This page highlights the traditional writing skills that have long been a part of journalism.
A 21st-century journalist should also develop strengths in modern writing skills, such as
News Craft Overview
An introductory lecture covering the First Amendment to the US Constitution, the Fourth Estate, the Functions of Journalism, and C.R.A.F.T. (Clarity, Relevance, Accuracy, Fairness, Timeliness).
Some basic concepts:
- What is Newsworthy? Recent events that are unusual, nearby, have widespread/significant impact, or involve celebrities are more newsworthy than events that are stale, distant, have limited/trivial impact, or happen to average people.
- Objectivity: Traditional journalism reports fairly from all sides of an issue — even the side the reporter thinks is wrong.
- The Inverted Pyramid: Start with whatever is most important, not with who spoke first at the meeting you were assigned to cover. A traditional news story does not build to a climax — it gives away the ending (who won the game, when Route 30 will reopen, what happened at the board meeting) in the very first sentence.
- Details Drive the News: Emphasize newsworthy quotes from credible sources (decision-makers, witnesses, experts, stakeholders). Let quotes do the heavy lifting in your news stories. (See also “Journalists Prefer ‘Said‘“)
- Conflict of Interest: If you or a close relative are in a club or on a team, then you can’t write a news story on it. (You might write an editorial, or a column, as long as you disclose your relationship to the subject.)
News Story vs. English Essay
Your English instructor carefully reads your essay to evaluate the depth of your knowledge, the breadth of your vocabulary, and the loftiness of your ideas. Joe Sixpack glances quickly at your news story to learn who won the game, or when Route 30 will reopen, or what happened at the school board meeting last night. What counts as “good writing” depends on what the reader values.
See also this New York Times lesson plan on hard news vs. news features.
Hard News Story (Kurtzman and Jerz)
Write so the the reader can stop reading at any time and still come away with the whole story. There is no need to put a conclusion on a news story; each story ends whenever the individual reader has had enough. Journalists write so that editors could chop off paragraphs from the bottom of the story at any time.
When Is Asking the Question Part of the Story?
When asked what habit he’d most like his journalism students to break, Dennis Jerz said, “Usually when I see the phrase ‘when asked about,’ I look for things to throw.”
Quotations: Using Them Effectively in Journalism
Use direct quotations to record the opinions, emotions, and unique expressions of your sources. Let the direct words of your sources do as much work as possible, keeping yourself out of the story, and keeping transitions and explanations to a minimum. Use a phrase like “When asked about…” only when omitting it will create a false impression.
Conflict of Interest: How Journalists Avoid It
A conflict of interest arises when someone who is expected to act impartially has a personal stake in an issue (emotional, financial, etc.). In every case, a conflict of interest is a real problem — even if nobody misbehaves.
News Feature Analysis
A news feature tells a story at a slightly more relaxed pace than a hard news story. The content of the news feature is usually human interest rather than breaking news.
Feature Writing: The Invisible Observer
Traditional journalists are invisible observers who stay completely out of the picture, relying on factual observations and quotations from officials, participants, and witnesses do as much of the work as possible.
Verify or Duck: Confirm Details You Didn’t Witness
If you do your job as a journalist — interviewing multiple sources and corroborating their claims — then you should encounter plenty of viewpoints with overlapping details that that line up. If your entire story depends on one outlier whose unique claim nobody can confirm, you don’t have a story.
Multimodal News Packages
Covering the news still means interviewing credible sources, verifying and arranging the facts, and delivering an accurate story to the public as quickly as possible; however, I would be doing my students a disservice if I expected them to bang out their stories on manual typewriters, the way journalists did a century ago.
Pitching a Magazine Article
A “pitch” is the publishing industry’s term for “proposal.” Your goal is to find out whether an editor is interested in a story you’ve written (or that you’re about to write). An editor with deadlines to meet and a flood of pitches from established authors will need a very good reason to take a chance on a new writer.
Interviewing Tips for Journalists: Before, during and after you talk with an important source for a news story
Journalists prefer in-person interviews — a real-time give-and-take. Emailing questions to strangers and expecting them to write out their answers is not journalism. If you can’t meet in person, ask if your source will do a videoconference, or even (if they’re the right generation) an old-fashioned phone call. (Gasp!)
Like other forms of journalism, an editorial uses quotes, facts, and logic to inform readers, and its content is still covered by ethical principles (such as fairness and libel). Unlike a hard news story (which aims for a neutral point of view), an editorial defends an opinion, which could be a non-partisan message about the importance of voting, but could also be a persuasive argument supporting a particular political issue or candidate.
A colleague put me in touch with an award-winning TV journalist who took some time off for eldercare, and is now having a rough time re-entering the profession. Here’s the advice I collected, which includes the wisdom of a former student who’s now a TV producer in Houston, and also draws on other sources I use when I teach career readiness classes for English majors.