Archive for the ‘Workshop handouts’ Category

I’m teaching my Media Writing class about event coverage today. So here are some tips on event coverage:


Before the event, learn what you can about what’s going to happen. A sporting event might have a program or roster with the players’ numbers and names. A public meeting might have an agenda. A conference program will list the speakers. A more informal program will have an organizer who can provide an overview and some background.

But sometimes you need to go beyond the handouts and the organizers. Find some contrarians who can let you know about interesting turns the event might take. (more…)


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This is an updated version of a handout for a reporting workshop I used to present more than a decade ago. I have updated it for my Advanced News Gathering class this semester at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication.

Finding sources

Find new “suspects.” Seek out sources beyond the “usual suspects” on your beat. If you always find yourself talking to white men, find some women and minorities who might bring a different perspective to your stories and steer you toward different ideas. If you find yourself always talking to the professionals and bosses, spend some time talking to the folks in the trenches. If you spend most of your time talking to liberals, seek out some conservatives. If you spend most of your time talking to people your age, seek out some younger or older sources. These people with different perspectives will point you to different stories. Look around the agency you cover for the people or offices that attract the least attention. Spend some time there to see if you’ll hear some different tips. Ask yourself each week whether you made meaningful contact with a new source. If you didn’t, could you have?

Talk to consumers. If you are assigned to a government or commercial entity, make sure that your circle of sources is wider than the officials of that organization. Talk to citizens who deal with that agency or business and use its services or products. If some of these consumers or citizens are organized, you should deal regularly with leaders of those organizations. You also may need to deal with some self-appointed crusaders and gadflies. Make a point of dealing with some average, unaffiliated consumers.

Identify “gatekeepers.” Develop rapport with assistants and other “gatekeepers” who control access to important sources. These people can be important sources themselves. At the least, good relations with them are essential at times to contacting the sources.

Go prospecting. Take time to go “prospecting” for sources and stories. Take a trip or set up an interview with no particular story in mind. Visit a source you haven’t seen for a while or a community or agency you haven’t covered for a while. Go just to familiarize yourself, to take someone to lunch or chat in the office or home a while. Maybe you’ll come back with a terrific story you never would have known enough to pursue. Maybe you’ll come back without a particular story, but with some tips to pursue. Maybe you’ll just come back with a valuable source to contact in future stories. At the least, you’ll gain a greater understanding of your community and your beat. Prospecting almost always yields stories and is always time well spent. You just can’t tell the editor or news director in advance what it’s going to produce.

Learn where records are. Familiarize yourself with the paper and electronic record-keeping practices of the offices you cover. Learn which records are clearly public, which are legally confidential and which might present access disagreements. Learn which records and databases you can access online without asking for them. For records kept by someone at the agency, ask to see them frequently, whether you are using them or not. This lets sources know of your interests. Seeking records in routine stories establishes precedents when you are seeking similar records in sensitive stories. Ask for records in electronic format whenever possible. Learn who has access to the confidential records (not just in the office, but clients or members of the public who might have them).

Find experts. Learn what academic institutions, think tanks or non-profit groups might study or monitor activities in your beat. Develop them as sources, so they will notify you of reports or rumors and they will know who you are when you call for their analysis of issues and events. Learn what attachments, if any, your experts have. Biases don’t render an expert’s research useless, but you must know them and note them.

Develop national sources. Contact national associations, academic experts and government agencies to develop sources with expertise in the subject you cover. They may provide valuable perspective for a local story. Or they may know something happening locally. They may alert you to a national trend. You can search for experts by topic at Profnet and Help a Reporter Out.

Relations with sources

Be available. Let people on your beat know you’re interested in hearing tips, suggestions, complaints, whatever. Make sure they have your cellphone number and e-mail. Make rounds frequently in person and by telephone.

Be honest. Never mislead a source. Be honest about the direction a story is taking. If it’s going to be a “negative” story, don’t bill it as something else. If you’re not going to write a story about a tip, don’t indicate that you will. This doesn’t mean you have to offend or worry sources needlessly. If a source is worried about a negative story, assure him you intend to make the story fair and accurate and that you want to hear his side.

Be annoyingly insistent on accuracy. If someone gives you figures off the top of her head, ask where she got those figures, then check the original source. Call back sources to confirm spellings, figures, chronologies, etc. Ask for reports, documents, business cards, personnel directories, calendars, databases and spreadsheets that can confirm spellings, numbers and other facts. This not only ensures the accuracy of your stories, it wins respect with sources (and good will that you’ll need if an error does slip through). It puts sources on notice that they can’t slip bogus figures past you. And the materials you gather for one story often will be helpful in other stories.

Become an expert. The more you learn about the complicated issues, technology and economics of your beat, the more your sources will respect you, the harder it will be for them to BS you, and the easier it will be for you to spot good stories. Read books, articles, reports. Research online. Ask lots of questions.

Admit you’re not an expert. If you don’t know or understand something, ask. Sources will respect your honesty, and you will learn. Also, if you fake understanding, they will catch on quickly and you will lose credibility. Repeat your understanding back to the source for confirmation.

Show interest. Sources may want to bend your ear about a matter other than what you want to talk about. Listen. You may get a good news tip. Even if the source thinks it’s a story and you don’t, show interest. However boring or annoying a source may be, however uninteresting you find this alleged tip, you don’t know when a little bit of knowledge might be helpful. Even if the information is completely useless, the source will appreciate your interest and may someday tell you something that is important or interesting.

Tell sources of your interests. Tell good sources about stories you’re working on, even the ones that may not involve them directly. You may know that a source isn’t directly involved with an issue, but if you tell him about the stories you’re working on, he may steer you toward other sources who might be helpful, or he may tell you something helpful that he’s heard around the office.

Regard your sources as characters. You’re not going to profile everyone on your beat. But you might profile anyone on your beat someday. So regard them all as characters you must develop fully. Learn about their families, hobbies, backgrounds, favorite sports teams, watering holes. Note their mannerisms. Follow them on social media if they use it (and if they don’t, ask why). Even if you never write that profile, learning these things will bring some tips your way, as the character will tell you about something she heard from her husband or an interesting thing happening in a social group to which she belongs.

Establish a connection. Don’t be afraid to show your human side. If you have children the same age as the source, commiserate about car seats or car pools or car insurance, whatever stage the children are. If he hates your favorite sports team, engage in some good-natured trash talk. If she has an illness in the family, show genuine compassion. Don’t fake a connection or stretch for one, but be alert for genuine ways to make a connection. If you have little in common with the person, connect by showing genuine interest in the character beyond the narrow focus of today’s story.

Share control. Even if a source spends a lot of time with reporters, he probably doesn’t feel completely comfortable facing you and your notebook. Occasionally in an interview, give him some control. Sure, you’re asking the questions, but answer his questions if he asks any. Listen politely as he wanders off the subject occasionally. The source will feel more comfortable answering your questions if the relationship doesn’t feel one-sided.

Take control. Ask your questions directly. If the source ducks a question, ask again. Whatever niceties you engage in to establish rapport, the source should understand that your interest in the relationship is receiving information and understanding.

Track your sources. Use a spreadsheet or program such as Google Contacts or Outlook to keep track of information about your sources. Get their office phone, direct office phone, cellphone, home phone, vacation home phone. Get their e-mail addresses. Record names of secretaries, spouses, children, hometowns, former jobs, alma maters, anything you learn that might later be handy to know.

Ask for documentation. Always ask for documentation of what your sources tell you. You don’t have to do this in a challenging way (unless you’re challenging). Present it as part of your quest for accuracy. Or if the source was uneasy about discussing something for the record, say you can attribute something to a document rather than to him. Documents provide verification. They may provide details that your source can’t recall or did not know. They may lead you to other sources. In addition, they provide precedent. If a source gives you a document when it’s in her interest, it may be difficult for her to claim later that the same sort of document is not a public record.

Know public-records laws. Sources won’t always give you what you want willingly. You should know what records are public and know both the Federal Freedom of Information Act as well as state public-records laws. But use FOIA requests as a last resort. Ask sources to give you records that should be public (or some that shouldn’t). Sometimes a direct request gets you information quickly that can take months if you file an FOIA request. You might be asked to file a request for their records, but get the records quickly in a matter of minutes, hours or days, depending on your request. Always ask informally first, especially if you have good relations with the source. Formal public-records demands are an important reporting tool, but they can be slow.

Addressing and avoiding trouble

Stay on the record. As much as possible, keep your interactions on the record, especially when you’re talking about information your sources know first-hand. Your sources should always understand that this is a business relationship and your business is gathering and reporting information. When you have to go off the record, make sure it is for a good reason. For instance, if a source is telling you something he doesn’t know first-hand, you wouldn’t quote him about that anyway, but the tip may lead you to first-hand sources. If you go off the record, make sure both of you understand the terms: Is the information for publication but not for attribution? If so, try to get agreement on a description of the source that’s as precise as possible. Is the discussion not for publication (if so, make sure the source knows you will try to publish it using other sources)? Before you go off the record in any fashion, tell the source you might try to get her on the record later if she says anything you want to use. And if she does, go back later with just the information or quotes you want to use, and try to get her on the record. I discussed confidential sources more extensively in a 2013 post, and will focus on the topic in a separate class.

Face the music. When you write a story that might make someone angry, show up at her office after the story runs, or call, either to ask directly about the story, to follow up or on some other pretense. Give the person a chance to sound off. If you made mistakes, admit them. If you didn’t, hold your ground but listen respectfully. Many sources (politicians, lawyers, coaches, athletes) are used to respectful adversary relationships and they will respect you and keep working well with you if you show the respect and courage to face the music when you’ve nailed them. This also is a good time for getting news tips. If someone is upset about a negative story, ask about more positive news happening in his territory. If he says the situation in his office isn’t nearly as bad as in another office, ask for details about the other office.

Admit your mistakes. If you make an error (or if your organization makes an error on your turf), admit the mistake, correct it and apologize personally to those affected. People understand that mistakes happen and they respect people who take responsibility. If you weren’t mistaken or if it’s not clear whether you’re mistaken (such as a disagreement over emphasis, rather than a factual error), listen sincerely to the complaint. Even if you disagree, give the source her say and discuss why you told the story the way you did. Consider whether a follow-up story is warranted. If not, suggest a letter to the editor, a comment on the online story or a response in social media. Brief your editor or news director on the disagreement and how you handled it. If the source complains to the editor, you’ll be glad it wasn’t a surprise.

Beware of getting too close. If your relationship with a source moves beyond friendly to friendship, you may need to adjust the relationship. You might need to ask some tough questions that remind him of the nature of your job. You can’t and shouldn’t withdraw from community life. But if you encounter sources at church and in children’s sports and the like, you may need to establish some boundaries. If you’re unsure whether a relationship is getting too cozy, discuss it with an editor. Maybe you should discuss it with the source. The source might feel a little uncomfortable, too, and might appreciate hearing that you can cheer together at your kids’ basketball game Tuesday and still argue Wednesday over news coverage or access to records.

Social media relationships. You should seek appropriate social-media relationships with sources. Follow them on Twitter if they use either personal or agency accounts professionally. Facebook is a little trickier because of language such as “like” and “friend.” If you use your personal Facebook account professionally and your source does, too, it should not be a problem to be “friends,” especially if you are friends with people on different sides of an issue, or different political parties or sports teams. If they have a Facebook page that you have to “like,” you can do that and note in an update on your page that you have done so not because of any particular fondness, but for the professional interest of following news from the page. Of course, if a person’s individual page is public, or usually public, you can just check in occasionally, as you can do with a page if you’d prefer not to “like” it (Facebook will tell some of your friends that you “like” the page, and you might prefer not to do that). It’s always a good idea to discuss your social media relationships with sources with an editor or news director, so you are on the same page.

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This is an update of a workshop handout I developed more than a decade ago. The Omaha World-Herald had a newsroom reorganization in the early 2000s that gave many reporters new beats. I was writing coach there and developed a workshop called “Mastering a New Beat.”

That became “Mastering Your Beat,” a workshop I presented in some other newsrooms and for press associations (I remember it was a full-day workshop for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association in 2003 or 2004.) By 2005, I had developed the workshop into an interactive course for News University called Beat Basics and Beyond (at one point, it was one of their 10 most-used courses; not sure if that’s still true). We updated that in 2011 as Introduction to Reporting: Beat Basics, and it’s still available at News U.

This spring semester, I’m teaching Advanced News Gathering at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication, and I’m structuring much of the course around beat reporting, so here’s an updated version of the original handout:

Mastering your beat

A reporter on a new beat faces two challenges that sometimes compete: Producing right away to gain the attention and respect of readers, sources and editors and taking the time to learn new sources and issues.

These tips may help in addressing these challenges on a new beat, injecting some life into a beat that’s feeling too familiar, improving coverage on a beat where you or your editors want to elevate coverage, or updating your beat coverage to include more digital tools and opportunities:

Plan your beat coverage

Make a plan. If your editors didn’t give you a job description, write your own. If they did give you a job description, perhaps you will need to add some detail. What public and private institutions and organizations fall in your turf? What topics and issues definitely or probably fall in your turf? What topics or issues that lie primarily on someone else’s turf may sneak onto yours occasionally? Which regular meetings or other events will you always cover? Which regular meetings or events will you always monitor and sometimes cover? Which, if any, will you usually ignore? What will be your high priorities? What will be low priorities? (If everything is a high priority, then you haven’t prioritized.) How much of your time will you spend on enterprise? How much on daily news? What are some investigative opportunities? What are some feature possibilities? Discuss your plan with your editor, and discuss any differences in your expectations. The plan should not be a straitjacket. As you learn the beat, you and your editors may need to adjust the plan.

Identify potential conflicts. Where might your turf overlap with other reporters’? Discuss these possible conflicts with the reporters and with editors. By addressing overlap in advance, you can avoid missed stories, bruised feelings and duplication of effort.

Learn the topic and the territory

Debrief your predecessor. Unless your beat is new, ask your predecessor and other reporters who have worked the beat for advice. Ask what stories she intended to do someday but never got around to. Ask about helpful sources or difficult sources. Ask about confusing issues. You’ll want to surpass your predecessor and bring a different approach to the beat, however good she was. You’ll want to develop good relations with the sources she found difficult. But you’ll also want to tap her experience.

Ask lots of dumb questions. You may know a lot about the beat, but you don’t know as much about each piece of it as your sources do or as regular consumers do.

Confess your ignorance. If you don’t know the topic, don’t pretend you do. Ask people to educate you. They will respect your candor, and as you learn, they will respect your knowledge. If you pretend to be an expert before you are, people will know. You will lose respect and have a difficult time gaining it. Mike Reilly of the World-Herald advised: “One of my favorite ways to start a question in an interview is, ‘Pardon my ignorance, but …’ I learned the hard way as a reporter to follow this rule of thumb: ‘Better to humble yourself in the interview than humiliate yourself in print.'”

Learn the geography. Especially if your beat is geographical, you need to understand the lay of the land. If it’s a suburb, drive the rush hour commute and make your way through the cul-de-sacs. If it’s a tough neighborhood, get out of the car and walk it. If it’s a region, drive the main roads and the back roads. Stop and ask questions. Wear out your maps. Visit landmarks. Visit gathering places. Visit major employers and some minor ones. If your beat is topical, geography still may be important. If you’re covering education, visit the schools. If you’re covering crime, ride around with some cops and visit some high-crime areas without cops. If you’re covering social services, visit the institutions.

Learn the jargon. Each beat has its own jargon, acronyms and processes that a new reporter must learn. Read and ask so that you learn the terminology and the processes. But remember that you are writing for readers who may not know the jargon. You have to learn it to understand your sources. But you have to translate into English for your readers.

Be curious. Watch for changes or trends, especially as you’re out on your turf. Construction or going-out-of-business sales may lead to a story. If you see something odd, ask about it. If you see something new, ask about it.

Read exhaustively. Identify local or national websites, social media accounts, email newsletters, list-servs or periodicals that you should read, follow or subscribe to stay current on your beat. Identify and obtain any databases, books or articles that will help you learn the background of an issue, the jargon of the beat or the personalities. Identify and obtain reports that will help you learn about the beat and its issues.

Check the archives. Read your own paper’s archives (and any competing news organizations’ archives) for general background. And check them again every time you’re pursuing an idea. You’ll get valuable background and context. And you can save yourself from “discovering” a story that’s been covered by every reporter who ever had the beat.

Search online. Find and bookmark websites of agencies and organizations, nationally and locally, that relate to your beat. Click around their sites to see which ones have statistics, databases, background information, discussion groups and the like that might be helpful. If they have searchable databases online, search them and learn what is available. Ponder how you would use this data as the basis for a story. Ponder how you would use the data routinely on stories. Visit the websites occasionally to look for story ideas and sources. If you haven’t visited a website recently, it may have changed, so don’t assume a bad site will stay that way. A revamped site or a new service offered online may be worth a story.

Develop files. Create folders (electronic and paper) to store information on the various issues and organizations you will be covering. File away statistics, reports and studies so you can find them quickly on deadline.

Research social media. Identify Facebook pages, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram accounts and other social media accounts of people and organizations on your beat. You’ll add more as you learn about the beat, but start out by searching the main organizations and people on your beat to see which platforms they use and how they use them. An account that hasn’t posted any updates in weeks won’t be very useful, but an account that regularly tweets out news will be an important one to follow and monitor.

Learn the law. Learn the open meetings and open records laws of your jurisdiction. Know which meetings you can attend and which records you can obtain. Learn how the open records law applies to electronic records. Learn who are the custodians of public records. Develop some rapport with them and let them know you are interested in the records and understand the law.

Get to work

Find some stories to work on quickly. You’ll need to spend some time in reading and source development, but you’ll learn faster if you get right into the beat. Come up with a list of possible stories. They will announce your presence on the beat to potential sources and to interested readers and generate tips for more stories. Reilly noted, “I believe getting stories in the paper is the most important way to establish yourself with your main sources. It is how they will best understand you in terms of your interests, your responsiveness, your trustworthiness and the ground rules you and they will play by. Just sipping coffee and chatting with sources can actually create difficulties if you are not careful and sources get used to you not writing about the stuff they tell you.”

Use each story as a chance for long-range learning. The story itself might be a routine daily piece that you normally could crank out in a couple hours with a couple telephone interviews. Take an extra hour or so. Go to a character’s office. Introduce yourself. Ask questions about the history of this issue and of the organization(s) and people involved. Read up on the context. Research the background of the issue. Identify related upcoming events. Identify related issues that might merit in-depth examination. Identify characters who might merit a newsmaker profile.

Write for readers. Your first responsibility, whatever your new beat, is to tell the story to your readers. Identify the people with the strongest interest and with potential interest in the area or topic. Choose stories of interest and importance to those readers. Keep them in mind as you decide the approach to each story and as you consider ways to present your stories and make them useful to readers.

Write for sources. Especially at first, you’ll need to write some stories for sources. Don’t write anything that won’t be interesting or important for readers, but show your sources that you are responsive. Even if you just write a brief from a tip, you tell sources that you value their suggestions. If a tip doesn’t pan out, get back to the source. Tell him what you learned and that you always want to hear tips, even if the source doesn’t have all the facts. You’ll spend some time debunking false rumors, but you’ll also get some valuable tips. If you ignore bad tips, you won’t get good tips.

Check agendas. Check agendas of meetings of agencies you cover. By identifying in advance the issues that will be addressed, you can write stories about the impact of the agency’s action, which usually is more interesting than the meeting itself.

Cover your tail. Your inexperience on the beat will hamper your news judgment at first. So backstop yourself by running story ideas past your editor. Especially tell your editor what you’re deciding not to write about. Your editor might save you from passing on a big story. Or if you do pass on it, you’ll have company in the doghouse.

Connect with sources

Go “prospecting” regularly. Your editors probably will give you some time as you start on the beat to make the rounds of major players and introduce yourself. Your first few stories will introduce you to a few more. Go further. Make at least one “prospecting” call per week. Arrange to visit someone with an office, agency or organization you haven’t contacted yet. Lunch is often productive, but it’s not necessary, and don’t meet at the restaurant. Visit the office, shop or home, so you can learn the geography, picture the layout and meet other people. Prospecting calls don’t involve a particular story you know about in advance, but try to bring back a story, or at least several tips. You will make a valuable contact for the future.

“Prospect” among the public. Don’t limit your prospecting calls, or any of your reporting, to the official sources and institutions of your beat. How do those officials and institutions interact with the public? Talk to consumers, voters, residents, parents, students, victims, etc. If you have a geographic beat, take an occasional drive to a town or neighborhood you haven’t visited lately. When you see something you don’t know about, stop and talk.

Follow up. After a prospecting visit, an interview or a story, touch base with the source again. Thank her for helping you. Ask what else is going on. Ask if she thought of anything else after you left. Follow up in a variety of ways: e-mail, note cards, phone calls, social media, in person.

Diversify your sources. If most of your sources turn out to be similar to you in race, gender and/or age, perhaps you are subconsciously connecting better with people like yourself. Or perhaps the official structures of the institutions reflect some discrimination. Seek out more diverse sources by contacting rank-and-file employees, people served by the agency, community groups that deal with the agency, groups organized by age, gender or race. Ask the minorities you do encounter whether they truly are that rare in the field you’re covering, or whether you’re looking in the wrong places.

Identify “gatekeepers.” Develop rapport with secretaries, press aides and other “gatekeepers” who control access to important sources. These people can be important sources themselves. At the least, good relations with them are essential at times to contacting the primary sources.

Develop national sources. Identify national experts who can provide perspective on issues or who can place local events in their national context.

Correct errors. If you make errors in print, make sure you correct them promptly. Apologize personally. Errors hurt your credibility, but taking responsibility wins respect.

Get lots of contact points. Business phone number isn’t enough. Get a source’s cell number and home number, if you can. Get the direct after-hours number. Learn about social media accounts and how they use them (and how often).

Make digital contact. Give sources your e-mail address and get theirs. Learn which ones prefer to communicate by e-mail and which open their e-mail once every few weeks. Learn who likes to communicate by text message or by private messages on social media. Learn about list-servs or email newsletters in the field you are covering and see if you can join them or subscribe, to learn about news and to stay in touch with issues and sources. If you’re looking for examples of something, consider sending an e-mail to several sources, asking if they have encountered the situation you’re writing about.

Run out of business cards. Leave business cards with everyone you meet who might be a potential source. Collect their business cards and call them back.

Gather lots of directories. If an organization you cover has a print phone directory or employee directory, get a copy. Or if they have a database of employees, get that, either as a onetime spreadsheet or (ideally) get access to an online database that will always be up to date (or nearly so). At each prospecting stop or each interview for a story, ask if you can get the office phone directory, the annual report and other booklets or spreadsheets that might come in handy.

Connect with colleagues

Learn whether reporters on your beat have an association, Facebook group, list-serv or some other way of connecting. You can learn sources, techniques and story ideas from other reporters. Read coverage of your beat by other news organizations. You can connect by phone or e-mail with reporters addressing the same issues. Or you might connect with colleagues through a more general organization or listserv, such as Investigative Reporters and Editors or the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting.

Some reporter organizations:

Association of Food Journalists

Association of Health Care Journalists

Criminal Justice Journalists

Education Writers Association

National Association of Science Writers:

Religion Newswriters Association

Society of American Business Editors and Writers

Society of American Travel Writers

Society of Environmental Journalists


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Few techniques helped me more when I was a reporter than when I learned the value of writing as I reported. It challenged my discipline, but when I succeeded at incorporating writing into my reporting process, I found that it improved both processes.

With today’s digital formats, many journalists have to write as they report: liveblogging events, covering breaking news stories as they unfold, reporting routine beat news or even investigative stories over time as you nail down important developments.

But this was one of my most popular and effective workshops back when I was doing lots of writing and reporting workshops. And I think lots of reporters still cling to the old linear process of reporting first, then writing, when breaking stories don’t force them to write as they report. I think learning the value of writing when you report, even if it’s not a breaking story, will help improve your writing and reporting, as well as helping you succeed in situations where digital formats demand better integration of your different work processes.

So I offer this old workshop handout, not much updated except for this intro, because I think it might still have value.An earlier version of this handout was posted on the No Train, No Gain website. I often paired this, either in the same workshop or in companion workshops, with my teaching about Using Story Elements. The process of writing as I reported and the mentality of thinking in terms of story elements were critical to whatever success I achieved as a reporter.

I addressed both the process and the use of story elements in telling how I wrote the homecoming and twins stories, two of the best narrative efforts of my career. (more…)

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This is an updated writing workshop handout from one of the workshops I first presented in the 1990s, about using story elements. An earlier version of this handout was posted on the No Train, No Gain website. I didn’t add a lot of digital tips to this one, but I updated the reference to my age by more than a decade. The International Center for Journalists has translated this post into Spanish.

I used to like teaching this workshop in combination with Writing as You Report. The combination of my storytelling process and using story elements drove much of whatever success I enjoyed as a reporter.

Think beyond the 5 W’s

Don’t limit your inquiry, or your thinking, to the basic questions of journalism: Who, what, when, where, why, how. Think in terms of story elements: setting, character, plot, conflict, climax, resolution, action, dialogue, theme.

Elements shape reporting

The story elements shape not only your writing but your reporting. For instance, you can answer “who” with a name and some basic details, perhaps age, hometown, occupation: Steve Buttry, 60, an LSU journalism professor. However, if you’re developing a character, you seek and find considerably more: Air Force brat, preacher’s kid, Yankee fan, cancer patient (and survivor), unpublished novelist, father, grandfather, husband, former editor, former reporter, lousy athlete, Eagle Scout, writing coach, itinerant journalist, game creator, wise guy.

“When” may be a place on the map, “where” a point on the calendar or clock. Setting is a place and time where the writer transports the reader. