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Tom Meagher

News nerd.

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Story Tips Short And Long

1.Write tight. Maybe the most important thing you can do to increase your productivity without doing more work is to write tight and trim your own work. Write briefs instead of 8 inchers. Write 8 inchers instead of 10 inchers. Write 10-12s instead of 12-15s. Write 12-15s instead of 15-18s. The tighter you write, the less time it takes and the more time you free up for other stuff. Time is a gift to the news reporter. Use that extra hour or half hour to stop in on your beat, talk to a couple sources on the phone, read online what other newspapers are doing, or skim-read documents or reports.

​2. Prewrite/outline. Whether you sweat over your copy or it flows from your fingers like hot fudge, prewriting saves you time and energy. Take five to 10 minutes before you start to think how am I going to handle my story. Look at your notes and materials. Make yourself a thumbnail outline. What’s your lede? What’s your best quote(s)? What’s the news important to readers? What’s the background? What’s the context? Once you’ve got a bijou outline, you’ve got a roadmap. Drive, she said.

​3. Demand coaching. Editors know they need to story conference and coach writing and help with resources and ideas, but things get hectic and sometimes they don’t. That does not mean you should not ask advice and coaching. The crucial times to talk to an editor are: before you start reporting; after you finish reporting, but before you start writing; when you’ve got a top; and, of course, when you have to make a late decision on whether the story holds up, reaching an alternate source, etc.

4.Master the art of the weekbook. It can’t be said too often or emphasized too much: the weekbook is the key to excellent and efficient performance. At its basic level, the weekbook is a scheduling device. To take your weekbook to a higher level of value requires the additional ingredient: forethought. Here are several specific practices that can improve your weekbook - as well as your editors’ esteem and your job satisfaction:

  • Build a good mix of stories every week. No one wants to do the same thing day after day. Build concise dailies around news events, meetings, issues. Build in patches (centerpieces) by thinking what will make a good photo story. Build a weekend story every week by giving yourself a couple hours early to midweek to report, a day or three quarters day midweek to late week to write. Build in overnights with a 2 p.m. deadline, freeing up an afternoon for weekend story or enterprise work. Put in a strong daily Monday to anchor the week and a timeless news feature, profile or human interest story later in the week, that can be used on the weekend.
  • News stories break like waves. It’s coming (preview), it breaks (hard news) and recedes (impact, folo, news feature, analysis, preview of next stage). Think of that wave shape. Ride the wave and you’ll get three or more hits off one news event.
  • Add a line called FOLO beneath every budget line in your weekbook. After you’ve finished your story, go back and give yourself leads to follow up: sources not reached, questions unanswered on deadline, possible profiles of people in the news, impact of an event, stories that ask why? And how? instead of just who, what, where and when. Readers’ surveys often indicate that one of the things readers dislike is hit and miss coverage, especially one day wonders. Readers want closure. They want the rest of the story. Use the FOLO line to help fill your next weekbook.
  • Make your weekbook a living document. Go back and change it, add to it, as the week goes along. It only takes a minute. Then re-mine that weekbook in subsequent weeks.
  • If you know you are going to be working on a weekend, start talking to your weekend editor about your story early in the week. There’s nothing more awful than a reporter in panic on Thursday afternoon with no idea what to cover on Saturday or Sunday.

​4. Team up with colleagues. It’s challenging, it’s fun, it’s productive. And it gives readers from various towns some sense of how news cuts across municipal boundaries.

​5. Keep a tickler file, aka a futures file; fill it with clips, letters, notes, pictures, labels and related junk of every variety from which story ideas will emerge. Review it now and then.

​6. Don’t fall into the rut of thinking there are no good stories on your beat. Instead, try to attack same-old stories from different, imaginative angles. Write more stories on how news impacts our towns and people. Write local trend stories. Write community crime trend stories. Write service pieces that inform readers about things they never thought they wanted to know and help readers make decisions. Write local business pieces. Write local environmental stories. Write more people stories, and especially more profiles. People like to read about people. Put a human face on as many stories as you possibly can.

​7. Remember listening posts for increasing the diversity of our sources and scope? Start doing them one day per period, as required. If you can’t do a full day, spend a few hours one day and a few hours another day. Add new sources to your regular news coverage. Add new voices to the mix of sources. The Herald News should never become a city/town hall newspaper!

​8. We can do the short-term investigation. We can do investigations that depend more on human intelligence than massive data analysis. We can reveal sides of life in our coverage area that no one knows. Try to rethink your investigative ambitions. Go for the clean, short, effective strike. Go for the Wow! Factor: the story that makes readers say to themselves, “Wow, I didn’t know that!”

​9. Revisit stories. Many reporters know to keep a futures file. Many know to revisit certain stories on a temporal basis (after one year, five years, 10 years etc.). This best practice adds another revisit category: the revisit to the incomplete story. Sometimes, try as we might, we simply cannot get the full story by deadline time. Typically, an important source is missing or evasive. Or an agency delays an answer. Or a document can’t be obtained. There are many forms of this. We go with what we’ve got. But when there’s a significant hole in the article, we owe it to readers to revisit the story as soon as we can and follow up with a second story or brief. This is especially true when the missing information changes the way we covered the story previously. This best practice speaks to both accuracy and thoroughness- two important parts of getting it right, which is our basic contract with readers.

​10. Morgue. Many of you are checking the digital library for articles going back for years (to 1998) as part of your routine reporting. All of you should be doing this every day. In addition, however, please don’t forget that the library has a paper morgue going back donkey years. It’s a good practice to check this, particularly when articles involve people who don’t show up in the digital. Ask Mauro Margarelli to help you find the files you need.

​11. Eight Ways to Tell a Story. One of the most useful handouts Warren Watson of API left behind is the one put together by the York Daily Record editor about the local kid who won a dance contest. She wrote the same story in eight different ways, from inverted period to Q&A, to photo package, blocks, narrative and beyond. This is a handy document that all should have and refer to. If you don’t have it, see Jonathan for a copy. If you do have it, use it. God did not hand down the inverted pyramid on stone tablets. Many stories can be told better in other ways. Just as no one likes to eat the exact same thing three times a day, readers, too, want variety. You can still present serious news information in entertaining ways. It just takes thought, creativity and effort. The reporter’s job is always to make what she finds relevant interesting for the reader.

  • compiled from Best Practices written by Jonathan Maslow, Herald News, from 2002 to 2004

New story forms

1.Three Narrative Dailies.

Narrative journalism is often associated, in journalists’ minds, with lengthy enterprise projects. But there is no law saying narrative techniques cannot be used in dailies or short form. At the recent Niemann Narrative Conference at Harvard, I jotted down three types of daily stories that we could start doing to tell stories in new, interesting and insightful ways for HN readers. Below, three generic budget lines. Use them in good health, with one caveat: narrative doesn’t mean you can make it up.

TICKTOCK

We take a news event, breaking or second day reporting. Instead of organizing from the most important in the lead to the least important at the end, we reconstruct the event over time. What led up to that explosion? What happened the night that cop was murdered? What did that family do on the day they died in a car crash? Exactly what steps did the mayor take that allowed him to pass a zero increase budget? Or, alternatively, what is the aftermath of a particular news event? What happened minute by minute after the plane crashed? What happened to the freeholder in the days and weeks after he dropped out of third grade?

SECONDDRAFT

Journalism is often called the first draft of history. But the first draft is often abbreviated and cursory, sometimes underreported or skewed, and in some cases, wrong. In this story type, we take a second look at a breaking story, going back to sources for a fuller or better account, taking an unexpected angle or digging out some universal human truth from what at first ran as a brief or rushed deadline piece. The goal is truth, not just facts.

EXPLAINER

Narrative methods focusing on one person can often help readers understand complex, novel or unfamiliar issues and processes better than conventional reporting - which often overlooks the explanatory. Bankruptcy. Identity theft. Outsourcing. Uninsured. Poverty level. Daycare. Drug addiction. Productivity. Deregulation. Bond rating. And on and on. In the explainer, we use one person’s story to give readers insight into a hard-to-get-at topic.

