I’m updating some old workshop handouts that I think will be helpful in teaching journalism, maybe in some of my classes, maybe in some of yours. “Make routine stories special” was my most popular workshop about a decade ago, when most of my training focused on traditional writing, reporting and editing skills as well as leadership.
In a meeting of Digital First Media editors in New Haven last year, Tony Adamis of the Daily Freeman in Kingston, N.Y., suggested that some tips in improving coverage of routine news would be helpful, and I promised to dust off this handout and update it. Well, that evening I learned about upcoming upheaval at Digital First Media that would bring the end of my job. So it took me a while to get around to it, but here it is.
What I’ve done here is grab an old copy of my workshop handout from those days, dated April 2003, update it with some newer tips on making routine stories special and add some links. I’ll also update references to the journalists who provided some advice for this workshop when I was doing it originally more than a decade ago and provide links, where I could find them, to the journalists today. Where I could not learn what some journalists are doing today, I have cut them out.
In most cases, I could not find the stories referenced still online, but I’ve linked to stories where I could. I welcome your help in updating this with new stories and links illustrating these techniques as well as new tips for covering routine stories.
After my tips, I’ll tell the anecdote I used to use in the workshops, a story involving the cap I’m wearing in the photo above. So here are my updated tips for making routine stories special:
Move beyond meetings. Most meetings are inherently boring. That’s why the public doesn’t attend them. Unless the action at a meeting is unusually exciting, look beyond the action to the impact on readers. This requires advance planning. Look at the agenda and ask how possible actions might affect readers or how a report at the meeting might reflect something important happening in your community.
Henry Cordes of the Omaha World-Herald advised: “You can do some interviews in advance to put some real people in the story.” Make your story an issue story in which the meeting is the news peg, rather than a meeting story. Henry made a page-one centerpiece of a routine Regents meeting by doing some advance work on minority graduation rates, which were going to be reported at the meeting.
Provide live coverage. While most meeting stories aren’t very interesting to the average reader, the summary-style stories most newspapers write don’t provide enough detail for people with strong interest in the agencies or topics. Since the reporter is already covering the meeting, consider live coverage, which is both more immediate and more in-depth, not limited by newspaper space. And your liveblog becomes a notebook for any stories you would write after the meeting, making your work more valuable, productive, and meaningful for the interested readers.
Look behind meetings. If the meetings you’re assigned to cover are too routine, investigate whether the group is violating open meetings laws by debating or deciding key questions behind closed doors, presenting a routine façade to the public.
Become a storyteller. When a meeting itself is worthy of a story, tell it like a story. Who are the characters? Tell about their backgrounds and motivations. What is the plot? Describe the setting. Set up the conflict. Build to the climax. Follow the resolution. Use dialogue to tell parts of the story.
Find the full story. Ken Fuson of Simpson College, formerly of the Des Moines Register, said, “most newspaper stories are endings.” Dig enough to find and tell the full story. Help the ending make sense by presenting it as the climax or resolution of a full story.
Use story elements. Use story elements to tell other types of routine stories: crimes, parades, festivals, state fairs, first day of school, storms, awards, graduations, sporting events, elections. Elements such as character, setting, plot, conflict, climax and dialogue are present in nearly every assignment. The writer who recognizes and develops these elements turns the routine story into a treat for reader and writer alike. Jack Hart, former managing editor of the Oregonian, says reporters “need to understand basic narrative, including the protagonist-complication-resolution framework and the exposition-rising action-climax-denouement structure. They need to know the difference between summary narrative and dramatic narrative, direct quotes and dialogue, topic construction and scenic construction.” (I’ll do a separate post at some point updating my old workshop handout on using story elements.)
Take detailed notes. You can’t develop the story elements when you sit down to write. You must have them in mind as you are gathering information. Your notebook should include details that allow you to develop a character or describe a setting. At key moments, you should record dialogue in detail, including mannerisms, action, gestures and facial expressions.
