How to be a grown-up journalist: news reporting

origin_2567469865Former Fleet Street journalist Rhiannon Daniel shares her tips on how to use traditional reporting skills to get your content into the main news media…

In this series of four pieces – they never call them ‘articles – I’ll introduce the major stuff you’ll need to know if you want to sell work into the traditional news and magazine media.

Writing for newspapers and magazines – offline or online – isn’t like any other kind of writing. It requires a wide skillset.

News gathering, editorial decisions, writing skills and editing

So you want to write for the news media?

There are broadly three types of traditional journalism: News, Features and Columnists.

News gathering does require a good level of literacy, but the real skill is having a ‘nose’ for news.

I suspect that’s fifty per cent personality and fifty per cent training.

News gathering, especially in glamour roles like running campaigns, foreign correspondence, exposés, etc. can be very fulfilling and satisfying.

If you’re shy, unconfident, not keen on bending a few rules sometimes, too polite, or take what you’re told at face value, it’s not for you.

I’m not up to speed on what’s specifically taught in journalism courses now, but I did an apprenticeship learning on the job. (So did I! Sz.) It did suit my personality, but in the end I struggled with ethics and became a feature writer and later sub editor, about 10 years into my career.

Ethics?

Hard news gathering means finding people who don’t want to be found, ‘doorstepping’, waiting patiently to catch someone for an on-the-run interview.

I once did this to Sir David Frost and made a lot of money by selling his quotes. It takes courage to ask awkward questions and refuse to be fobbed off. Then you have to ‘stand the story up’ which means fact-checking, and ringing round to get alternative views, mugging up on ‘background’ e.g. stories that have gone before, or just research to contextualise your story.

And all this has to be done fast, sometimes in a couple of hours. Deadlines are your motivator but can be stressful for some people.

Digging up stories

Local newspapers and blogs are hard: not a lot happens in anyone’s small area, probably a city suburb, small town or collection of villages. You have to get out there with your eyes and ears open and literally dig up stories.

It’s easier in national media because stuff just comes in ‘through the window’ so reporters are assigned jobs from the myriad tips, reports and follow ups to ‘running’ or ongoing stories.

Still, many national print and broadcast journalists are good diggers. Sometimes stories can be ‘created’, naughty, but you can ring contact A and tell them what contact B said, if they’re in public life you can ‘drum up’ a story by creating conflict!

Where to dig

Honing your powers of observation, and learning to question officialdom, authority and pretty much anything at face value, are also skills worth developing.

I’ve had massive scoops because I paid attention…maybe a chance remark in a court case, or even something seen from the top of a bus.

You’ll develop a network of contacts who will tip you off, or who you can call for background or expert quotes.

Hard reporting takes b*lls

When the late Robert Maxwell was causing havoc in Fleet St in the 80s I knew his every move because an ex colleague, who was now working closely with him, was my ‘mole’.  I scooped on Cap’n Bob over and over, much to his disgust. He actually threw something at me in front of TV cameras at a press conference, and pushed me into a table of food at The Savoy for asking an awkward question.

If you can’t handle that sort of thing, don’t be a reporter! You can’t get everything from press releases either, they are often low on fact and high on spin. Press and PR is a sophisticated art and many journalists do rely on them but they should never be published without question.

medium_2419321912How you need to write

How to write ‘news’? To protect yourself from transgressing the list of don’ts, which were more strict in my day but have sadly been eroded, you must write clearly.

Spelling, punctuation, grammar, syntax, sentence construction, will all be edited and probably re-edited by others, ‘sub editors’, a whole other skill, but that’s no reason to turn in badly written ‘copy.’ (It’s not called text.)

The more clearly and well written your original – especially if you are freelance – the more likely they are to use it: plus, you are protected from taking the fall in disputes about the veracity and legality of what you’ve written.

Constructing the news story

A news story is not only carefully constructed in specific style, it’s also constructed according to the very strict editorial policy of the publication in which it will appear.

I once attended a subbing test at the Press Association, during which I had to rewrite a story ‘off the wire’ in its raw form, to suit the readership’s tastes and biases for five different national publications. It wasn’t easy; you need to study the style of your intended publication very closely and make sure that what you write follows it exactly.

Where you can learn more

There are plenty of great books which can instruct you on how to put together a news story. Check out the “journalism” category on your country’s Amazon. My personal favourites are the guides by former Sunday Times and Times Editor Harold Evans…brilliant.

Suffice to say that What When Where How Who and Why should all be included in whatever you write.

Anatomy of a good news story

You need to pull out the ‘angle’, or most important facet of the story. That goes in the opening paragraph, or intro, which should be edited down to around 25 – 40 words. Unless it’s:….The Queen Is Dead….

Hard news stories should be straightforward. A plane crash won’t benefit from a delayed drop intro, but a local story about a runaway donkey will.

A ‘colour piece’ written to enhance or as follow up to a hard news story can be more flowery, but hard news needs to be A.B.C:

A Japanese passenger plane crashed into the sea off Hong Kong this afternoon killing 25 people.  Rescuers rushed to the scene and managed to save 157 survivors including the Captain and crew. Japanese aviation experts are on their way to the scene to begin an investigation.

That’s it unless there’s a rock star among the passengers, or people are reporting it was shot down.

Later, there will be stories of heroics etc, ‘human interest’ is a large slice of reportage, personal interviews with survivors relatives and other ephemera from around the scene.

What about a local story?

Meanwhile back on the Fazakerly Bugle, your story might read a little differently:

Remember Angus the retired seaside donkey with wanderlust?

No one will of course…unless…

Jake Smith, who runs the Eyeore Donkey Rescue Centre in Muggy Bottom discovered Angus had gone AWOL for the fifth time yesterday morning.

But he wasn’t as surprised as Mrs June Biggins who woke up to find Angus chewing the prize daffodils in her window boxes two streets away!

‘I must get the fence repaired properly this time’ said Jake.

Prune your writing harshly

Go through your work and remove every unnecessary word, making sure  sentences are short and punchy, writing numbers in full, keeping brackets and hyphens under control so that the copy ‘scans’ well and making sure each paragraph break is put in for a reason. Spelling people’s names correctly, adding their age and relevant descriptions, are all basic rules.

There are plenty of lists available in any Journalism course prospectus but reading a newspaper and learning to deconstruct copy for yourself is a good start.

Stay tuned! More soon…

Rhiannon Daniel

Rhiannon Daniel

Former Fleet Street journalist Rhiannon now offers a highly qualified counselling and psychotherapy practice based in Brighton, on the south coast of England. Please visit her site for more information.

And while you’re here, don’t forget to stop by my Bookshop…books and eBooks to help you write better – and to give to friends and family – from just $2.50

photo credit: Lisa Padilla via photopin cc
photo credit: cumbo via photopin cc

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