Reporting 101

 

Contents

 Building blocks  The writing process  News story or brief?
 I just got hired …  The first five  Single story or series?
 Generating story ideas  Writing your lead  Feature stories
 Event coverage  10 guidelines to clearer writing  Corrections
 Interviewing  10 common mistakes  NIU Experts Guide
 Note-taking tips  Self editing  Quoting Social Media
 Tape recorders What makes a good story?  Confidential sources

 

Building blocks

As a Northern Star reporter, you’ll do the same things and take on the
same responsibilities of a reporter at any “real world” newspaper,
because the Star is just that: a real newspaper, read by thousands of people
every day. Your audience is mostly students, but it’s also NIU faculty and
staff, alumni (via the World Wide Web) and DeKalb residents not connected
with NIU.

Reporting boils down to three things:

Accuracy
As a reporter, you have power. What you write can influence decisions, help
form public opinions of people and contribute to the general attitude of
your readers toward NIU and life in general.

With that power comes responsibility that can’t be taken lightly. Get
a fact wrong, misspell a name or omit a vital piece of information and you
not only can distort the truth and misinform the public, but you also damage
the credibility of the Northern Star. Without credibility, a newspaper is
finished. Guard it carefully.

Clarity
Newspaper writing is not academic writing. We don’t use big words and long
sentences to show our readers how smart we are. Newspaper readers are pressed
for time. You have to give them the news quickly, concisely and without
a lot of extra words or information they don’t need. Every story competes
for a reader’s attention … against other stories, against the TV in the
background, against every distraction you can think of.

With every story you write, ask yourself: What is the news here? Why
should my readers care? What does this mean to them? Your lead, and then
the rest of your story, should spring from those questions.

Then, ask yourself (and the people around you), “What questions
will the reader have that I need to answer?” Jot them down, and be
sure none are left unanswered.

Write short: short sentences, short paragraphs, short stories. Use simple
language. Think hard about every word you use. Is it necessary? Is there
a more clear, concise way to say this?

Read your story aloud. It sounds dumb, but you’ll spot places that don’t
sound right and might trip up the reader.

Style
Good writers are artists. Good news writers are, too – they can entertain,
inspire, anger and educate. News stories don’t have to follow the old, worn-out,
inverted pyramid format. Sure, you’ll still use it sometimes, particularly
for important, breaking news on deadline. But look for opportunities to
veer from that format into something more interesting. Never forget, though,
that your No. 1 objective is to tell people what they need to know – not
to show them how much of a literary artist you are.

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I just got hired as a reporter. What do I
do?

1. Assignment or idea
2. Research
3. Source list
4. Question lists
5. Arrange for interviews
6. Interview
7. Organize
8. Outline
9. Write
10. Revise

I can’t write as fast as my source is talking.

For now:

  • Ask the talker to slow down: “This is important to the story
    and I want to be sure I get it exactly right. Could you please speak a
    little more slowly?”
    OR … “Could you say that last
    part again? I want to be sure I get it right.” OR … Ask the same
    question again, but a little differently, to get a new quote on the same
    theme.
  • Filter what the source says. Only write what you think will be important
    to the story.
  • Use a tape recorder — but know the drawbacks and never use it as a
    substitute for taking good notes.

Long term:

  • Develop your own shorthand system. Or, take a shorthand class.
  • Practice quoting your friends, or people on TV.

 

I’m done interviewing, but I’m having trouble writing my story.

  • Did you outline? What is your story’s beginning, middle and end?
  • Answer the two magic questions: What is the news here? Why should my
    readers care?
  • Write a one-sentence point statement. For now, it’s for focus. But
    it eventually may become your lead or your nut graph.
  • Without looking at your notes, write a fast draft of your story. Don’t
    worry if it stinks. Just write.
  • If you can’t come up with a lead, write the rest of the story and come
    back to it.
  • Only choose items from your notes that contribute to your point statement.

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Generating story ideas

Adapted from the teaching material of Don Gibb, Ryerson
Polytechnic Institute, Toronto. Used with permission.

1. Read the Northern Star for ideas on follow-up stories. Often, time
constraints or people’s reluctance to talk mean there’s more to a story
than what we’re able to print at the time.

2. Keep a datebook to follow your own stories. Make regular checks for
new developments and record important dates: a person’s trial date, first
anniversary of a flood, etc.

