Hard News Story

Hard news articles are written so the the reader can stop reading at any time, and still come away with the whole story.  This is very different from an essay, which presumes that the audience will stick around to the end, and can therefore build to a finish.  There is no need to put a "conclusion" on a news story.  Each individual reader will "end" the story whenever he or she gets bored.  A particularly interested reader will keep reading to the end. (See also: Fairly complex news feature. | Analysis of same story.)

The Headline: Convey the general message in as many words as will fit (usually quite a small space). A headline should be informational, and can be clever, as long as the cleverness does not interfere with the information or earn groans from readers.

The Lead: The lead, or the first sentence of the story, is arguably the most important part of the article. Based on the content of that first sentence, a reader will either look deeper into the story, or move on to the next one.

Therefore, how you craft your lead is very important. There are some basic rules one can follow:

  • The who, what, when, where, how, why lead.
  • Basically, just like it sounds. This lead tries to answer the 5 w's and one h in one sentence.

    A 15-minute operation involving a forklift, 20 firefighters, seven police officers and one scared pig ended a two-hour traffic delay on Interstate 94 Sunday morning.

  • Experimental leads. If you answer the "5 w's and one h" on the second or third sentences, you can be more creative with the first. The results can flounder and die, or have a great impact. Some examples for the pig story:
    • Tailgate the pig lay snoring in the middle of Interstate 94, oblivious to the fire trucks and squad cars that had gathered around him.
    • Geoffrey Saint never could have imagined what he'd meet in the middle of Interstate 94 during his drive to church Sunday morning.

Direct Quotes: Quotes breathe life into a story, but can be abused. Don't quote material that isn't quoteworthy. For instance, if Frank had said, "Officers arrived on the scene at about 9:00 a.m.," you wouldn't quote that.

If she had said, "That huge pig just sat there with tears running down his face and I thought my heart would burst," well, that's far more quoteworthy.

Paraphrased Quotes:

Here is where you could use what Frank had said and rewrite it: Officers arrived on the scene around 9:00 a.m., Frank said. No quotes needed, but the information still needs to be attributed to Frank-- she's the one who said it.

Additional Information:

Inverted Pyramid
In a straight news story, it's best to get the most important information in your story up to the top-- your reader will often stop reading after the first few paragraphs, so its important that they have a good grasp of the story. Put the least important stuff at the end, and leave the unimportant stuff out altogether.
Length of Paragraphs
This is different than a term paper for English class. Keep your paragraphs short (one or two sentences) and make each of your points concise. Readers grow tired of big blocks of text, so it's best to break it up a bit.
Objectivity vs. Opinion
Your readers aren't interested your opinion on the latest Clinton scandal --so keep yourself out of the story. Attribute every claim or opinion you report to someone else, and don't editorialize. If you do, you take the entire element of objectivity-- and thus, truth-- out of your story.

14 Dec 1999 -- originally submitted by Lori Kurtzman
28 Aug 2000 -- first posted in ORR. Maintained by Prof. Jerz.

See Also

Newswriting links

And of course, the best way to write well is to read:

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