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Reporter's blog: City council coverage in a COVID-19 world

While covering city hall is still inherently compelling, the online meeting format lacks that certain something you get in person

Covering city council is a mixed bag of emotions on any given day.

It can range from edge of your seat anticipation as councillors debate multi-million dollar construction projects for the city, all the way to eyes glazing over during an hour-long discussion about installing a new stop sign.

At its core, however, to be a city council reporter is to be a Cole's Notes in human form. It's listening to hours of discussion and debate, weeding through bureaucratic politi-speak and being able to distill it down to plain English for readers.

As city council reporters we sit through three, four, sometimes five hour-long meetings and extract the juicy bits and turn it into something that can be easily digested by readers in 10 minutes or less. (I must have been hungry when I wrote this).

Most citizens don't come home after a long day of work and sit down to watch two hours of discussions on pothole repair in the city, but that doesn't mean they're not interested, and that's where the city hall reporter comes in. 

While the meetings are long and debate can become monotonous and repetitive at times, the beat itself is inherently compelling, as these are the 13 men and women who are making the decisions about how the city is run and where the city is headed.

There is also the drama that comes with these meetings as personalities clash at the council table. Disagreements can become heated, factions form and people take sides. 

This can be counter-productive at times, as the hope is to have council on some type of common ground and working toward the best possible outcomes for its citizens, but it's natural that biases and emotions creep into debate from time to time.

In this "new normal" where council meetings have transitioned to the online world, it has taken away a great deal of the human aspect of the city council meeting.

When sitting in council chambers there are a lot of little things to pick up on; body language, a look shot across the room, a councillor appearing disinterested in what's being said. 

Watching councillors debate and react in real time and in person adds an entirely different dynamic that just doesn't exist when everyone is sitting comfortably in their living room or home office and any scoff or eye roll can easily be hidden at the press of a button.

Watching how councillors behave during a discussion can very much influence and shape the way a story is reported, or create a story behind the story.

You can catch little tells that councillors have when they're unhappy with something and when you're sitting in council chambers you can feel when the air is tense. 

The absence of the post-meeting media scrum has been a big loss not only for reporters, but for readers too.

Being able to walk down to the chamber floor after a meeting has adjourned and talk to a councillor right after an evening of spirited debate will often provide you with some of your best quotes and insights and add that little extra flavour to what may have been a bland story otherwise.

I miss that aspect of city council reporting and hopefully one day soon council will take their seats at the table at Tom Davies Square.

Matt Durnan covers city council for