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Writing Collective - How to Write a News Story

How to Write a News Story: A Crash Course for Grassroots Reporters

By Chris Geovanis, adapted from a formula created by Diana Squillace

What key elements does a reporter — whether you're a "professional" or a grassroots volunteer — need to know to write a news story? The following crash course is designed to give you a snapshot of the basic elements in a news story, how to put it together — and how to "be the media." It doesn't take a degree in writing or journalism to be a grassroots reporter. It doesn't even take perfect grammar or a snappy prose style, although those are nice skills — and skills that anybody can develop with practice, without "professional" training. Above all, being a grassroots journalist takes a commitment to one principle: to tell the truth.

The Lead
The 'lead' is the first sentence of a news story. It's purpose? To entice the reader into the story. It's typically — but not necessarily — a one-sentence paragraph, standing alone at the beginning of the story. It typically also "frames" the story — sets the tone, paints a picture of the details to follow.

Take, for example, a recent Agence France Presse article headlined 'Space Militarization Looms as Threat of 21st Century: Expert.' The lead sentence — a stand-alone paragraph — reads: "The 20th century added a new dimension to warfare with the nuclear bomb, and the 21st could well be remembered for bringing the arms race into space, a French weapons expert said."

Another example is a December 2003 article in the Independent/UK by Robert Fisk titled "Hooded Men Executing Saddam Officials". The lead — in this case a longer paragraph — reads: "General Charles de Gaulle gave the French resistance 48 hours to ragler les comptes - settle accounts - after the liberation of France. But after the "liberation" of Iraq, the Baath party's enemies have declared it open season to hunt down and murder hundreds of the former regime's officials - with not the slightest attempt by the Anglo-American armies or their newly installed police force to end the bloodshed."

Both leads invite the reader into the larger story by giving them basic information about the thrust of the story — a summary snapshot, if you will, of the story to come.

There are lots of different types of leads you can use in your story, but for writers just starting out, it's often easiest to keep it simple. That often means not sweating whether your lead is 'catchy' or poetic, but simply focus on leading the reader into the story.

If you've covered a story on a protest, for example, you might want to say something like this: "More than one hundred people gathered Thursday evening at the Drake Hotel to protest U.S. President George Bush, who was appearing at an event at the hotel to raise money for his upcoming re-election campaign. They rallied around slogans that included calls to end the U.S. occupation of Iraq and allot funds for jobs and education, not for war." Not the snappiest lead in the world, but it's simple, straightforward, and tells the reader quickly and succinctly what the story is about.

The Formula: the Five W's…and 'How'
Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? A news story typicallyl answers these questions — or should.

One limitation of many 'straight' corporate news stories is the absence of context. The story, for example, may talk about a bus bombing in Gaza — but not tell the reader that the bus route is typically used by Israeli soldiers traveling to and from their posts in the occupation, and that resistance fighters argue that this makes the bus line a legitimate military target. The reader may disagree with the fighter's analysis, but at least they know what their perspective is.

Or take a story that describes a massacre in Rwanda — but provides no context on the long history and legacy of European colonialism in the region…and how the colonial infrastructure fanned ethnic rivalries as a way to pit one group against another and exercise control by 'divide and rule.'

These omissions decontextualize a story — literally strip it of its historical framework — leaving the reader with the impression that Palestinians are simply bloodthirsty religious extremists or that Rwandan ethnic groups are trapped in an eternal and unsolvable cycle of mutual hatred and violence, rather than laying down the historical basis of what drives conflict in particular regions, particularly from the perspective of the parties in conflict.

Story Structure:
(The content in this section is excerpted and adapted from a piece on the inverted pyramid story format, written by Ken Blake, Ph.D. of Middle Tennessee State University.) Just as they use many different kinds of leads, journalists use many different kinds of frameworks for organizing stories.

Journalists may tell some stories chronologically. Other stories may read like a good suspense novel that culminates with the revelation of some dramatic piece of information at the end. Still other stories will start in the present, then flash back to the past to fill in details important to a fuller understanding of the story.

All are good approaches under particular circumstances. As with writing leads, though, one should learn the basics before attempting fancier things. By far the simplest and most common story structure is one called the "inverted pyramid." To understand what the "inverted pyramid" name means, picture an upside-down triangle — one with the narrow tip pointing downward and the broad base pointing upward. The broad base represents the most newsworthy information in the news story, and the narrow tip represents the least newsworthy information in the news story.

Bear in mind that determining what 'newsworthy' means is very subjective — and something that typically differentiates corporate reporters from advocacy journalists and grassroots reporters.

In a corporate news story about a 'police riot', for example, the reporter (or her editor) may deem the most 'newsworthy' item to be the fact that people threw rocks at police and that police were injured. A community journalist on the scene, on the other hand, might deem the most newsworthy part of the story the fact that local residents were provoked to verbally — and then physically — challenge police after they saw cops arrest a young man, brutally beat him in the squad car, and then turn on residents when they challenged the police for their violent actions.

How can two different reporters have such a profoundly different take on what is 'newsworthy' about a story like the one above? Much of it is driven by that reporter's own biases, experiences, and limitations on the job. As grassroots reporters, we are unfettered by the need to please our editors and their bosses — the people that own these for-profit corporate outlets — so we have much more liberty than many corporate reporters to challenge the 'official' version of the story: the version that comes from police flacks, paid corporate spin-masters, government spokespeople and other professional liars.

When you write a story in inverted pyramid format, you put what you deem to be the most newsworthy information at the beginning of the story and the least newsworthy information at the end. For a quick crash course on this approach to story structure, check out Blake’s full piece at the following url:

Let's get back to the inverted-pyramid story structure. To write a simple inverted-pyramid story from the facts, first write a lead that summarizes the most important information. The lead should summarize the "what," "where," "when," "who," "why," and "how" of the story. The next graf (paragraph) of the story should pick up on some element of the lead and elaborate on it. The graf after that presents still more details about the story, and the story's final graf wraps up the remaining details. You can also make your final paragraph a 'summary' paragraph, which is used less often by corporate outlets, but which you can use whenever you choose, as a tool to sum up your take or your thoughts on the story.

Commonly, in this approach the story would still contain all the essential information if you decided to chop off the final graf (unless your final paragraph is a 'summary' graph). If you cut the next-to-last graf as well, the story would lose important information. But people would still know a few additional details about the story beyond the lead.

Note how each graf has a logical connection to the preceding graf. The second graf is typically directly linked to the lead using "transition" words that reintroduce a concept or person you first introduced in the preceeding paragraph. These transitions are essential to keeping the "flow" of the story smooth and logical. This is the core of 'information flow' in the inverted-pyramid story: lead, expansion of details, further expansion of details.

An important point to remember is that repetition is not always bad. You might want to continually refer to a particular person, for example, by her name, say "Mary Smith" or "Ms. Smith" rather than "she" or "her" — because this helps readers distinguish among different players within a story, and helps readers follow the flow of information.

The inverted-pyramid structure also gives you lots of flexibility to fold in quotes from people, by simply adding those quotes after a paragraph consisting of info related to that person's comments.

Let's say one of your graphs reads "People were outraged that Mayor Daley refused to answer their questions." This would be a great place to insert a following paragraph that includes a quote like: "He acts like he's a king — unelected and unaccountable," said protester Mary Smith.

Note that each graf is very short, usually only one or two sentences long. Short grafs add punchiness. They also look better when typeset into a long, skinny column in a newspaper — or when laid out on a website. They are less intimidating to a viewer's eye than a massive block of text — especially if that text is 'justified' — typeset to line up evenly like a block on both sides of the text, which makes it very difficult for the reader's eye to distinguish the end of one line from another and jump from one line to another.

Why write this way? It's logical — and its formulaic approach makes it simple for writers who are just learning or who are on very tight deadlines to edit their work. Remember, start with the juciest bits, and add on additional information to further contextualize and amplify the story. The basic information flow, however, is fixed — you move from the most important or 'newsworthy' information … stuff that is absolutely essential to the story … to less important information. Your information is basically laid out in decending order of importance. It doesn't mean that the information is less interesting; often the graphs that follow the lead are essential to fleshing out the story. It just means that the lead, and the paragraphs that follow in order, lay out a neat heirarchy of information that makes it easy for the reader to follow the story and figure out what happened.

If this all seems too technical or confusing, remember: you're telling a story. Think about how you would tell the story verbally to a friend or a neighbor … how you would spell out what happened — and why they should care. Sometimes literally speaking out loud before you start writing (or while you're writing) can help you sharpen your thoughts — and your story organization.

The inverted-pyramid structure is just one option for writing a story. Sometimes it can be easier to simply write the story in chronological order — 'this happened, then this happened, then this happened.' Read news stories — and pay attention to their structure. Learn to distinguish between stories that 'add up' — that have a story structure that makes sense — and copy that formula in your writing.

You don't need to reinvent the wheel … and by starting with a simple structure in your first stories, you'll lay down a basic structure for information flow on which you can build, embellish, expand — and disregard — as you develop confidence in your writing.

Some Notes On Style:
Corporate-style journalism schools will tell you that every reporter should have a copy of "Associated Press (AP) Writing Style and Laws", that AP is a journalist's 'bible.' The style guide notes proper acronyms, format, laws that must be adhered to, as well as politically correct adjectives.

The AP style guide can be a useful tool, and 'straight news' style writing can be effective — more effective sometimes than stories that are more 'personalized', crammed with the writer's editorializing or the reporter's own opinions. Sometimes a story will stand most effectively on the facts alone; by telling the reader what to think about the facts, you can actually distance them from a more direct experience of the facts themselves.

Experienced readers are often schooled in the corporate journalistic principle of "objectivity," and can be very sensitive to what they perceive as "editorializing" or "lecturing" by the writer — even though every writer brings her/his own experience as a member of a particular class, gender or racial group to bear in their work, whether they are aware of it or not.

On the other hand, progressive media projects like Indymedia don't necessarily hold to rigid rules of corporate journalism — including the fantasy of "journalistic objectivity." Many Indymedia projects apply only one critical editorial rule: don't be a liar. Tell the truth — something corporate news stories often fail to do, because they decontextualize a story or strip it of its historical context, or because their reporters fail to acknowledge their own biases (unquestioning support of capitalism, an over-reliance on spin from law enforcement or government agencies as "factually accurate," or a general disinclination to cover "fringe" stories on labor or environmental issues as "uninteresting" or "not relevant."

It's hard to understand why people in a particular neighborhood, for example, may vigorously oppose a new housing development that the city says will bring "progress," unless the reporter also tells the reader that previous developments in the neighborhood have been priced to sell for rich people, driven up the price of housing, and pushed long-time working-class residents out of the neighborhood. A story that in one person's hands may sound like a bunch of luddites resisting progress and "natural" development may, in another writer's hands, tell a more contextualized story of real estate profiteering, gentrification and displacement.

Many progressive writers work from the assumption that, while the reader may lack access to honest facts about a situation, they ARE intelligent, thinking people, and — armed with the facts — can draw their own conclusions, correct conclusions … without needing to be told WHAT to think about a set of facts. On the other hand, some advocacy journalists — people like Robert Fisk or John Pilger, for example — clearly and openly write from a particular point of view, with passion and power, imbuing a story with personal observations and historical asides that can vastly strengthen both the writer's storytelling and the reader's understanding.

Read other news stories, and analyze how they frame a story and how they structure the flow of information. Do they tell the story in a "chronological" way? Do they structure a story as a "he said/she said" exchange? Do they rely heavily on "official" sources as the sole source of "facts"? Find your voice by seeking out other voices whose prose style makes sense to you or moves you — positively or negatively — and use the writing style that works for you — or experiment by switching between "straight" reportage and a more aggressive "advocacy" style.

Just don't break the main rule: don't be a liar.

Photos & Captions
In most corporate newspapers, the subject of the photo is centered in the field of view. Captions — short descriptions of the photo, sometimes including the "who" or "what" of the image — are generally placed below a photo. These are generally good rules of thumb to follow if you are posting a series of photos to an electronic outlet like Chicago Indymedia, but as a volunteer reporter, you have much more flexibility in what photos you post, and how you write captions.

You might decide to post a series of photos, for example, that are not exactly aesthetically perfect, but that document something important, like a police officer beating a peaceful protester. Because you're typically going to be functioning as your own photo editor, you choose. Remember: you're the media!

If you want to take photos and post them to a website or use them in an independent print project — but you don't know anything about photography — try reading a few books on basic photography at the local library, and look at the kinds of photos you see in corporate newspapers as well as independent progressive outlets.

Corporate news photos can be particularly interesting to study — especially if you're looking at a photo from an event you attended. Did the photographer or his/her editor choose a photo that made an event look larger or smaller than it really was? Did the paper run a photo that made its subject look unflattering? Ask questions as a news reader — and use the insight you gain to help you make choices in how you frame your shots and what you focus on when you're shooting.

The Beat:
In corporate news operations, an editor for the publishing company assigns a journalist a specific area of work, like "business news", "local news", "national news", or "entertainment". These areas are often referred to, especially in newspapers, as "desks" — for example, the "city desk", the "foreign desk", or the "national desk". If an event takes place within the perimeter of that area, the story 'belongs' to that reporter — and in some large news organizations, many reporters may be assigned to a particular desk, and assigned by their editor to a particular story. News organizations also typically assign reporters based on particular 'beats', or areas of specialty, like 'politics,' 'features,' 'crime,' 'community,' 'schools,' or 'obituaries.'

In progressive and independent news projects like Indymedia — and smaller news organizations like community papers — one reporter may wear many hats, since staffs (or the volunteer pool) may be small, and because reporters may be offered more choices about developing their own stories for particular issues that interest them. As an independent grassroots reporter, you choose your own beat, based on your time, areas of interest, and your personal choices about what is important to you at a given time.

The News Room:
In large corporate press operations, the printers are preparing large Web presses to print the newspaper while the news reporters are writing stories, editors are supervising the reporters, headline writers are creating headlines under editors' supervision, and graphic artists are creating 'dummy' pages that include advertisement layouts and space for the news. While the editor(s) and their assistants are proofing copy as it comes in from reporters, photos are being developed and half-toned (or increasingly, digitally remastered for placement). The whole shebang needs to be assembled by a particular deadline, so the final layout can go to the press for printing. Television and radio newsrooms function along parallel lines.