​2. Three types of profiles.

We tend to think of profiles, if we think of them at all, as one thing: stories about people. It took Bill Blundell, former Page One editor at the Wall Street Journal has three types of profiles:

​a. The General Profile: Concentrates on unique qualities of subject, aspects of difference: what makes this person unique, different, outstanding, unusual, unconventional, nontraditional, nonstandard, peculiar, pale and interesting?

​b. The Microcosm Profile: centers on aspects of sameness, universality. In what ways is this person or this person’s story typical, universal, human, like all of us? What part of her or her story can we all connect with?

​c. The News Profile: centers on the subject’s connection to a news event. Also could be called, as the Times does (or used to): Man in the News. Person in the News?

  • Jonathan Maslow, June 2004

The Enterprise project

In our conference call with Cleveland Plain Dealer writer Connie Schultz, she mentioned several methods that helped her narrative series “The Burden of Innocence,” which was the subject of our brown bag writers group. They are excellent practices, not only for narrative journalism, but for any enterprise story.

​1) Write as you go.

Schultz said she always transcribed her notes as soon as possible and kept them in files organized by month as she worked on the series over the course of one year. Any project that involves reporting over time benefits from having well-organized notes from interviews and reporting. It puts the writer ahead of the curve when you get down to the business of writing. This practice can be easily extended to the practice of writing themes, sections, scenes, dialogue, good quotes, etc. as you go. Don’t imagine you can wait until you’re reporting is done, then look back at your notebooks or journal and suddenly pull the white rabbit out of the hat. Doesn’t work like that.

​2) Writing a Map/ outline.

Schultz said that before she started to write, her editor asked for a written map, a term she described as having less onerous associations than outline. The map or outline provides writer and editor with a guide to the story, where it starts, where it goes, what it’s about, where it ends. It makes the writer think. It need not be followed like a contract. Whatever it’s called, this best practice is one of the quintessential building blocks of longer-length writing. Without it, you are, effectively, roaming around blindfolded, hoping to pin the tail on the donkey. With a roadmap or outline, even if rudimentary (many are the outlines noted on the back of a cocktail napkin; Tolstoy outlined Anna Karenina on a railroad train dining car menu (which, however, later fell behind the sofa at his estate Yasnaya Polyana, forcing him to write War & Peace first instead, but that is another story)).you can focus on the material and how to express it accurately, faily and gracefully, not on what to write next.

​3) Rewriting.

Schultz said rewriting was the most painful part– she went through a dozen major drafts. But rewriting is an absolutely necessary practice to achieve successful narratives/enterprise stories. If you are to become a skilled pro writer, you must get past the idea that rewriting means you are doing something wrong. Rewriting is, in fact, doing something right: Improving the story, draft by draft. No story has ever suffered from rewriting. Many suffered from too little rewriting. Just as the map/outline helps the writer through the first draft, the editor’s read and conferencing helps the writer through rewrite. Talk out what needs to be done. Partner. Writers don’t need to accept everything an editor says, like medicine or punishment. Writers do need to defend and articulate something they want to keep. Develop a collaborative rewrite strategy and get to it.

​4) Writing buddies.

Scultz said she chooses another writer in the newsroom she respects to critique her pieces, so that she has an additional sounding board outside the editors-reporter loop. Practically every mature writer does this, asking colleagues or friends to read the work and tell the brutal truth. However, this practice really depends on choosing someone with good judgment, analytical skill and the ability to articulate and criticize> constructively. Anything less is less than helpful.

  • Jonathan Maslow, April 2003

Edit Proof copy

​1. The reporter’s constant focus should be on the question: what is this story about? That helps shape the lede, the angle, the structure, everything. Also, editors should keep reporters focused on this question throughout the day so that the reporter refines and hones the story to present the reader with a tight, concise, well-organized story without holes, digressions or frills.

