Reporters use news sense to recognize a good news story. But most often, they are assigned news stories from their editors. So it is possible for a reporter to avoid initiating a news story until a story he should have written is missed and the editor demands to know why. An enterprising reporter will always be on the lookout for potential stories that the editor might not know about otherwise. And if that story turns out, not only will the editor and the readership be satisfied, you will have exercised good news sense.
Anyone with an interest in writing can learn to write for a newspaper by learning to use a few simple writing and style rules. However, the ability to locate and compile the facts of a potential story into a readable story demands more than classroom construction. It takes good judgment, curiosity and determination to dig up the facts – the natural talents of a news reporter. Plus, the reporter seldom takes anything at face value. This person knows there are always questions to be answered and stories to be told, and the reporter looks out for clues that lead to these stories.
A news editor must know what a staff writer is working on before the staff writer presents him- or herself as a writer for The Daily Eastern News. In regards to blotter, two reporters will go together to collect the police blotter as often as needed.
In most cases, you will have time to prepare in advance for interviews you’ll conduct as a News reporter. An editor will assign a story and guide you in preparing for the interview(s). Be sure to check the morgue for past articles and read all documents related to your story prior to your interview.
You should try to conduct interviews in person whenever possible by phoning for an appointment. Set up the interview as far in advance as you can. Only when you cannot arrange to meet in person, a phone interview is necessary. Some sources may request to do the interview via e-mail, but use this method as a last resort.
When conducting a phone interview follow these basic rules:
1. Always identify yourself as a reporter from The Daily Eastern News, or The Summer Eastern News, whether you are talking to a student, secretary, clerk, president of the university or a strip-tease artist.
2. Be sure you have prepared questions and necessary background information ready. You don’t want to stumble through the interview making the source think you don’t understand the topic. There are two or more sides to every story; make sure you find and include them all.
3. Ask if you may call back in case you have more questions.
4. Thank the person for his or her time.
Setting up interviews
When setting up for an appointment, tell the person the reason for the interview. This gives the subject time to prepare for questions you might ask. If you are seeking specific information, tell the source so he or she will be prepared to give the information at the interview. It is good to contact multiple sources for a story, but if you have contacted more than one source for the same information be sure you tell them you have contacted others who have not yet gotten back to you.
Getting background information
In any interview, the background information on the person and his area of expertise should be obtained by the reporter. Gaining this information beforehand will serve several purposes. First, it will allow you to save time in the interview because you will not have to ask these questions. It also will demonstrate you thought enough about the importance of the interview to spend some time preparing for it. Before arriving for the interview, you should read recent news clips on the topic, check the morgue and ask your staff editor about other possible sources of information. Also, it’s always to your advantage to read other newspapers and watch news broadcasts.
The questions you will ask are the most important part of the interview. Rarely does a reporter go to an interview without questions prepared in advance. Preparing questions is not difficult. The first question is the one the reporter must answer. What is the purpose of the interview?
Two general rules should be followed in preparing questions. First, prepare specific questions that will receive specific answers. Present your questions in an organized manner. Keep questions on similar areas together. It will help the interviewee organize his thoughts on the topic.
Second in preparing questions, always think of the reader. The News’ readership consists of students, instructors, civil servants, administration, alumni and townspeople. How is all of this important to the reader? What does the reader want to know about this topic? What would be particularly interesting?
A good interviewer not only asks questions and records the answers, he also listens for comments that will lead to other subsequent questions. Every reporter should be wary of off-the-record remarks. Off-the-record remarks serve no purpose to the news process except offering the reporter additional background information that cannot be used. Honor off-the-record requests unless another, separate source either inadvertently repeats the same information or if the original source refers you to another source who will go on the record. The same rules apply to anonymity. Information gained by anonymity or or off-the-record interviews merits caution and suspicion, so discuss it thoroughly with your staff editor if there are problems.
COMMON PROBLEMS TO AVOID
Spelling is the number one problem with copy, according to any editor. Winning the county spelling bee is not a prerequisite for being a reporter, but the ability to use a dictionary is. Double check every name in the story for correct spelling with the campus phonebook.
Short sentences are the best sentences. The longer the sentence, the more likely the reporter will introduce confusion, not clarification.
