Earlier this week, I accompanied my class of journalism students to Toronto City Hall for what I hoped would be their biggest assignment yet: covering a monthly meeting of council, in Canada’s largest city.
We had prepared for it in class the week before, looking at the Toronto.ca website, reviewing how journalists find stories in a municipal reporting beat, discussing how to contact councillors, how city hall works, and how Toronto is a great city for journalists because so much information is posted by the city online, and publicly accessible.
We even had set up a meeting with Toronto Star reporter Vanessa Lu, who spent over an hour with the students in the Colin Vaughan Press Gallery, discussing the ins and outs, and highs and lows of reporting on municipal politics in Toronto. She then took the class on a tour of the building, introduced them to Don Wanagas, a senior communications official in Mayor David Miller’s office (a former National Post journalist). She introduced Coun. Frances Nunziata to the group, and was so enthusiastic about what a great beat this was, that I was hopeful the students would be interested in it for their future careers.
On the agenda that day were at least two meaty stories: equal ice time for girls’ house league hockey players, and, a controversial new billboard bylaw that could raise $10 million in extra tax money for the arts.
I had to leave at 2:30 p.m. but felt confident the students would be able to bag a story by the end of the session, and advised them they may have to stay quite late, as council often goes to the very end.
I told them to ignore the “notices of motion” and much of the procedural stuff which was underway, and focus on the actual speeches and interviews, post-vote, with the councillors and lobbyists for various sides.
They were supposed to write a hard news story about the council meeting, and file it by 5 p.m. the next day, no matter what.
When I left, my students all had their audio recorders and notebooks out and were sitting in the public gallery trying intently to follow the proceedings.
It turns out their first exposure to a Toronto City Council meeting, shocked them.
“It was the worst day of my life,” lamented one student, yesterday, in class, in the aftermath of the marathon sitting, where, by the way, council didn’t end up voting on either issue, but instead, postponed debate until Wednesday, or maybe even Friday.
“How do the councillors even know what they are voting on?” asked another student, referring to the recorded votes called by Speaker Sandra Bussin, which just identify the issue by it’s number MM – 1234567 , not by the subject matter.
They also were shocked at how one woman, a member of the public, “a crazy lady” was heckling members of council so long and loudly that even she realized she’d better stop, at which point, Bussin agreed with her, thankfully.
I told my students that many council meetings I have covered have been like this one: last year, when another group of students and I attended the December 2008 council meeting, a fleet of taxi drivers sat in the public gallery, cheering or booing a proposal to limit their access to non-airport fare pickups in Toronto. Security guards had to handcuff one taxi driver who was protesting too loudly, and escort him out of the chamber.
In the end, I made them write their stories by deadline, and suggested they mention the vote was put off.
Today, the National Post’s Peter Kuitenbrouwer, who I think went to journalism school with me at Carleton University in the 1980s, talked about our class outing, in his column about city council.
Messy? Loud? Democracy in action? Maybe. Certainly it was a good lesson for budding journalists not to get bogged down in the superficial acting of posturing politicians, or fall for the staged public relations events (Leaside Girls Hockey association players attending council in uniform, clutching dolls), and focus on writing about what is important: changes and new laws that could affect the 2.7 million people who live and work in Toronto.
Read some of their stories on the Centennial Journalism online news site, Centennialjournalism.wordpress.com