Find a fresh approach. Regard the routine story as a challenge to your storytelling ability, not as a task to be rushed through routinely. Fuson once got one of the most mundane, mind-numbing assignments any reporter can face: the year’s first springlike day. He wrote an award-winning story: a single 300-word sentence describing what Iowans do on the first day of spring. Don’t give in to the temptation to tell the routine story routinely. That identifies you as a routine writer.
Find a fresh perspective. Most times, a science fiction convention would run in the local section of the Sunday paper. Daniel P. Finney, formerly of the Omaha World-Herald and now a columnist with the Des Moines Register (good call by the Register; Dan’s a natural columnist), pushed the sci-fi gathering to the World-Herald’s front page by comparing that gathering to the Berkshire Hathaway Corp. annual meeting the week before. “Reporters should give themselves permission to take more chances — try new things,” Finney advised back when I was developing this workshop. “Slip in a pop culture reference. Try using song lyrics. Liven up the writing by giving yourself permission to sound like you.”
Find analogies. The late Rick Tapscott of the Des Moines Register asked, “What does this event, situation, statement remind you of? Does it resemble something with which a reader may be familiar? The governor’s latest tactic with the Legislature is like Tom Osborne’s 1988 battle against Oklahoma, which came down to the last-second trick play.” Finney’s sci-fi story is an example of an analogy that became the basis for the story. And you’d want to use a more current football analogy than Rick did, but he gave me that advice years ago.
Expand your definition of news. Fuson advised that reporters wouldn’t be writing as many routine stories if we concentrated more on writing about affairs of the heart rather than affairs of state.
Personify statistics. Reports containing statistics are a classic “DBI” (dull but important) story. Don’t let them be dull. Graphics are much more effective than prose at communicating statistics. Find a person, family, town or organization that illustrates the findings in the report. Focus on what the figures show, not on the numbers themselves. Census stories lend themselves well to this approach. Use the statistics to describe a mythical “typical” person. Or find a person who embodies that statistically “typical” person
Seek the hidden conflict. Some organizations try to fight their important battles behind the scenes, away from public view. Identify sources who might not be pleased with the apparent tranquility and ask them what the real story is. Ask them where the conflict is hiding. Look around the periphery of the organization and see who is shut out from the power structure.
Watch the people. Nearly every event you cover is important to someone. Focus on the people. Find the person whose story is different from the rest of the crowd’s and tell that person’s story. Carol Napolitano, formerly of the Omaha World-Herald, was working a Saturday shift once and got assigned to a story about a Boys and Girls Club taking a field trip to the state prison. The story could have been loaded with clichés about bad guys doing some good by telling kids not to follow in their footsteps. She watched the people. She found the boy in the group whose father was in the prison. Her story became his story and it moved from routine to powerful.
Find the non-routine view. Many of the events you regard as routine are not routine to someone else. Every crime, fire or accident is a traumatic and memorable event to the victims. Your paper covers the state fair and the first day of school every year so it feels routine to you. But each fair is some exhibitor’s first fair and each first day of school is some teacher’s or student’s first day or the first day of some teacher’s last year. Each annual business meeting is some stockholder’s first (or last) meeting. Find a person for whom this event isn’t routine and use him to make your story fresh.
Search for life stories in the routine story. Every year every high school presents a play, sometimes several. Fuson won the ASNE non-deadline writing award when he was at the Baltimore Sun for telling the human dramas of the lives of the students in a school play. Lisa Pollak, also formerly of the Baltimore Sun, found a wonderful story about real life in an assignment to write about the local winners of an Oreo cookie-stacking contest. At each routine event are people struggling with debt, disease, divorce, death and other burdens. Is the mundane meeting an island of sanity for a worried participant? Does the intersection between routine and chaos or between grief and daily business present a story? Is someone recovering from surgery thankful for the strength to make it to that boring meeting or struggling to sit through it? Is some official missing an important family event for this hearing?
