (my favorite). Again, grouping helps. The order of presentation then becomes the outline for the rest of the story.

5. Give more details of Item A. This may take 3-5 sentences/paragraphs and include quotes. This may be even longer if you combine a lot into the budget discussion.

6. Give more details of Item B. Again 3-5 sentences/paragraphs.

7. Give details of Item C.

8. Give details of Item D.

9. Etc. Of course, there have to be transitions between items.

Grouped items should show commonalities, too. This can often be part of the transition.

To conclude Day Three I pick two items with commonality –usually NOT what I consider to be the most important/interesting items—and have them write Steps 1-4 as practice.

Download an example of Day Three

The next step, which I usually spread over a couple of class periods if I have time left in the semester, is to write the full story.

Grading it is a lot like grading a term paper, though structure, as well as clarity, is a big part of the grading. I look for five areas: Lead (including newsworthiness of what is featured and how it is featured), Writing (including grammar and structure), Reporting (are details covered so I understand each story element?), Editing (copy editing, spelling and AP style), and Sources (use of quotes, accurate identification of sources, spelling of names and proper attribution.)

 

 

Rich Cameron
rich@rcameron.com