3. Read publications related to your areas of interest. The Star gets
numerous daily and weekly newspapers, magazines and journals, and offers
full Internet access. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, ask. Look
for stories that might have a local angle and be of interest to readers.

4. Read bulletin boards and signs everywhere. They can tip you off to
good stories. When you’re killing time in someone’s office waiting for an
interview, read the information board.

5. Read government reports for hidden agendas behind the jargon. Sometimes
we cover a major announcement based on a hefty report. When time permits,
go back and look for little (or big) things we may have missed in Round
1.

5. Good ideas can come from meetings you cover, even if your main story
doesn’t touch on those topics. Make a list of potential stories from each
meeting you cover.

6. Talk to your contacts on a regular basis to find out what’s new. Sometimes
you may just get a tip to use later.

7. Listen — to conversations in coffee shops, on buses, in the Rec Center,
etc. Know what people are talking about and what’s important and interesting
to them.

8. Look beyond the obvious. Example: If you are covering the death of
a man hit by a train, find out how many others have been killed by trains
in the past. It may not be for the next day’s paper, but it’ll be a natural
story to develop in some depth.

9. Think about putting stories in perspective for readers. Example: NIU
decides to ban video arcades. Check with other colleges that have made the
same move. That gives readers the background they need to better understand
the story here.

10. Think of things that affect your life, that interest you. They can
be a source of good story ideas.

11. Observe. Look around you for changes in your environment. Walk a
different route to class once in a while. Example: You notice that a local
McDonald’s is closing. Maybe this warrants a story on how many fast-food
restaurants NIU needs and can support.

12. Always work with a number of ideas at the same time. That gives you
a chance to compare them and decide which ones are most worth pursuing.

 

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Event coverage

Speeches, forums, roundtable discussions, Q&A sessions, etc.

Prepare

  • Become the campus expert on what you’re about to cover
  • Google the person or topic, but don’t limit your research to that
  • Two words: Founders Library. Librarians can be a huge help. Just ask
  • Know what you don’t know but need to know
  • Talk to an organizer or two. What info is available?
  • Start writing parts of your story before you cover the event – background,
    etc.
  • Ask your editor what he/she is looking for

 

Take good notes

  • A tape recorder is good, but accurate notes are necessary, too – especially
    on a tight deadline
  • Mark good quotes
  • Mark potential leads
  • Write down overall themes
  • Number points
  • Big question marks for things that need answers

Understand what you have just covered!

Pre-write your lead throughout the event. Then keep revising it in
your head

List and pick
Before you write, make a short, one-word list of each major point from the
event. Then rank them in order of priority.

Before you write: 1-minute talk with your editor for focus

Write for readers

  • Why should they care?
  • What would make me read this story?
  • What would make me stop reading it?

Answer questions in the order they logically occur to the reader.
Example:

The typical NIU student’s tuition will rise $400 next year. (why?)
The increase comes as state revenue continues to shrink and NIU tries to
make ends meet without cutting faculty or classes. (so what’s my total
bill going to be now?)
Combined with room-and-board and fee increases, a typical student next
year will pay $12,423, up from this year’s $11,344. (How’s that compare
with competing schools?)

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Note-taking tips

1. Don’t worry if you continue writing after your source finishes talking.
Silence is OK.

2. Sit where the source can’t see your writing.

3. You largely control the interviewee by the way you use your pen. If
you stop writing, he or she will stop talking. If you want to keep your
source talking on an area, but you know you’ll not use it, take notes anyway.
This will keep the source going.

Speedwriting

1. Practice. Take notes when you watch TV, for instance. Quote people.
Tape the show you’re quoting, then play the tape and check your notes to
see how accurate you were.

2. Develop a shorthand system. Drop vowels, for instance. Or use symbols
for commonly used words (like a delta for defendant or CC for Convocation
Center).

3. DO write longhand for name spellings, ages, and anything else where
you have to be precise.

4. Slow the pace. Ask your subject to back up and clarify something.
“So you mean …”

5. Go through your notes IMMEDIATELY after an interview and fill in the
gaps so the quotes are accurate. Don’t be afraid to call a source again
to clarify something important.

6. The important thing when quoting someone is getting the MEANING right.
You can’t realistically expect to quote a person verbatim unless you use
a tape recorder. Even with a tape recorder, you don’t put in all the ums
and uhs a person might utter. When taking notes, write the key words a person
uses and abbreviate or use symbols for the rest. Train your memory to fill
in the gaps accurately after the interview. It just takes practice.