Independent print projects (magazines like Z Magazine, Clamor Magazine, CounterPunch or the Progressive, for example) function under the same broad guidelines, although they typically publish less frequently than daily papers. They also use a lot more freelancers — people like you who work on their own, typically out of their own homes or workspaces.

For grassroots reporters in projects like Indymedia, the newsroom is your living room or your kitchen or the library — but the timelines can still be tight. If you are covering a protest, for example, and you've got the time, it's always good to get a "breaking" story up as quickly as possible — ideally within hours of an event. This can be particularly important when breaking news — like police attacks on peaceful protesters — lends a greater urgency to getting the news out quickly.

Background and Preparation:
On the other hand, if you know you're going to be covering a particular story — a strike action, union election, or community meeting, for example — you can assemble much of your background information, and even some interviews, well before the actual event occurs.

This alone will actually set you apart from a lot of corporate reporters, who may not know jack shit about the story they've been sent to cover, beyond a copy of the press release that pitches that particular story (and that probably came from management or the authorities). Background research is important — and the more background you have, the sharper your coverage of a particular event will be.

It's hard to cover community testimony on police accountability at a public meeting, for example, if you don't at least have some background information on the specific issues in play for participants. Maybe the elected official who's chairing the meeting has a brother who's a police official. Maybe local residents are particularly ripped off at the police because they've beaten up and harassed neighborhood youth. The more you can find out about the issues on the front end, the better you'll be able to structure your questions on site — and write your final copy quickly and coherently.

There is one key reason that makes you — an ordinary person from a local neighborhood — uniquely positioned to cover the news yourself. You are likely selecting stories for coverage that you care about, know about, have experience with. This puts you at a tremendous advantage over a corporate reporter, who typically comes in without a clue about what's going on with a particular situation or issue.

A note on gathering information on the ground: if you've ever been to a press conference, a protest or another event that the corporate press have also covered, pay attention to how reporters gather information from the field. Sometimes reporters ask really good questions, and checking out their later coverage — and wondering why that information got kicked to the curb — can be a useful thinking exercise on its own.

But watching corporate reporters pitch questions is a good way to learn how to do the same yourself — or at least to learn how NOT to ask stupid questions or get steered by some city propagandist or corporate spin-master. If you're going to an event to report on it, be fearless about asking questions. Don't allow yourself to feel that you can't ask hard questions and push for followup because you don't have some fancy Chicago Tribune press credentials or because you're not a 'real' reporter. Be bold.

Also, if you have the time before you go to an event and you've done some background research, take the time to write out three or four questions you want answered, whether they're directed to protesters at an action or someone speaking on behalf of the 'authorities' — or both. This will help you sharpen your focus, and also help you begin to dialogue with people on the ground. And that sort of discussion can open doors to a host of other questions or observations that can vastly enrich your story with both background info and pithy quotes. Finally, when put on the spot, sometimes officials say the darndest things. Free Speech Radio News has recently begun asking its reporters to try to talk to at least one person from the opposition when gathering tape for stories — because can be a good way to nail the opposition down and expose limitations in the 'official' version of events.

Above all else, when researching and preparing a news story, use your strengths: you know your neighborhood or the social political and political issues you care about better than some J-school-trained Jane or Joe who's just meeting a deadline. That reality alone makes you much more seasoned and perceptive on the ground than a "professional" reporter. Play to this great strength. Write your ass off.

Finishing Up:
In corporate print operations, after the editor and his/her assistants finish building the pages, entering copy and photos and capturing other elements, it's time to go to print. Again, other electronic outlets like radio and television work under the same broad parameters. If you're writing for a non-corporate project like Indymedia, where you'll publish your story yourself, you still want to think about including photos you may have gathered, audio tape you may have gathered, or video you may have shot. Even if your primary submission is video or photos, it's still important to include at least some copy that describes your images or your audio tracks.

Circulation and Distribution:
Circulation is the distribution of the newspapers to various locations — news boxes, newsstands, and subscribers. Electronic outlets like TV stations have an equivalent to circulation — the number of viewers or listeners of their shows — and much is made of regular monitoring projects by companies like Arbitron, which are in the business of figuring out how many people view or listen to various electronic outlets … because outlets that have more viewers can charge advertisers more for airtime to sell their products.

News projects like Indymedia have the equivalent of "circulation," too, often measured in terms of hits to the website. A story you publish on Indymedia may be seen by literally thousands of users who hit the website on a given day or week. That's a potentially powerful tool in the effort to get out the news that many corporate outlets simply won't cover. Use it. Be the media.

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