Monday, October 29, 2012


I've written a few comments to help my students as they struggle with writing a news story . . .

Story Length

A reporter filing a story for a newspaper - which is this particular assignment - would be expected to write a story of c400 words. That's the amount of space a media outlet normally devotes to a court story. Fewer words is not an option. This is because of very good reasons and practice established by media outlets over years. A story of, say, 200 words, doesn't (a) look good on the page [it looks scatty, bitty, and unfinished] and (b) doesn't make the reader feel as if they've read something that was worth reading. That's why the editor normally sets a certain amount of space for each news story. 

If you can't make 400 words my guess is that you don't really have a 'story'. What you've got instead is a small collection of facts surrounding what happened to one person, one day, in court. You rocked up, collected the facts, and now you're trying to make a story out of them. I know I said real skill is the ability to make anything (or almost anything) into a story . . . but that doesn't mean you have that ability yet. 

 There are thousands of court cases, across Australia, every day. The reporters' job is to sift through all those cases and find the real ones that make a story. I know it can be difficult, but that's the craft of reporting: to choose a good story; the best story, out of all those thousands of instances. That's why journalists are paid for their work. It's not something anyone, or everyone, can do and that's what we're attempting to teach in this course. 

So - and I know it's a xxxx - but if you can't make a 400 word story out of the facts you collected you'll just have to go back again and stay reporting until you do get a story. That's why journo's say, "did you find a story". They don't just arrive, you've got to work at getting the facts and crafting them until you've found an answer to the journo's question: "who did what to whom, when, where, how and (possibly) why?" I don't feel bad about saying this because that's what I had to do as a reporter. 

If journalists didn't manage to find stories then they weren't kept on in the job. They were quietly 'let go'. I even saw it happen to a couple of foreign correspondents who didn't 'make the cut'. 

So that's my answer to the question: 'how many words do I need to write'. 

The lead. 

This is the key to any news story. Does the first sentence make you want to know more? Does each sentence develop that particular story further? Does it all hang together? Is it tight; the best sentence you can write?

Words and Sentences.

Once you've written your story, look back at the words in your sentences. Have you used a long, complex word like "methamphetamines"? Try "drugs" or "stimulants" instead in the first instance and explain the substance further down. After all, why do you think we refer to "substance abuse". Look at the stories around you and pick the brains of the reporters that have gone before you. It's not being lazy . . . it's being sensible. Someone else, a professional, has always faced the same problems you face before you. Piggy-back on their efforts. 

Similarly with dates. Don't bother. No-one cares. It's "today", "tomorrow", "yesterday", or a generic. "In March", or "at the beginning of the year". Dates are facts (and your story is built around facts) but some facts are irrelevant. 

Then go through the sentences. Say them out loud. Would you really talk like that. Are there too many facts in some sentences. Did you really use a phrase like "upon sentencing"? Have you read that in a real news story? 

No comments:

Post a Comment