7. In most cases, clean up your source’s grammar if needed. Exception:
a case where someone’s bad grammar is central to the story.

Other miscellaneous tips

Put quotation marks in your notes around those quotes you want to use
and know you caught well enough to use as direct quotes. The rest you can
use as indirect or as simple information.

Almost no one (other than a media?savvy politician) speaks in whole,
quotable sentences. Every reporter hears a quote slightly differently as
they translate what is said into something that can go in print.

When note?taking in the rain, use a pencil.

Listen for the quote that can be used, and catch that rather than attempting
to catch it all.

Train your mind to “hold a quote in memory” until you can write
it down

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Tape recorders / voice recorders

Every reporter should own a tape recorder and use it often. But, there
also will be times when you will have to rely on your note-taking ability.

Advantages of a tape recorder

  • Better rapport with your subject.
  • Ability to concentrate on the nuances of what your source is saying,
    and to ask more perceptive questions
  • Helps you analyze your interviewing style and improve (maybe you talk
    too much)
  • Completely accurate quotes
  • Tangible proof that you quoted someone accurately
  • Phone attachment to record phone interviews – but you must get source’s
    permission!

Disadvantages

  • It takes 1 ½ to 2 hours to transcribe 1 hour of tape. Fight
    this by highlighting in your notes what you want in the story and then
    typing only that material from the tape.
  • Possibility of mechanical failure. Carry extra batteries and tapes.
    Put the recorder where you can see it running during the interview. Always
    test your tape recorder before an interview.
  • Potentially intimidates source. Keep it subtle.
  • Can be disruptive in a newsroom. Use headphones or an earplug when
    transcribing.

Legal and ethical considerations

  • Illinois law (and journalistic ethics) requires that you get a source’s
    permission before recording a conversation — whether in person or by phone.
  • Never tape any interview – live or by phone – without asking the source’s
    permission. Exceptions: News conferences and “prepackaged” news
    events like speeches.

Other advice

  • Use a recorder with an easy-to-read counter. When you hear a quote
    you want verbatim, jot down a few key words and the counter reading(s).
  • When your recorder is on a table or some other surface that can transmit
    vibration and noise, pad it by folding several layers of soft fabric (like
    a winter scarf) under it.
  • Use your tape only as a backup to what’s in your notes and, especially,
    what’s in your head. Write a framework for your story before transcribing
    your tape.
  • Even when taping an interview, use your notebook to write down key
    quotes and ideas, plus sensory observations about your subject and the
    surroundings

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The writing process

Most writing problems occur in the organizing stage. Many bad writers
neglect any form of organization at all. That involves thinking about your
lead, which is critical, but too many writers stop there.

Here’s a process used by Don Fry of the Poynter Institute, one of the
nation’s foremost journalism training grounds. Try this, or use it as a
base to develop your own process.

A. Decide what you want to say
This whole process can take less than 10 minutes. It saves far more time
than that in the long run.

1. Mark up your notes.
— Cement the important things in your memory
— Mark things you may want to find later, like numbers, names, exact wording
of quotes …

2. Spot the high points
— What strikes you most from your notes and observations?
— Main themes or ideas — jot them down as you spot them.
— Test each point. What’s this about? What’s my point for my reader?

3. Write a point statement
— What is this story about. What is my overall point for my readers?
— Now that you have that statement, all material must pass a test to be
included in your
story: Does it contribute to my overall point? If not, don’t use it.
— Remember, the secret of brevity in writing is selection, not compression.

4. Sketch a plan
This is a brief outline, or roadmap, for your story. No more than 10 words
total. Use a label
or code word for each section.

B. Write a draft
Write quickly, paying little attention to fine-tuning. At first, don’t even
look at your notes. Don’t revise as you go along. The point is to work from
your “roadmap” to get the entire story on paper in rough form.

Don Fry: “Most news writing sags in the middle because writers
get tired or rushed or lost. They spend 20 minutes crafting a lead, then
an hour getting the first half just right, and then blast through the rest
in 10 minutes to make deadline. Hence the sagging middle. By writing a
first draft as quickly as possible from a plan, you spend the same amount
of time on the second half as the first, and you don’t get tired.”

