Dispatch from Austin: Day Two

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October 30, 2009

7:01 PM

_Click here to read Maggie Reeb’s previous post from Austin._

Sometimes it’s easy to forget why working for a newspaper is fun.

The hours suck, the pressure can be overwhelming and there is plenty of opportunity, but little room for, mistakes.

That being said, there is nothing more rewarding than knowing that the work you have done will have an impact. Newspapers, even as subscriptions decline and newsrooms issue layoffs, remain one of the most important mediums for disseminating information.

This week in Austin, Tex. I and other Flat Hat editors got the opportunity to learn more about how to build a more effective newspaper, and develop coverage that will give our readers stronger, harder-hitting news.

Most of the seminars I have attended thus far have dealt with the difficulties that accompany coverage of politicians and public policy. Freedom of Information Act requests and open record laws have made covering public institutions easier, but that does not prevent public institutions from trying to keep things hidden.

When I was a freshman, I wrote a series of stories on Williamsburg’s Redevelopment and Housing Authority, and how the purchase of rental properties for conversion into owner-occupied homes was costing the city thousands of dollars. I made a FOIA request for documents detailing the costs of city-paid home renovations. I was told that because these properties were in the process of being sold, I would not be allowed to access those records.

Even though I had enough data to run the article, the quality of The Flat Hat’s coverage suffered because of my inexperience and unfamiliarity with FOIA requests. What I have learned at this conference is that each state has its own unique open records law, and that if I expect to receive any sort of legitimate response to a FOIA request, I should know that open records law like it was the back of my hand.

Improving the newspaper’s ability to effectively pursue public information will create more interesting stories for our readers. FOIA requests can apply to the Student Assembly, the City of Williamsburg, the College of William and Mary and any public institutions. Knowing what I know now, I believe that we’ll be able to better handle efforts by public officials to stonewall our inquiries. This will create stronger articles, and improve our ability to deliver information to the College community.

Improving coverage translates to improving impact. And that makes my job a hell of a lot more fun.

_Check back with From the Newsroom for more updates from Austin._

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