Find the bigger story in a series of routine events. Teacher negotiations are an annual story for most papers. Reporters probably are grateful that most of the talks themselves are held in closed sessions. Carol Pitts, formerly of the Des Moines Register, made a powerful story by gaining access to all the talks for a year, agreeing to an embargo on anything she heard in the negotiations until after a contract was reached. While each meeting itself was routine and potentially boring, the collective story became a fascinating story of conflict, with fully developed characters. She didn’t focus on the incremental progress but on the larger conflict.
Know the background, but don’t get lost in it. Mike Reilly, now executive editor of the Omaha World-Herald, advised: “Check for previous stories on the subject so you know the context and will recognize the news. Clear up your translations of technical language and jargon with sources as early as possible so you can be clear and sparse with the basic facts. You then will have more space in the paper and time on your hands to tell the story in the most effective way possible.”
Seek contradictions. In candidate profiles or newsmaker profiles, look in the character’s background for actions that contradict the current position: Has the candidate now seeking votes failed to even vote in past elections? Is the office holder now seeking re-election taking positions in conflict with his past votes? Does the law-and-order advocate now have a drunk-driving conviction?
Steal ideas. When you read a story that succeeded in making the routine assignment special, ask the reporter how she came up with the idea. You will learn not just from the story and the idea, but from the thought process that led to them.
Look for superlatives. Tapscott noted that superlatives, when accurate, elevate a story above the routine. “Can this event, situation, statement be said to be the first, last, most recent, most aggressive yet; this biggest, most expensive, the final leg in a relay race…?”
Seek out innovation. Many statehouse reporters routinely advance the legislative session with a roundup of the key issues leaders expect to dominate the upcoming session. The Kansas City Times took a different approach one year by examining innovative legislation passed in other states. The paper went against the routine, telling about issues that probably weren’t coming up in the state legislature, but perhaps should be.
Get a jump on your event. You will bring more creativity to the routine story if you start thinking about the challenge before the event. “Work the idea before you go,” suggested the late Kevin McGrath of the Wichita Eagle. “Good stories, and good storytelling, stem from good ideas. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve seen is to look for the basic human element. Ask yourself and your writer: What’s this story really about? A visit by ‘Millionaire’ is about dreams of striking it rich, or grabbing 15 minutes of fame. A Cinco de Mayo story is usually about family and self-identity. One of my team’s writers covered a swim club’s year-end exhibition last year and found a story about transitions in life. He covered a business closing and found a story about a woman who refused to have her dream defeated by failure. This stuff’s all around, every day, in the things we cover. If we target them mentally before we head out, we’re more likely to find a better story once we get there, even if it’s only by virtue of changing the focus or theme at the scene.” One word of caution: Don’t let your advance consideration lock you into a preconceived approach. You still need to gather facts at the event, use your senses there and be ready to follow a path you hadn’t planned.
Watch for the surprise. Every routine assignment holds the possibility of a surprise. Be on the lookout for a statement or action outside the routine that makes for an exciting story.
Live coverage. As I mentioned above, live coverage of a meeting (or trial, sporting event, festival or other routine event) gives timely and detailed coverage to the people who care most about an event. And since you’re going to be there anyway, it doesn’t take any more of your time.
Video. Some stories are told better in the character’s voice. Some stories involve action or emotion that will work well in video. Some sources have videos of important moments. Sometimes a video on social media can enhance your routine story. Consider the the video possibilities, from making your story only or primarily a video story to using a single video accompanying or multiple clips placed right at the points where they make the most sense in the story’s context.
Crowdsourcing. Use social media before a routine event to find the people with unusual stories, to welcome people’s stories of these events in previous years. Your crowdsourcing pleas may not work (what journalistic technique works every time?), but they may connect you with the perfect source for an interview. Or you might get a variety of responses and curating them will become part of your story (or all of the story).
