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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: Here's how we're covering more of City Council meetings

By Tom Warhover
May 11, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

Dear Reader,

The Missourian reported on 17 items discussed or voted on at Monday’s Columbia City Council meeting. You might have missed most of them.

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Reporter Allison Prang wrote an article describing the debate to continue a moratorium on electronic window signs (it passed) and the annexation of a mobile home park on the northeast part of town (passed again). An article published before the council meeting on plans to create a registration zone in front of the Tiger Hotel was updated Tuesday morning to acknowledge the formal proposal Monday night. Those articles were written in traditional newspaper style.  

A lot more happened at the meeting. Robert Powell wanted to know why the Citizens Police Review Board had different language in documents on whether to admit multiple officers on the board. Shari Korthuis asked the council about its decision to reconsider buying an armored personnel carrier. The council appropriated money to decommission one of the city’s deep wells and authorized an internship program agreement with the Society of Municipal Arborists.

A public hearing was set for June 3 on the controversial street plans around Providence Road in the Grasslands neighborhood. City staff reported that the property owner and the city arborist agree that the tree on South Garth Avenue with the big red X on it needs to come down.

I learned about all those things from an “article” called, appropriately but uninspiringly, “May 6 City Council Action” by reporter Chris Jasper.

It is essentially a reporter’s notebook of all the things that happened during the meeting, and the notes are attached to the council agenda. They lack the depth of a traditional article, but you get everything else, from trifling to momentous.

It’s a quick read, but I found it filling.

You can praise (or blame) former city manager Ray Beck and avowed computer nerd Ted Han for the idea.

Beck and I sat together at Jack’s one morning for the Boonslick Kiwanis Club meeting. I was there to talk about the Missourian; Beck was there as a visitor from another Kiwanis chapter. (I was told there are five in the area.)

Beck retired more than six years ago, but, as you might expect, he’s still pretty passionate about city government. Naturally, our conversation turned there. Beck praised the Missourian coverage, and then turned to his idea: Wouldn’t it be better if there were more? A lot happens at a City Council meeting, he said, and yet readers only get a couple of the most controversial things.

He wasn’t asking for full stories, necessarily, just a paragraph or two describing other actions taken.

I filed away the suggestion in the little black notebook I carry.

Enter Ted Han.

Han is an interesting fellow. His bio says “he's a computational linguist by degree, developer by trade, and Sci-Fi nerd by leisure.” He’s one of these tech guys who create projects with names not found in English dictionaries (Merb) or void of spaces between words (DataMapper, CrisisCommons).

Right now, Han is the lead developer for DocumentCloud, which, among other things, is a tool to attach original documents to articles. The Missourian has used DocumentCloud for a few years now, but only in a limited way.

Han visited with editors in March and pointed to a lot more that could be done with DocumentCloud, including annotating, which led to the idea to add notes to the agendas of Columbia School Board and City Council meetings. Two weeks later, the first “meeting notes coverage” was produced as a test.

It isn’t sexy. No one is going to win prizes with this type of journalism. But informative? Yes, indeed. It won’t satisfy Beck, a dedicated print edition reader, because it’s really only effective online.

In two weeks, a whole new crop of reporters will begin, and it’s hard to maintain new stuff from one semester to the next. I hope these meeting notes continue.

Tom