C. Revise
First, read the piece aloud. Take no notes and make no corrections. This
gives you a sense of the piece as a whole. You experience how long the passages
might seem to the reader. You hear where the rhythms clash.
Then, crawl through the piece and tune it up for sense, grace, rhythm and
finish. Finally, spell check it and fix typos.

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Writing your lead

25 Leads That Suck — powerpoint presentation by Lance Speere, former adviser at the Daily Egyptian, SIU-Carbondale (used with permission).

10 steps to writing good leads

  • Before you write, ask the two critical questions: What is the news?
    Why should readers care?
  • Keep leads short. A maximum of 25 words. Think of your lead as costing
    you $1 a word. Every word must serve a purpose. How much money can you
    save and still get your point across?
  • Write S-V-O sentences, with strong verbs. Avoid to-be verbs: is, are,
    was, were.
  • Focus. A news story should have one main point. The lead should advertise
    that point to readers, with no distractions.
  • Make it memorable. Develop your voice as a writer. Don’t write a dull,
    predictable lead that anybody could come up with.
  • Make it reader-friendly. In simple language, begin a conversation with
    your reader. No big words, no jargon … nothing that would say to the
    reader, “Stay away. You don’t know enough to read this.”
  • Make it fit the tone of the story. An important, breaking news story
    deserves a direct-to-the-point lead. An emotional feature story deserves
    something more creative, and probably will be more indirect.
  • News is about people. When possible, your lead should focus on how
    the news impacts people.
  • Read your lead aloud to a friend who will give you honest feedback.
    Ask, “Would this make you keep reading?”
  • Don’t settle for the first lead you write.

Turning Bad Leads to Good Leads

Wordiness is the enemy of a good lead. Not every detail belongs in the
lead – just the most significant.

No

A DeKalb man was killed early Sunday morning after the bicycle he was
riding on West Lincoln Highway collided with a moving pickup truck.
John Doe, 44, was riding his bike in the 700 block of West Lincoln Highway
when he was hit by the truck. He was pronounced dead at the scene. There
were no charges issued against the driver.

Yes

A DeKalb bicyclist died about 2 a.m. Sunday when he collided with a
pickup truck on West Lincoln Highway.
John Doe, 44, was riding in the highway’s 700 block when struck. Police
say the truck driver was not at fault.

 

No

NIU’s CARES (Collegiate Awareness Regarding Eating Smart) is sponsoring
a contest called “Where’s Barbie?” to raise awareness about eating
disorders and the treatment and prevention methods available.
Each week through Oct. 29, a Barbie doll will be placed at a different
location around campus. After finding Barbie, students can complete a short
quiz about eating disorders to make themselves eligible for a prize drawing.
Winners will be notified by telephone.

Yes

America’s most unrealistic female role model is helping NIU educate
students about eating disorders. But you’ll have to find her first.

No

Although not regularly scheduled, a brief DeKalb City Council meeting
will be held tonight at 6:45 p.m. The agenda will include the first readings
of two ordinances. The first will deal with the authorization of DeKalb
to borrow funds from the public water supply loan program by allowing the
administrative services director, not the mayor, to execute the loan agreement.
The second ordinance deals with the loan DeKalb wishes to apply for through
the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s Public Water Supply Loan
Program.

Yes

The city council tonight may approve two loan agreements for water-system
upgrades.

No

Several NIU student organizations spent Friday and Saturday dodging
cars in an effort to raise money for the Knights of Columbus, a charitable
group that raises money for DeKalb County residents with mental disabilities.

Yes

Several student groups spent Friday and Saturday dodging cars while
raising money to help people with mental disabilities.

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The first five

All the work of producing a news story is futile if the story does not
engage the reader immediately. Writing coaches have identified four key
elements that should be present in the first five paragraphs of any news
story (not necessarily in any particular order). They are:

News
The newest information: the basic facts of who, what, when, where, why and
how … the most relevant information.

Impact
The “who cares” angle. What a situation means and who is affected.
Tells readers what the news changes about their lives and, maybe, what they
should do.

Context
The general perspective that frames the background of the news. It addresses
the relationship of things around the news. Context helps readers understand
whether something is normal or surprising.

Emotion
The human dimension. Takes a story from abstract to reality. Offers personal
elements that help readers understand the story. This is not necessarily
a quote, but it could be.

