Building a Basic News Story

Step-by-step Tips for Writing AND reporting

Where do Stories start?

  • Something happened
  • Something is going to happen

When do you do the story?

Advance stories (walk-ups) tell readers that something is going to happen. When is that helpful?

  • It’s something they can attend: an event, activity, vigil, etc.
  • It may impact their routine: a road closure, a protest, a business closing, weather forecasts.
  • They may want to take action: a decision by Congress, City Council or other public body.
  • It advances the story: the next chapter in an unfolding drama.
  • It provides a news peg for a larger story: profile, trend story, issue story, human interest, investigation.

When do you do the story?

Follow stories give readers information about something that already happened. When is that helpful?

  • It gives them important news: crime, laws, weather events.
  • It gives them insight into society: trends, issues, movement, culture.
  • It’s interesting: ideas, controversies, discoveries, entertainment.
  • It advances the story: the next chapter in an unfolding drama.
  • It provides a news peg for a larger story: profile, trend story, issue story, human interest, investigation.

BACKGROUND REPORTING

Find the official line:

  • Websites: Is there an official website for the event, organization, company?
  • Press releases: Is there any information or statements that have been released specifically for the press or the public?
  • Social media: official Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, etc.

PRO TIP: Look for links for the press (news, media, press, etc.). Read the about page, click on any “about” or “news” links. Go to the Contact page.

Research the topic, issue, person.

  • Read other news stories.
  • Find websites, blogs, discussion forums, social media posts that discuss the issue you are reading about.
  • Figure out who the opponents are, who represents the other side. Think: nonprofits, advocacy groups, trade and industry associations, unions.
  • Look for information on history, statistics, past events, previous incidents, similar proposals, etc. Record, print, keep track of information that will serve as background in your story.
  • Make a list of people to call that represent all sides, different viewpoints, competing perspectives, alternative angles.

Identify an early angle

  • Think about your audience
  • What hasn’t been reported?
  • Is there new perspective or interesting background?
  • What’s changed?
  • Is there a broader, bigger story that hasn’t been told?
  • Is time running out?
  • Can you put a human face on the story? Show the real-life impact or reveal the man behind the curtain?
  • Can you provide a topical, interesting, educational, entertaining read?

For Advance stories:

Find out:

  1. Who will participate, who is impacted.
  2. What to expect, what will happen.
  3. When it will happen.
  4. Where it will happen.
  5. Why it is happening.
  6. How it will occur, how many people will attend or be impacted.
  7. So what? Identify the larger impact on your readers.

For Follow stories:

  • Plan.
  • Tell officials, media reps that you are coming (usually).
  • Do advanced interviews.
  • Arrange interviews, meetings for event.
  • Write “B-matter” or “X-matter” before you go (background).
  • Identify what you don’t know and what you need to find out.
  • Come up with a list of questions.

Reporting

Talk to the important people:

  • Who makes the decision?
  • Who is in charge?
  • Who organized the event?
  • Who is behind it?

Important people, official people, in-charge people and their spokespeople give you the official line. Seek them out first. Call in advance. Find out what what happened/will happen. Connect with the flaks — and use them for other sources, statistics, history, schedules, etc.

Who else should you interview?

  • Supporters: participants, affiliates, representatives.
  • Opponents: protestors, competitors, those with alternative plans and other interests.
  • Experts: professors, researchers, authors, association heads, think tanks, people who can put issue/event in context (historical, political, societal, etc.).
  • Observers: attendees, witnesses, neighbors, members of the audience.
  • Other stakeholders: Who is impacted? Who stands to win/lose? Don’t forget those who don’t have organizations, representatives, official standing. (Think: nearby residents, the poor, workers, etc.)

Types of Interviews

BEST = In-person interviews, face-to-face

  • Essential for in-depth reporting, profiles.
  • Allows you to set the scene. Can you shadow a person doing something? Go out with them in the field? Show them in their element?
  • Helpful in confrontational or emotional interviews. They can’t just hang up the phone. You can see (and report) their reactions.
  • “Ambush” interviews when you can’t get someone on phone or set an appointment.
  • Disadvantage: can take a long time to do and to set up.

