Andy Riga of the Montreal Gazette is a role model for transportation reporters. You read about him in the Columbia Journalism Review cover story. Today, we’re pleased to offer his guest post on how to cover the transportation beat.
By Andy Riga
“How many times can I write about traffic jams and late buses?”
The question crossed my mind when my editor asked me if I wanted to be The Montreal Gazette’s first transportation reporter in 2009.
Despite misgivings, I accepted. Pretty soon it dawned on me that transport has the makings of the perfect beat.
It affects everyone — we all drive or take transit or cycle or walk or do all of the above. And everybody has opinions (and questions) about how we get around, the future of cars, improving transit, encouraging human-powered transport.
Want to be a transport reporter? Here’s my road map to a fulfilling (and fun) beat.
1) Make it practical. Help people get around, whatever their preferred mode. Major roadwork, transit interruptions, bike-path obstructions. I write ‘em up for the paper, online and/or Twitter and Facebook. I also write a weekly piece about traffic disruptions that affect drivers, transit users and cyclists.
2) Make it interactive. You can’t be everywhere or know everything. Your readers are your eyes and ears, pointing out problems, asking questions and acting as a sounding board. I write a weekly Q&A column about getting around town – by car, transit, bike or on foot. Along with questions and answers, I feature reader comments (gathered via email and social media).
3) Make it explanatory. Explaining is a big part of the job. People take highways and transit every day but don’t really know how things work. How do new buses and subway cars differ from old ones; how do traffic engineers design an intersection; how is a typical intersection dangerous for pedestrians.
4) Make it visual. Snap photos and videos for social media, of course. But the beat also lends itself to map-making: static ones show what’s happening where: interactive ones give readers a lot more to chew on. Plot photo radar results, station-by-station subway crime, traffic-reduction plans, new reserved bus lanes.
5) Make it social. Twitter and Facebook can generate reaction/story ideas/questions from readers about traffic, transit and cycling. Use social media to feed your audience a constant stream of interesting content that 1) helps them get around; 2) tells them what’s being planned; and 3) explains how things work. Throw in news and features from around the world on topics your own community is grappling with.
7) Make it eye-opening. Go beyond the press releases, traffic jams and late buses. Use Freedom of Information laws to get to the nitty-gritty. Get transit-authority manager salaries, subway crime stats and ridership of frequent buses and express buses. Comb through public tenders, lawsuits, and annual reports.
8) Make it retrospective. Archival transport photos, maps, documents and videos have proved popular on my Facebook fan page. I call them Montreal transport flashbacks.