 

One “First Five” formula

1. Effective lead. Focused, short, memorable.

2. A second paragraph that amplifies the lead.

3. A third paragraph that continues to build detail.

4. Nut graph. Provides context or tells reader why this is important.

5. Power quote. An interesting quote that propels meaning. Not just
a fluffy quote that
gets in the way.

 

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10 guidelines to clearer writing

1. One idea per sentence.

No: Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., experienced
the largest of recent high school murder rampages last week, and DeKalb
schools, along with police, are reacting to a rumor of violence at DeKalb
High School.
Yes: School officials and police are reacting quickly to a rumored
threat of violence at DeKalb High School.
The response follows last week’s high school massacre in Littleton, Colo.

2. Limit sentence length to 23-25 words.

No: After the announcement was made by President John
La Tourette that he will be retiring early next year, Boey, under his board
authority, created an ad hoc committee that will find representatives to
sit on the actual search committee. (38 words)
Yes: President John La Tourette announced last month he will retire
early next year. (12 words) Boey has since created a temporary committee
to choose a search committee. (12 words)

3. S-V-O: Subject-Verb-Object. Right-branching sentences.

Don’t delay meaning. Don’t use a lot of commas.

No: Mauger, who worked as a bursar at DePaul University
in Chicago prior to working at Beloit, said she missed the university environment.
Yes: Mauger was a bursar at Chicago’s DePaul University before her
Beloit job. She missed the university environment.

4. Use strong verbs and an active voice.

No: The poem will be read by La Tourette.
Yes: La Tourette will read the poem.

5. Reduce difficult words to their simplest terms. Don’t let bureaucrats
choose your words.

No: The search committee will be constructed in accordance
with Article 8 of the
NIU constitution.
Yes: NIU’s constitution dictates the search committee’s makeup.

6. Don’t back into a sentence.

No: The end of the academic year and the end of the
legislative session were two
reasons La Tourette cited.
Yes: La Tourette cited two reasons: the end of the academic year
and the end of the legislative session.

7. Don’t use more than three numbers in any one sentence.

No: Wednesday, the NIU baseball team’s winless streak
hit 22 as NIU (4-37-1) dropped a twin bill to Miami (21-18-1), 8-2 and
10-5, at Oxford, Ohio..
Yes: Oxford, Ohio – NIU’s baseball losing streak reached 22 as the
Huskies dropped a doubleheader Wednesday to Miami, 8-2 and 10-5.

8. Use no more than three prepositional phrases per sentence.

No: Students who will be graduating from NIU will be
honored at a senior luncheon from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday in the Regency
Room of the Holmes Student Center.
Yes: Friday’s senior luncheon will honor students about to graduate.
The event runs from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the Holmes Student Center’s Regency
Room.

9. Choose the precise word.

No: This will increase the number of participants from 55 students
a week to 200 students a week, and in that extra 145 students the age for
attendance also will change. The present center is only equipped to handle
children ages 2-6, but the new center will have the capacity to serve infants,
too. (2 sentences, 53 words total)
Yes: This will increase the center’s weekly capacity, from 55 children
to 200. And, while the current center takes children ages 2-6, the new
center will take infants, too. (2 sentences, 28 words total)

10. KISS (keep it simple, stupid).

No: Biological sciences professor Swen Johnson passed
away Tuesday at the age of 55, following a long, courageous battle with
cancer.
Yes: Biology professor Swen Johnson died of cancer Tuesday. He was
55
.

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10 Rookie Mistakes

1. Agreement

wrong:
The city council passed their budget.
The football team won their first game.

right:
The city council passed its budget. (subject = council = singular)
The football team won its first game. (subject = team = singular)
The Huskies won their first game. (subject = Huskies = plural)

 

2. It’s / its

It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood. (it’s is short for it is)
The beast crushed Tokyo with its tail. (its, with no apostrophe, is possessive)
It’s time we learned the stylebook and followed its guidelines.

 

3. Approximately

Eliminate this word from your writing vocabulary. About says the same thing and it’s shorter.

 

4. Hopefully

Hopefully is one of the most commonly misused words in the English language. The only correct way to use this word is in a sentence like, “He gazed hopefully at the door.” Do not say, “Hopefully, my long-lost ferret will come through that door.” When tempted to use hopefully the wrong way, change the wording: I hope my ferret comes home.

