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Workshop:Writing the news Ė 
follow the formula and other interesting recipes
Or Thoughts as I complete my assignments for the week.


By Anne Phyllis Pinzow

Anne Phyllis Pinzow is a professional script writer who makes her main living as a newspaper reporter and editor.  

This news-story formula can be used to generate good, solid, saleable short stories.  Notice once again how she has used the rules of VISUAL WRITING to create a piece of instruction about journalism.  Could any writing-assignment be duller than nonfiction about nonfiction?  

Writing students should also read Anne's article on studying TV and Movies to learn visual writing techniques, and her article on how a reporter works to gather the news.  

You will find an index of all her articles by clicking here.  

 

Solid information flowing forth from a page or on the screen will generally make as much impression on the average reader or viewer as a printout of computer code does to a user with one dayís experience who opened a RAM file in text form.

Itís gobbledygook.

People need to have the information organized in a way they can digest it and understand it. There is a standard formula for writing an article that will present information in an easily understood format.

This formula is also a quick way to outline a story and I generally work from it but make variations according to the amount of information I have gathered and the type of story Iím writing.

And now itís time for a quick anecdote:

It was when I was new as a stringer (a by-assignment reporter) and sent to cover a late night event. However I was not told when the deadline was and did not think (stupid me) to ask.

I came wandering in about 10 minutes to deadline and my editor was in a professional tizzy. This means that because of my previously demonstrated competence and reliability, she knew that the only reason she was not reading my text on her screen was because I must be victim to some accident, international terrorism (and I better have pictures) or ignorance.

So, she wrote a "formula" article. I opened up the file and literally just filled in the blanks. Credit goes to her for her ability to do this. Credit was piled onto me for my professional attitude in not taking offense at this and to the fact that I had the exact information needed to complete the article.

From that experience and subsequent ones Iíve developed for myself a formula based on formulas that Iíve read about and been taught by some of the best editors in the business, in my opinion.

Please note as you read the following, the resemblance of writing an interesting news story to writing a fictional account, which is, every answer to a question should raise another question.

First paragraph Ė Who, What, Where, When and Why, or better known as the hook. In newspaper parlance itís called the lead. Itís what gets the reader into the story and takes a tremendous amount of skill and creativity to conjure.

For example, right now, as Iím writing this there is a snow storm blowing outside.

If I were writing a weather story, which would appear in tomorrowís paper, I could write:

It snowed all day yesterday in Rockland County with accumulations of 2 feet.

Or I could write

What was said by national meteorologist, Fred Wingate of Weather Watch, to be the second "once in fifty year storm" weíve had in the past five years slammed into Rockland county last night leaving two feet of snow.

Do you see the conflict and the questions arising out of the second example which, by the way, gives more information?

Second paragraph Ė Atmosphere, environment, contradiction, controversy.

The laughter of children, freed from a day at school, due to the county wide shut down of schools, was mixed with the anguish of motorists in seven multi-car accidents which occurred throughout the area.

Third paragraph Ė Generally known as the NUT paragraph, is the issue at hand stated as clearly and concisely as possible.

What was termed a noreaster, a slow moving massive conjoining of two different storm systems, caused havoc with the areaís infrastructure and economy as it traveled up from the south and wound back upon itself before blowing out towards the west.

The following paragraphs follow an internal formula which is; tell them what youíre going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them.

Fourth paragraph Ė Bring in individuals and introduce their perceptions

Wingate, speaking from the service in Scranton, PA, said the unusually severe weather was due to global warming.

Fifth paragraph Ė QUOTE

"This phenomenon causes greater temperature differentials in levels of air intensifying the event when two approach each other."

Sixth paragraph Ė Bring in opposing viewpoint

However, Charles Fried, spokesperson for Lahmont Doherty Earth Observatory disagreed.

Seventh paragraph Ė Introduce another individual.

Fried said the weather was not unusual if one took into account a longer historical view.

Eight paragraph Ė QUOTE

"Every 1,000 years or so we experience weather systems which can seem of greater severity than usual but are actually not unexpected."

Ninth paragraph Ė Bring in third individual or other research and introduce that perception

Both Fried and Wingate have been invited to the national conference on weather phenomena expected to commence this week in the Antarctica Hilton.

Tenth paragraph Ė QUOTE

"Only if the weather clears in time," said Wingate

"It will, said Fried."

(Note: paragraph four through ten should not seem like a laundry list and the writer may and should be creative in the way this information is presented but be accurate and exact, even to the rotten grammar, on those quotes.)

Eleventh paragraph Ė Give other information which may confirm or contradict the above quotes or eye witness accounts.

They may have trouble getting to the hotel weather permitting or not because it was located on the nine mile wide, seven story iceberg which recently broke off the ice cover of the pole continent and was last seen melting on its way to Hawaii.