 

OK = Telephone interviews:

  • Helpful to get information in advance of events.
  • Use with PR people who aren’t the subject of the story.
  • Best option for experts who may be busy or far away.
  • Ok for people interviews for anecdotes and impact if time and travel make in-person unreasonable.
  • By far, the most common method used by reporters.
  • Disadvantage: harder to establish a rapport with subject. They can hang up. You can’t see reactions or set the scene.

Last resort = Email, chat

  • Beware: Know that you have the right person. I’ve received tips from fake email addresses intended to look like officials.
  • OK if you are just seeking the facts about an event or planning your coverage.
  • Acceptable for a response from an organization, expert.
  • Acceptable to follow-up an in-person or telephone interview.
  • You never know if they wrote response or someone else did!

YOU MUST SAY IF A QUOTE CAME FROM AN EMAIL OR WRITTEN STATEMENT!

Where do you start?

  • What was the most important/interesting thing that happened/will happen?
  • What is the larger impact? How can you show it?
  • What was the most interesting thing said?
PRO TIP:
  • A good lede doesn’t say that someone spoke or an event happened. The fact that there was a speech, a panel discussion, a press conference, etc., isn’t the news – it’s yesterday’s calendar. What did the person say that was important? Tell readers something new and relevant to their lives.
PRO TIP:
  • Take off your writer’s hat for a moment. Put away your notes. Get excited about all the stuff you just learned. Take a walk. Allow the story to build in your mind.
  • Tell a friend approach. Talk to someone about your reporting: an editor, a friend, your spouse, your mom. Notice when you say something that gets them excited or that they seem particularly interested in. Is that the lead?

What’s the nut graf?

Thinking about the nut graf before you write can help.

  • What’s the impact on readers?
  • Why should they care?
  • Why are you writing now?
  • What is the size and scope of the issue, event, etc.?

Find the lead

Breaking news, important happenings:

  • Play it straight. Summary news lead. Nut graf and lead are same.

Issue story:

  • Summary news lead, staccato lead, startling statement lead that helps explain impact on readers.
  • Anecdotal lead or scene-setter lead that focuses on an individual or organization to show impact. Must perfectly illustrate the point.

Entertainment, scene:

  • Scene-setter lead or anecdotal lead that shows with sensory detail, puts readers there.

People story:

  • Anecdotal lead or narrative lead that shows personality, etc.

Anecdotal and Other leads

When it is not a summary news lead, it is helpful to think of your lead as the first five paragraphs of the story:

  • ONE: Draws reader into the story.
  • TWO/THREE: Expands on idea or continues anecdote.
  • THREE/FOUR: Lead quote.
  • FOUR/FIVE: Nut graf, supporting information, key background.

PRO TIP: A good anecdote can be told in three short and tight paragraphs with a beginning, middle and end. Lead quote transitions from anecdote to nut graf.

Must be spot on to the point of the story.

Using quotes

Go through your notes. Circle, highlight, star quotes and facts that you want to use. Look for quotes with:

  • Emotion
  • Color
  • Opinion
  • Interesting language
  • Personality

Identify your best quote for the lead. A good lead quote supports the lead and transitions to the nut graf. That doesn’t mean it’s the snarkiest, catchiest, etc. In an anecdotal lead, the lead quote generally comes from the person the anecdote is about. Pick a few and see what works in your lead.

Is there another quote that summarizes the story, person, issue well? Put it aside for a kicker quote.

Choose other quotes that shed more light on the issue, provide opinion, color and emotion.

BAD Quotes

Don’t quote facts.

Paraphrase:

  • Information on what will happen and what has happened
  • Information from websites or inanimate objects like reports and press releases.
  • Boring quotes that lack color, emotion.
  • Rambling, confusing or vague quotes

PRO TIP: Can you say it better or more concisely than they can? If so, then paraphrase.

Using quotes

  • Intersperse quotes throughout a story.
  • Full quotes go in their own paragraphs.
  • Use a variety of types of quotes (paraphrase, full, partial).
  • Don’t overuse partial quotes. It could seem “patronizing” or “snarky” or like you are “putting words in their mouth.”
  • Don’t stack quotes. Separate quotes, particularly from different speakers, by a paragraph of exposition or paraphrased information.
  • Set-up quotes. Introduce the speaker in the paragraph before the quote. Transition from last topic to topic of quote.