 

5. Passive sentences

Don’t begin a sentence with a form of it is or there is.
No: It was a dark and stormy night.
Yes: The night was dark and stormy.

Think: subject > Verb > Object
No: The window was broken by Sue.
Yes: Sue broke the window
6. Everyday / every day

Everyday is an adjective: Taking a shower is part of my everyday routine.
Every day is a preposition: I take a shower every day.

7. Time / Date / Place

That’s the order to use. The president will speak at 6 p.m. Friday in Cole Hall Room 101.

Time:
6 p.m. Or, 6:30 a.m. Not 6:00, 6 o’clock.
a.m. and p.m. are lower case, with periods.
Midnight, noon. Not 12 a.m. or 12 p.m.

Day/date:
If it’s within the week, either forward or backward, use the day, not the date.
Jake starts his job at 8 a.m. Tuesday
Jake starts his job at 8 a.m. Jan. 31

Abbreviate all months except March, April, May, June and July

And remember: In newspapers, there is no yesterday nor tomorrow. Only today. Otherwise name the day.

Place: Know your state abbreviations. Use them after a city not in our immediate area, unless it’s large or prominent enough to stand alone. (Chicago, DeKalb, Rockford, Springfield … Beloit, Wis., Galena, Ill.).

And AP Style is different than U.S. Postal Service style. So …

Illinois is Ill., not IL
Wisconsin is Wis., not WI (and certainly not Wisc.)
Eight states are never abbreviated: Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Ohio, Texas and Utah
If you have trouble remembering time/date/place, think “totally drunk people.”

 

8. Alumni

If you’re talking about men only, it’s alumnus (singular), alumni (plural).
For women only, it’s alumna (singular) and alumnae (plural).
For groups of men and women, the plural form is alumni.

If you’re talking about cans, it’s aluminum.

 

9. Open and close

Don’t say open up or close down. Also don’t say narrow down.
The building will open at 9 p.m. and close at midnight.

 

10. Very
Eliminate this word from your writing vocabulary. Use stronger adjectives and you won’t need it.
No: She was very tired.
Yes: She was exhausted.

For more, see the Star’s online stylebook

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Self editing

One of the worst mistakes a reporter or editor can make is not to learn
copy editing skills, thinking, “Oh, the copy editors will clean this
up.” Learning to edit will make you a better writer. Here are some
tips.

For writers

  • What is the news? Is that explained clearly, and early-on?
  • Does the lead reflect, or allude to, the story’s main point?
  • Will readers immediately see why they should care?
  • Think like a reader. What questions would a reader have about this
    story? Are there any that aren’t answered?
  • Is your writing clear and concise? Does it contain needless words?
    Long words where a short one would do? Are the paragraphs short?
  • If you read your story aloud, does it sound the way it would if you
    were simply telling it to a friend? It should.

For editors

  • First, read the entire story so you understand the idea put forth.
    Resist the urge to change anything until you’re read the whole thing.
  • Is it obvious the writer knows what he/she is talking about? Be skeptical.
    Question everything. If in doubt — even the slightest doubt — interrogate
    the reporter.
  • Can any sentence in the story be misunderstood by the average reader?
  • Are there any style errors? Especially check titles, days/dates, numbers
    and abbreviations.
  • Are there any grammar errors? Especially watch subject-verb agreement.
  • Are there any cliché words?
  • Is there any libel? Copyright infringement? You will be as liable as
    the writer if you let it go by.
  • Is this story one of two or three for the same day’s paper that are
    related? If so, could they be packaged together? Do the stories repeat
    information from one to the next?
  • Is there anything you could do to make the story more objective and
    fair, more responsible or more complete? If so, do it.

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News story or brief?

Almost any local press release the Star receives can be made into a brief.
So can many phone or e-mail tips about an upcoming event. Briefs are a good
way to get people’s news in the paper even when it isn’t worth sending a
reporter and/or photographer.

Briefs: quick, short rewrites that give the basic information
and generally don’t require any additional reporting other than double-checking
contact info.

When should something be a brief?

  • Can be told in 2-5 paragraphs, 5 W’s and H … maybe mug shot(s)
  • Event or meeting announcement
  • So-and-so won an award or recognition
  • Campus informational announcement

When should it be an ad?