Twelfth paragraph Ė Write an ending or some sort of conclusion, or question that still must be answered about the issue.

While no one can control the weather, as yet, the conference stated goal, said organizer, Dr. Colin Marvin, is to better understand what we might do to better predict these events.

Thirteenth paragraph Ė Write who was contacted but did not respond to calls and any other vital information, such as phone numbers or web addresses people can contact for further information.

The Antarctica Hilton did not return phone calls by press time though the USS Aircraft Carrier, Sea Hawk, did spot the iceberg in enough time to divert local craft from hitting it.

If you havenít guessed by this time, I made most of the above story up.

However, it shows how the above formula can be used as a guideline.

Subsequent articles would deal with the traffic accidents, the economic problems, the weather conference, etc.

As to the formula, I know of no reporter who sticks to this absolutely with every story. That would be boring in and of itself.

However when you have an average of three hours to gather the information for a news story and possibly another hour to write a standard 250 to 350 word article, the outline becomes very helpful. Itís one less thing you have to think about.

The average 3 hours I spoke of comes from the following calculation. A reporter is generally expected to turn in two stories a day, every day. Given an eight hour day that means three hours to gather the information and one hour to write it. This does not take into account the time reporters must stand waiting for their stories to be edited.

Once you fill in the blanks for the above formula you generally have written that 10 to 15 column inches which is the standard length of a daily newspaper article.

Articles for weekly newspapers are longer, some of mine have been more than 4,000 words, but that is a rarity. The usual article for a weekly news story is about 15 to 20 inches or 350 to 500 words.

Feature stories might go to 1000 words or a bit more than 40 column inches.

While articles for a daily newspaper are aimed at giving a "snapshot" of the event or issue, stories for weekly newspapers are supposed to be more in depth, meaning more information.

Never confuse rhetoric with information.

State a point of view once. Either support it or contradict it, once.

A good reporter can get the most ordinarily reticent of individuals to go on for a good hour or more talking about their opinion. It is up to the reporter to remember that an opinion IS NOT information. It is simply a point of view. It is neither right or wrong.

You must gather information to either support or refute the opinion. That can be in the form of police reports, statistics from accredited organizations, studies done and who did them.

Those studies have to be from organizations which hold the public trust.

Attribute, attribute and attribute. I despise it when I read or hear those words "Doctors say," or "Scientists say" or "Experts say." What doctors, what scientists, what experts; what are their credentials, what are their names, who pays them, why were they interested in the topic enough to study it?

If someone will not give you his or her name, DONíT QUOTE THEM. Use the information as background or to say to someone you can quote "Iíve heard unconfirmed rumors thatÖ"

Theyíll confirm or deny. If they deny then donít spread the rumor. Itís yellow journalism.

Iím presently writing an article about gang activity. One company security official is saying there is no gang activity at all. A police official is saying there is definite gang activity and that recent criminal acts can be directly attributed to gang initiations.

To say that this is a tricky issue is an understatement. On the one hand, I donít want to ruin anyoneís livelihood by writing an article that would chase customers away with horror stories of gang attacks right outside the store entrance.

On the other hand I donít want to be guilty of the sin of omission by not warning people of the vicious attacks that have been perpetrated upon innocent victims who have frequented the establishments.

Then there is the issue of the criminal investigation. If I am too factual in my accounts then it could lead gang members to suspect other gang members who are acting as police agents. It could endanger their lives.

Of course, just a bunch of kids who are members of a club and wearing matching clothes does not necessarily constitute a gang. The wrong wording could label them with rumor and innuendo for the rest of their lives.

Life or death, ruin or peace of mind. If I make a mistake I donít want to contemplate the consequences, but I must because the pen is mightier than the sword.

So Iím coming to another rule Iíve made for myself, work with the people Iím interviewing.

When you are concerned read back to your sources what they said. If you think they might have misspoke, ask them to repeat themselves or if they are sure.

There are plenty of times when a source has said something to me that I realized would have made a wonderfully sensationalistic headline. Only the source didnít realize the implications of what was being said. Not saying it, or saying it a little differently would be just as true but not appear malicious or destructive.

If something is extremely sensitive or technical in nature, check your wording with your source. Iíve gotten burned many a time for the lack of a modifier that was edited out.

Also, make sure you define your acronyms by giving the full name of the institution and then the acronym in parentheses, and never assume anyone knows what you mean.

For instance when the CIA issues a statement about their IRA initiative make sure itís the CIA and not the CIA because the CIA will be very upset if you call them the CIA when they are not the CIA. Not to mention what the IRA will say if you attribute anything they say to the CIAís IRA projects. You could get sued and donít go crying to the CIA because after all, they are not the CIA and there is even less resemblance between the IRA and IRA.