Wordiness can lead to long sentences. It can also cause repetition of facts and overly-long stories.
Does a story make sense? If it contains any of the errors discussed so far, the story is not going to be clear and easily understood by the readers. Reporters write for readers. Readers are the people who know less about the topic than the reporter. Reporters should not write down to the reader, but the story should not be written as if the reader did as much research as the reporter.
Active vs. passive voice
To keep sentences moving, use active voice. To keep stories moving, and readers interested, always keep in mind who did what to whom and try to report it that way. One thing to remember about using verbs; because they add action to the story, don’t fight the natural progress of a sentence by using passive voice. Passive voice rearranges the natural sentence order and makes the object more important than the subject and verb.
Correct: The senate will meet Tuesday.
Incorrect: The senate will be meeting Thursday.
Verb tense refers to the time frame in which the action of the sentence is viewed by the writer. Because news stories are read after an event and after the reporter describes the event in writing, the most natural tense for most news stories is the past tense. People don’t say things in news stories: It’s ‘Jones said’ … Not ‘said Jones.’
News is what people say and how they say it – as movers and shakers and as the moved and shaken. The chatter is incessant. So are the reporter’s efforts to distill useful quotes from it. Quotes are indispensable. They lend authenticity. They put readers in touch with people as directly as print can manage it. A story of any length that lacks quotes is barren.
The art of handling quotes comes down to knowing when to quote, when to paraphrase, when to forget the whole thing. Sometimes the choice is simple – just think it through. Quotes perform certain standard functions:
—Document and support third-person statements in the lead and elsewhere.
—Set off controversial material, where the precise wording can be a an issue, as in legal contexts.
—Catch distinctions and nuances in important passages of speeches and convey some of the flavor of the speaker’s language.
—Highlight exchanges and testimony in trials, hearings, meetings and other encounters.
—Don’t paraphrase a quote and then use it.
Never hide a correction. Tell others that a mistake has been made and correct it. They need to know. Don’t let errors stick in the story. You may be on deadline and carelessly overlook the error. Study this stylebook and the AP, and ask questions.
ONE LAST TIP
Probably one of the best ways to learn about effective reporting is to read it yourself. And that’s what you should make a point of doing on a regular basis. Read daily papers like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune and Washington Post as often as you can. You’ll get a healthy dose of solid, objective, clearly-written reporting that will help you become a responsible journalist.
ORGANIZING STORIES BEFORE WRITING THEM
Planning precedes writing. Even while reporting a story, a reporter should try to visualize what he is going to write, especially the beginning of the story, the lead. Not only will planning while in the field speed up the writing process, it will also serve as a check on uncovered aspects of your story that need coverage and help reveal a logical order to organize the facts. News stories have linear structure. The beginning includes the most important material. It tells the reader what to expect. The remainder of the story, the body, amplifies, buttresses and explains the beginning. Always keep the readership in mind.
The hardest part of the story to write is the lead. It also is the most important part of the story. After the headline, the lead must catch the reader’s attention and hold the reader for the rest of the story. Writing good leads is a skill perfected over time, but there are a few basic principles to get you started.
Leads should be kept under 30 words long, under 25 is possible. This will let readers know the essential information in order to decide whether to read on. The idea of decision is important; a good, clearly written lead will draw readers into the story.
Who, what, when, where, why, how and so what will have to be answered in the story, but the lead isn’t necessarily the place to do it. When working with the five w’s and h, remember time, date and place in that order.
Use active verbs, and put the source of action in the beginning of the lead.
Don’t put too much detail in the lead. You don’t want to lose the reader or bog the story down with information which belongs lower as background or explanation.
Following the lead, elaboration of the story’s theme will set the pace for the rest of the story. Explanatory and amplifying materials, and most always, background are required to explain the lead. Your quotes, paraphrases and figures, et al., should be organized to logically strengthen your explanation.
There are as many basic structures as there are story ideas, but the inverted pyramid structure is commonly used. The main facts of the story are presented first, with the supplemental facts written in descending order of importance. This structure has several advantages. First, it gives the reader the gist of the story in a few words in the lead and the important facts in the first few paragraphs. It also facilitates the editor who must cut the story to fit a predetermined news hole.