  • A deal at a store, restaurant or bar
  • No news value (timely, important, interesting)
  • The person wants something run word-for-word as submitted
  • Never run a brief more than once. After that, if they want it to run
    again, they should buy an ad

Examples of gray areas

  • A local store is having an event / fundraiser / celebrity visit (decide
    on a case-by-case basis whether readers will care)
  • Employee gets honored /promoted (might be OK for a business briefs
    column)
  • Grand opening or remodeling of a new store / restaurant / bar

When should it be a news story?

  • The news impacts more than just a small segment of readers.
  • It can’t be sufficiently explained in 2-5 grafs
  • It gives you an idea for a bigger story
  • The press release explains only one side of an issue and you know there’s
    more

 

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Single story or series?

One long story

  • Single theme, single focus. You can state entire premise in one sentence.
  • Not a hot enough topic to occupy readers’ attention for more than one
    day
  • Urgency. The whole story needs to be told today.

Series

  • Complicated theme that needs to be presented in digestible pieces
  • Several areas of focus
  • Big, newsworthy topic — maybe an ongoing story that will have new
    details as the week goes on

If you decide to write a series …

Outline!
Do it as soon as you have a clear picture of what you want to say.
Not too soon — you can’t single out what’s significant
Not too late – you’ll have wasted time gathering irrelevant info

Write a nut graph for each story. In one sentence or short paragraph,
what is this story about? Focus it tightly!

Spread out your notes and other materials on a table or desk. Then mark
up your notes according to what story they fit into.

Find a focus — something tangible that a reader can grab hold of. Consider
running it as a thread through the whole series. A person. An object. A
clock. The weather. Etc. Example: For a series on challenges facing disabled
students, what thread could run through it?

Put action in the first installment … Maybe a delayed lead. Don’t just
dive into statistics. Build some interest. Build some reader empathy with
a character.

Don’t let any single installment run too long. Think of this as writing
a book in chapters.

Plan your presentation as carefully as you plan your writing. Use the
maestro concept — bring photographers, artists and designers into your
project EARLY..

Work with designers. Each installment in a series should carry a logo
or icon and an editor’s note.

Plan photos carefully — especially once you know how your series breaks
down. Each day’s photos and graphics should correspond exactly with your
story.

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Feature stories

Years ago, the line between news and features in newspapers was distinct.
News informed us: no frills, just the facts and, almost always, the inverted
pyramid style of writing. Features entertained us with fluff. The writing
styles could vary, crossing into more literary techniques used in books
and magazines. The style depends on the mood and purpose of the story.

Today, that line has been blurred. Good reporters write news stories
using techniques that used to be reserved for features. In all but the most
urgent, breaking news stories, the inverted pyramid has given way to more
compelling methods of telling the story.

Still, there are ways to tell a feature story from a news story:

  • A feature story still strives to inform, but it also may entertain,
    instruct and/or advise.
  • Timeliness is less critical than in a hard news story. It’s usually
    a factor, but not the main factor.
  • A feature story rarely will have a “news” lead. Instead,
    it uses a descriptive, narrative or novelty lead.
  • It may answer the “why” or “how” of an issue, rather
    than just reflecting a news event.

Writing techniques

Here is one method of assembling a feature. There are many others.

The feature story begins with an introduction – usually two to five paragraphs,
depending on the story’s overall length. The most common introduction method
is to set the scene. Describe something – a person, a place, a situation.
Paint a picture for the reader. Maybe there’s a great anecdote that
sets the tone for your story. Quote leads are rare, and usually to be avoided,
but maybe you have the quote to end all quotes and it makes a great introduction
(always get a second opinion, though).

Once you have your introduction, follow it with the nut graph.
This tells the reader, in a nutshell (hence the term) what the story is
about. It’s absolutely critical for good feature writing.

The body of your story is where all the information goes: description,
detail, facts, figures, quotes. Good transitions are vital to maintain your
story’s flow, so think hard about them.

Weaving a thread

This is a popular and useful technique for organizing a story. You mention
something in your introduction, then refer back to it throughout the body
of your story and again in the conclusion. The thread also is called the
theme, or focus, of the story.

Bookends

Another good technique. Bookending means starting and ending the story
with the same idea. It effectively ties the story in a neat knot for the
reader, leaving him/her satisfied.

