Friday, October 21, 2011

Groundbreaking ceremonies are an necessary evil

Before I begin, let me just say that this is my opinion only, which as you'll find out in about four sentences, probably doesn't count for much.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg doesn't like groundbreaking ceremonies. Reporters at a groundbreaking in Brooklyn overheard him saying, "I can't wait for the last one. You have no idea." Well, Mike, I don't think most people like the ceremonies either. To put it simply: they're awkward.

Now, I only have 14 months of professional journalism experience, but I've covered a fair share of groundbreakings in the Bronx. Most recently, the groundbreaking of Owen Dolen Park in Westchester Square.
Look at this picture. Notice how nobody is looking at the same camera. Half the people are looking at the ground or a different camera. I took over twenty pictures during the five times they threw the dirt. This was the best one. The Daily News has a slightly better picture, with about half the people looking at their camera.

Groundbreakings, ribbon cuttings, plaque unveilings, they're all the same. Speaker after speaker after speaking thanking one another, until the main speaker does a final round of thank yous and then transitions to the posed action shot.

So why do this? It gets everyone "important" in one picture without being totally posed. (As in, everyone just standing together smiling, still not looking at the same camera.) Every newspaper on the planet hates using photos like that. Also, it's awkward to abruptly end an event. Most of the people speaking aren't professional speakers, so events tend to just...stop: "And, uh, that's it. Thanks for coming."

The best way to end an event without awkwardness is to take questions because you can say, "One last question," take the question, answer it, then say, "Thank you, that is all," and walk off the stage. Everyone knows the end is coming, so it's not awkward.

But in small ceremonies, there usually aren't too many questions to ask, if any, about the event. It'll be two Bronx reporters, News 12 and maybe one or two others from the citywide press, so there usually isn't a formal Q&A session. We're all there to cover the event only, and we have direct access to the local officials after the event. Reporters can speak with the local officials in private if they want to get a quote about another story they're working on. At the Owen Dolen event, I spent a few minutes talking with someone about the Westchester BID. That's not an appropriate question to ask in public because it wastes a lot of other people's time.

Bloomberg takes questions publicly because he has an entire press corps following him around 24/7, so they have to do the Q&A portion out in the open. And after that, Bloomberg runs into his car and disappears. He doesn't stick around. If you have a question to ask, you better ask it there.

So how should an event end? People really should just learn how to wrap up an event effectively, but the easiest out will always be to hold a contrived, cheesy ritual that very few actually enjoy.

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