​2. There’s a natural contradiction between the creative process and critical thinking, between writer or storyteller inside us and the editor or critic inside. The critic suppresses the storyteller and makes it harder for the storyteller to tell the story. That’s why it’s so hard to write a solid lede: every time the storyteller wants to put a thought down, the critic says ,”that stinks,” “that’s not good enough.” So Chip Scanlon talked about “lowering your standards” when you draft your story. I think a better way to say this is to suspend your critical faculties while you are writing your first draft and just get it down using your creative juices. Then switch over to your critical faculties to rewrite, sharpen, trim, etc.

​3. A topic is not a story. You can’t write about AIDS, or mass transit, or affordable housing. Those are topics. A story has to have a beginning, middle and end. It has to have characters. It has to have a plot. It has to have a setting. This is a cogent point. How many times do editors hear from reporters, “I want to write about poverty in Paterson.” “I want to write about the Passaic River.” “I want to write about race relations between latinos and blacks.” How many times do reporters hear from editors: “We should do a story about high property taxes.” Well what about it? Themes are not stories. Think about telling stories. It’s elemental.

​4. Words of wisdom from Don Murray, a legendary writing coach, on organizing and “mapping” the reporting and writing of a story: explore, focus, rehearse, draft, clarify.

​5. Experienced reporters know what is the least amount of reporting they need to do for any given story. Great reporters know there is no limit except deadline for reporting, and that the quality of a story really, truly depends on the reporting, not the writing. If you don’t know as many facts and factoids as you possibly can, the story is going to be thin and pale. Somebody said, “Reporting is taking a beer keg of information and squeezing it into a perfume bottle.

​6. A good way to start the process: reporter and editor brainstorm on reader’s questions. What does the reader need to and want to know about the story. That helps the reporter focuse on question above: What is this story about?

​7. Rick Bragg’s five boxes. NY Times reporter Rick Bragg learned from a mentor that he should organize and write his stories as if he had five empty boxes floating in the air above him: In the first box, he put the lede or grabber. In the second, the nut graf: what’s this story about. In the third box, tell the story. In the fourth, info, context, back story, etc. And in the fifth, the kicker, the ending, something that leaves the reader with emotional meaning.

​8. Jack Hart, enterprise editor at The Oregonian: Don’t confuse anecdotes in anecdotal ledes with scenesetters. Anecdotes are little stories, with their own beginning and end. Scenesetters just get the reader to the right “place.”

​9. Get rid of dependent clauses in your sentences.

​10. To revise, you need to achieve distance. You can’t plunge right into a revision. You have to take a break, do something else for a while, eat something or drink something, divert your attention, go for a walk, something. Everyone finds their own way to get a distance on his/her own work. Whatever cools the engine down then revs it up again.

  • Jonathan Maslow, May 2005

Story conception and execution

From notes taken during Jacqui Banaszynski’s visit to the Herald News on Aug. 14, 2004.

We have to tell people what the news means and what’s its significance. When you get a story assignment, immediately sit down and brainstorm for five minutes. Brainstorm questions, not even to necessarily use in an interview. Anything you think you know, turn it into a question.

Ask yourself:

  • What do you want to know?
  • What are you curious about?
  • Who are the stakeholders in the story?

At the end of the day, do this again so you have ideas for second day stories.

On most stories, you write the first-day story. On the second day, you do a story that’s very wide, takes in all the questions but is not very deep.

Instead, do six or seven deep stories of varying types:

  • Profiles - character-based
  • Issues/trends - ideas, fashion
  • Investigative - records-based
  • Explanatory - a teachable moment
  • Descriptive/voices - use telling details
  • Narratives - scenes & dialogue
  • Visuals - using graphics and boxes to tell the story

Editors want a working nut graf when you pitch a story. Do some preliminary reporting.

Each editor is looking for something different, get to know each of them.

Writing a budget line helps you establish goals. Write your working budget line as questions.

Find a colleague who will read your ledes in progress and to discuss story craft with.

Ledes engage the reader. Don’t misdirect the reader. Lede them with foreshadowing and summarize.

Unlike the AP, don’t frontload a lot of information.

The lede should signal the tone and voice of the story.

Vary the pacing and rhythm and length of your sentences. Long sentences read fast. Then a short sentance halts the reader.