Conclusions

Feature stories also have conclusions. Sometimes, news stories simply
trail off, but features end. End with the thread you’ve woven through the
story, or with the bookend. Whatever method you choose, try to use a strong
quote either at or near the end. It leaves the reader with personal contact
with the speaker.

Show, don’t tell

Paint a picture for the reader. Include sensory details:

  • not a dress, but a red velvet dress
  • not a book , but a dog-eared copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird”
  • not a sandwich, but a half-eaten BLT on rye

Let the reader hear, see and smell what you, the writer, heard, saw and
smelled. Don’t say a woman is pretty, or smart, or happy or sad. Describe
her characteristics or mannerisms as they relate to the story and let the
reader draw his/her own conclusion.

 

 

One formula for a solid feature story

From a 2012 talk by Dirk Johnson, NIU writer in residence

  1. Start with a scene: A person doing something connected to the larger story
  2. Voice: A strong quote from a character in the drama
  3. Nut graf. Put the story in a larger context. What’s it about and why should the reader care?
  4. Resume the drama: Continue the opening scene
  5. Voice of authority. The expert source(s)
  6. Kicker ending: Leave the reader with a memorable scene or quote

Planning your feature story

1. Select a topic and a focus or angle for your story. To help focus
yourself, think: What will the headline say?

2. Be ready to scrap what you thought about in No. 1. A story may not
lead you in the direction you thought it would. Be ready to develop a backup
angle in case your original angle doesn’t pan out.

3. Think about your audience. What would they find interesting about
this topic? What would compel them to read this story? How can you show
them why they should care? If you can’t answer these questions, you need
to change your story’s focus.

4. Can you really write this story? Do you have enough sources, enough
time and enough background? Do you anticipate problems in getting the information
you need? If so, how will you overcome those?

5. Whom will you interview? Will these people talk to you? Can you find
them? What can they add to your story? Who in the article will provide the
human angle, to help the reader to feel something about the story?

6. Understand your topic and its language. If the language is technical,
know how to translate it into everyday English. Do some preliminary research
at the library or on the Internet, or do a couple of informal interviews
to get a feel for the subject. Remember, if you don’t understand something
inside and out, there’s no way you can gather the right information and
write a story that makes sense to your readers.

7. Gather about three times more material than you could possibly use
in your story. That gives you freedom to be very selective about what you
do use. Good research and interviewing will let you write with confidence
about any topic.

8. When you’re ready to write the story, again ask yourself: What am
I trying to say? To whom?

9. Involve editors, photographers and possibly designers early in the
process. Far fewer readers will read your story if it doesn’t have compelling
photos and good design. PLAN!

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Corrections

The Northern Star is committed to total accuracy and fairness in everything published or broadcast. We recognize, however, that this is a learning environment and that occasionally mistakes will be made.

If you realize there is an error in a published story, notify your editor immediately. Editors will work with the reporter(s) involved and decide …

  1. Is a correction or clarification needed?
  2. Do sources need to be contacted, to clarify the mistake and/or to apologize?

If the mistake is yours, don’t just silently hope that no one notices the error. Take steps to fix it!

Be specific enough in the correction that readers understand what the mistake was. Generally you shouldn’t repeat the mistake – especially if it was potentially libelous – but sometimes it’s OK for clarity’s sake.

No: In Tuesday’s city council story, a wrong percentage was used. It should be 4.5 percent.
Yes: Tuesday’s city council story stated taxes will rise by 45 percent. The correct amount is 4.5 percent.

It’s better to own up to a mistake – no matter how embarrassing for the newspaper – than to cover it up. The sources involved will not forget.

Run the correction by a source, or someone else close to the story. Be absolutely sure your new information is accurate. The worst thing that can happen is for another mistake to occur in the correction.

Act quickly: Corrections should be published immediately online, and in the next day’s print edition, in a place easy for readers to find them. Editors may decide, in extreme cases, to run the correction on the same page the error occurred – including page 1.

Tell the source(s) what you plan to do. Don’t just make them wait for the paper to come out.

Online corrections: These should be placed at the top of the original story, in a separate paragraph and in italics. Example:

Correction, 1-23-10: A correction has been added to the following story. The story states that taxes will rise by 45 percent. The correct amount is 4.5 percent.

Be sure the print correction and the online correction say the same thing.

Do not change or remove the original story, unless the original story may be libelous or have other legal problems. Any decision to remove or alter previously published material rests in the hands of the editor in chief.

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