For those of you who might have gotten confused by the above paragraph CIA can mean Central Intelligence Agency or the Culinary Institute of America. Just as IRA can mean Irish Republican Army or Individual Retirement Account.

Now, the CIA may be setting up IRAs but unless you define your acronyms your readers wonít know if youíre writing about a sting operation or a benefit package.

When writing about criminal activity, donít exaggerate. Alleged means just that. Suspicion is not confirmation. And it is very possible that the person under arrest or charged is innocent. "Absence of Malice" made a terrific movie (starring Paul Neuman and Sally Field) but the reporters I know prefer "All The Presidentsí Men".

Woodward and Bernstein did it by the book: research, interviews and more research and interviews. They did not break into locked offices or go out on stake outs. And even with performing legal acts, researching public files, interviewing sources, their lives were in danger.

The danger is much more the exception than the rule. One of the reporters who has my utmost respect has the police beat of a daily and has uncovered some really big scandals without ever having been threatened.

The reason was that the information was there and accessible, he just was the one to put it together.

On the other hand, if you write an article and you are threatened in any way (as I have been on occasion), report the threat to your editor and let him or her take the proper action. All threats, either over the phone, written or an email should be reported to the proper authorities. If you know who made the threat, donít think itís brave to ignore it. If you feel fear, itís real. Report it to the police and if they advise it, press charges.

Donít make a mountain out of a mole hill. People might just be venting and angry and if you can talk them through their feelings and turn them into cooperative sources, all the better.

Sometimes people are so caught up in their emotions that they are exploding and donít understand or know of the proper way to deal with their complaints or anger.

"Write a letter to the editor," is the standard response. Most times they will, sometimes they wonít.

But donít ignore your own feelings, gut instincts and perceptions. After all, you are making your living off of them.

So remember to use them. While you, as a reporter know nothing, you, as a reporter, may observe or witness and that can be in the story. Be careful not to color you observations. You can evoke strong emotions just by a competent recitation of the facts.

"Rain did not dampen the mood of the crowd, nor stop the flight of the pink and blue balloons they released in memory of their lost infants."

This was written to describe an observed scene which took place during an annual memorial event for a local group of parents who have lost their children to an early death.

It is filled with expression and the affect it had on the reporter without a single word of exaggeration, it was all observation, all fact.

A good homework assignment is to write a totally objective description without a single subjective sentence. Then write a totally subjective description without a single objective sentence.

I had to do this for a college course and found that, when done correctly, the object being described was impossible to define by the audience when the essay was read.

The subject of my essays held great emotional ties for me. It meant warmth, love, caring and happiness. I still feel great joy and anticipation of the special and enjoyable time I am promising myself upon the first touch of sensation with the object of my view.

At the same time, the familiar red and white cylindrical container held less than 16 oz. as was printed in gold toned ink in san serif letters on the lower portion of the paper label, of red viscous fluid.

For those of you who havenít caught on as yet, Iím describing a can of Campbellís Tomato Soup, my favorite as a child. As you see, neither sentiment or fact can adequately describe the object and its significance.

Iíve just given you a formula and recipes for writing articles and you might think that these are unnecessary. Well then, Just to give you a sample of what as a reporter you might have to deal with, here are some of the headlines of articles which were being written by me as I wrote the above essay:

"Childrenís hospital move opposed by legislative officials and community representatives" (1,500 words)

"Gang activity makes entrance into Nyacks and Palisades Center" (2,000 words)

"Policewoman Barbara Noyes, a good cop who didnít need to be tough" (1,000 words)

"School districts urge residents to come out and vote." (1,500 words)

"Redistricting may change our representative against our vote" (1,000 words)

"Can new reporting method help town budget for its needs" (1,500 words)

"Supermarkets well supplied for snow siege" (1,000 words)

 

 

HOMEWORK:

Pick up 3 newspapers from different publishers  -- or collect some articles from Yahoo and two other news services.  Read them carefully -- then de-construct them looking for the underlying skeleton of the above 'formula.'  

Review the news story you wrote for the article on gathering the news to be sure it has the qualities recommended above.  

Then review the structure of the story you are working on which will use your News Item to advance the plot.  Be sure that the story conforms to the rules cited here.

Remember you must first MASTER formula writing before you can ABANDON formula writing for something more original.  Plain, simple formula writing will probably never get you that first-sale.  But if you don't have the discipline of learning to do it, your lack of polish and skill will show, and you won't get that first sale.  It's like spending hours playing scales on the piano.  That's how you get to Carnegie Hall.  

See the rest of Anne Phyllis Pinzow's articles.

 

 

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