Curation. Follow the hashtag for an event (create one yourself if you’re livetweeting and there’s not an official hashtag). If the social-media discussion of the event is lively, with lots of enthusiasm, snark, photos, videos, etc., you should consider curating it either as a standalone story or a sidebar.
Interactive tools. If the event is celebrating a round-number anniversary, consider using a timeline (Timeline JS is a popular tool) for telling the story of the event or organization. If location is important (an event taking place across the town or state, or the culmination of a story that involved multiple locations, for instance), use a mapping tool such as Google Maps, Mapbox or StoryMap Js. Depending on the type of visual and multimedia you will have, consider storytelling tools such as Thinglink, Creatavist or Immersive.
What are your tips and examples?
I used a lot of examples from the workshops I did 10 years ago. Though I updated my tips with a digital section that was all new and a few digital references throughout, I have not updated with current examples. I’d like your help with that. Do you have fresh examples of routine stories that you made sparkle with digital tools, tried-and-true techniques and/or individual creativity? I’d love to share your stories, and the stories behind the stories, either in comments here or by email — stephenbuttry (at) gmail (dot) com. I’ll add them to the post or possibly use as guest posts linking back to this post.
I’ll start with this routine story that I made special back in the 1990s. I used it in this workshop dozens of times.
Watch for the surprise
When I was a reporter at the Omaha World-Herald in the 1990s, all reporters had to take a turn every few months in the Saturday rotation, being available to cover breaking news (we hoped) or cover whatever routine events were going on Saturday (we feared) for the inside or occasionally the cover of the Saturday local section.
One Saturday when we didn’t have any breaking news, I covered the “Do the Right Thing Youth Rally,” a mundane event where people wore caps that said “Do The Right Thing Youth Rally” (cheap white hats with black lettering, as I’m wearing in the photo above).
Well, the event itself was pretty boring. Community youth leaders and their groups (not a huge number) marched through downtown Omaha wearing their caps, carrying banners and chanting, “Do the Right Thing.” Should have been just a photo with cutlines and a list of the winners.
Some kids were going to be getting awards for doing the right thing, so I talked to some of them, but wasn’t getting good stories from them either. (One that I remember, the kid developed a website for his parents’ community group, but the website wasn’t that special and the kid didn’t have much to say, except that his father kind of made him do it.)
I was coming up with nothing. The speakers were pretty boring, but I supposed I could get a few quotes from their speeches, so I listened with half an ear and took notes while I looked around for a better kid to profile.
This one speaker had a pretty good rhythm going, recounting stories of people in the community who faced tough situations but did the right thing. Maybe one of them might be a good story and might be at the event? As he was running through these stories (all really quickly with no details, so it didn’t look like I could get enough to know which story might be the best), he mentioned a community leader who had been roughed up by the cops for no good reason the night before, but was still committed to doing the right thing.
OK, that got my attention. I’ll tell you the story momentarily, but tell you first why I’m only using the man’s initials here: MW. I Googled him and could not find my story or any reference to this man’s run-in with the police. He was never charged and shouldn’t have been arrested in the first place and the event reflected more poorly on the cops than on him, but I know he was embarrassed by the incident and I don’t want this old story showing up in Google results if people search his name, just because I’m making a point for journalists.
Anyway, I collared the speaker and he told me that MW, a juvenile parole officer and candidate for the State Parole Board, had been beaten up by police the night before. I called MW and his lawyer, got the official police report and talked to some police.
I won’t go into the full story here, but a parole officer on official business, talking to a parolee (outside the neighborhood where he usually works, where police knew him), was told to move his car, then was tear-gassed and hit three times by police seeking to arrest and subdue him because they ignored his explanation of why he needed to stay put. If you want to see the MW story and the rally story (yes, I still had to write about the damn rally), I will email them to you if you email me asking for them: stephenbuttry (at) gmail (dot) com.
But that’s how I got a police brutality story while covering the Do the Right Thing Youth Rally: by listening for the surprise.