PRO TIP: What else did they say that you are not going to use in the full quote? Paraphrase it as the set-up paragraph!

Techniques for writing

Writers have a variety of techniques to help them figure out what to include in their stories. Some options:

  • Comb your notebook: Type up all the quotes and facts that you circled in your notebook. Put attribution with each one. This creates a document with only the most important and interesting quotes and information in front of you. Work to rearrange in a logical order and write transitions. Fill in additional details as needed.

 

  • Write blind: Put your notes away. Write from memory. What stands out? What quotes do you (kind of) remember? Write a sketch of the story that describes the facts and quotes you want to go back and find in your notebook. Once the sketch story is written, go back and plug in actual quotes, fill in facts and double-check stuff you wrote from memory. Fact-checking everything is essential.
  • Outline: Pick a story form. Sketch it out on your screen. Note pieces of your reporting, particular quotes or people that go in each spot. This is particularly helpful for more complex stories, such as block stories and layer-cake stories.
  • Timeline outline: Sketch out the details of the story in chronological order. Decide where the story starts and stops.

Where do you start writing? Identify the process that works best for you.

  • Write several leads: Some writers (like me) need to write a lede first before the rest of the story. I write several ledes. (Spacing between them in my document.) I write through the lead quote and nut graf on each one until I figure out which one sets up the flow of the story I want. I’ll usually rewrite the lede again and again throughout writing process.
  • Start in the middle: Some writers start at the nut graf, fill out the body of the story and then go back to the top. This helps them identify the direction of the bulk of the story and then find an appropriate way to get into it.
  • Start at the end: Some writers need to know where the story will end before they start. This is particularly helpful in stories that are working toward a conclusion or when you are deciding how far to go in a timeline.

Revise

No one should see your first draft but you.

  • Read the story aloud – especially the lede. Do you trip over your own words? That’s a hint to rewrite.
  • Does the story flow logically paragraph to paragraph? You may need to work on transitions.
  • Are there too many quotes or not enough quotes? Delete quotes that don’t serve a purpose or repeat other quotes. Look for better ones in your notebook.
  • Cut excess words, repetitive statements. Tighten. Tighten. Tighten.

Opinion & Commentary

There is no place in a news story for your commentary, opinion or value judgments.

  • Was someone an excellent speaker? Was he inspiring? Let the audience members say that.
  • Is someone kind-hearted? Let people who know them or their work say that. Or show it through anecdote.
  • Will an event be fun or interesting? Let organizers say that or members of the audience.
  • Did the entire audience enjoy it? You have no way to know that!

More Pro Tips

  • You only know what you know. This includes things you observe first-hand and things that are common knowledge.
  • Otherwise, you only know what people tell you. Always include who said it.
  • You don’t know what is going on in people’s heads. An audience member who claps and smiles still might think that the speaker is an idiot.
  • People lie. A person who says they do good deeds might be violent at home or a crook. (Don’t politicians always say they care about children? Some of them still cut school funding.)
  • People tell you what they think and believe. You don’t know that it is true. (He said he thought… He said he believes…)
  • Question yourself: What if everyone is lying? Think conspiracy theories. What if the victim is the criminal? What if the cops set them up? What if the study is wrong? Will your story still hold up if everything gets turned on its head?

Pro tips for Fact-checking

Tips for making sure your story is accurate:

  • Print out the story. (Yes, on paper!)
  • Highlight every fact, name, title, quote, detail.
  • Go through your notes, reports, records and other sources to check everything highlighted.
  • Google every name. Check it against their business card, email address, LinkedIn profile, official bio.
  • Type in every website address, letter-by-letter, into your browser. Call every phone number you report. Make sure they are accurate and working. Put CQ by each one you have verified.
  • Look for other sources to verify what you have to make sure your notes are right.
  • As you find each item, put a big ✔over it. Circle those you need to go back to.

Written and developed by:

Amanda J. Crawford, Assistant Professor, School of Journalism & Broadcasting, Western Kentucky University

amanda.crawford@wku.edu

www.amandajcrawford.com

@amandajcrawford