1. Meetings matter – but not every meeting. Council cabinet meetings are where the key decisions are taken, so attending those should be a priority. Cabinet meetings run by one party can lack high-octane political controversy but they do provide an opportunity to develop your contacts with senior councillors.
2. Don’t overlook the value of attending scrutiny or ‘overview’committee meetings, where the decision-makers are called to account by backbenchers. Scrutiny committees are often wrongly maligned as toothless watchdogs with strictly limited powers. But they can throw up good stories, especially when the politicians in charge are compelled to answer awkward questions about policy proposals. And if the politicians dodge the awkward questions, that is usually a story in itself.
3. Don’t just rely on traditional committee agendas and reports.
A whole mass of information is now routinely placed on council websites which never appeared before and some careful searching can occasionally unearth the odd gem.
4. Use the Freedom of Information Act. A carefully-framed FoI request can bring up material that can generate entirely new stories and help develop new angles on running controversies. If the politicians have had sight of a report, shouldn’t the public, too?
5. Treat press releases with caution. Council press officers may not all be the dark merchants of spin we sometimes think they are, but do you know a council that isn’t interested in preserving and enhancing its image and reputation? To this end, they spend vast sums of (taxpayers’) money on increasingly sophisticated PR.
6. Not every council story is a major controversy. Avoid flamming up stories to create an impact entirely disproportionate to their real news value. Readers will usually see through it.