1973 Legislative Coverage Directive

Here is a Jan. 4, 1973, memo from Austin bureau manager Roland Lindsey to Austin staffers Ann Arnold, Andy Yemma and Frank Griffis on coverage of the 1973 session of the Texas Legislature:



I'm passing along a memo by one of my predecessors which gives a capsule summary of what legislative coverage is all about, along with some current plans on how we'll handle the session which begins Tuesday.

First the summary:

"A session is more than bills, votes, committees and hearings. It is society in microcosm; sooner or later, in one form or another, all the questions land here. There is personal drama, triumph, tragedy. There is comedy, a little of it intentional. There is banality, venality, and occasionally a spark of nobility. Careers blossom and wither. Among all the trivia, there is history. Let us make our legislative coverage reflect those truths.

"Some rules:

1. Keep perspective. No reader is going to follow a bill as closely as you do. You've got to tell him how far it's come and how far it has to go, what it does, who wants it, and why.

2. Eschew parliamentary jargon. A bill advances, fails to advance is killed. Never say in a lead "the House voted against a motion to recommit." If necessary, you can explain the parliamentary setting farther down. Let's try to reserve the word "pass" for final legislative approval. When the House approves on a second reading a bill that hasn't been to the Senate, let's say it "advanced" on "survived" or "passed a key test" or was "tentatively approved."

3. Write tightly. We're going to be moving 40, 50 and 60 stories a day. Most of them have got to be short. We shall pick out the stories that are important, or offbeat, or underreported and build them up; if it takes 800 words, OK. The rest we shall handle in 100 if possible, 300 if necessary. But let's stop writing 300-500 words just because that's easier than making a decision.

4. Write brightly. Shuck your long faces and ponderous prose. Relax. Loosen up. Joke. Play on words. Coin a phrase. Pun (carefully). Use a metaphor (don't overwork it; use it, then get off it). Borrow an idiom from a popular song or TV commercial. Let's have lots of 10-word sentence and a few two-word sentences.

5. Circulate. Don't sit around at the press table while the clerk reads bills. Move around. Get acquainted. Visit. Question. At least half our copy will come not from formal proceedings, but from conversation. Don't sit for an hour in a routine committee hearing. Get there 10 minutes early, talk to the chairman, find out what the witnesses are going to say, stick around long enough to see how it's going, then move.

6. Be skeptical. Don't assume legislators know what is going on in the Legislature. Most of them don't. Don't take one member's word on what another is going to do. That goes for everybody; don't take Hobby's word on Briscoe, or vice-versa. Make your own head counts.

7. Think ahead. NOTHING IS MORE IMPORTANT. The Legislature leaves town on Wednesday or Thursday. After that we write an AMer and a PMer, Sunday AMers, a Monday AMer and Monday PMer. In addition, you've got to be thinking every day about an overnighter for the next day. Collect information and store it. When you're talking to leaders, press them; make them think about tomorrow and next week.'


Now some points applying particularly to this session:

Be extremely judicious in use of the word "reform", particularly in labeling a bill or rules change. Everytime a member opens his mouth this session, he's going to say he's acting in the name of "reform." Let's not fall into his trap unless we're using full quotes from him. Instead, let's say what his changes do in contrast to the existing rules or law, and let the readers decide if its reform or change for another reason.

Keep your eyes and ears open for brights and offbeat stories. With a majority of the House and half the Senate freshmen, there will be some humorous goofs, and some new personalities.

The new members also seem to have at least one nickname each. Let's ignore the "Babe", "Chip", "Skip", etc., and call them by their names.

At the outset, Ann will generally cover the Senate, and I will cover the House. Andy and Frank will be used to relieve either of us and for committee work, etc. We'll coordinate this each morning so each of you will know what is expected of you that day. If at any point you're not clear on the meaning of a legislative action, on your own assignment, or another matter, don't hesitate to ask questions of the legislators, or other staffers.

Procedures for our day-to-day stories are outlined in a separate note. Good luck.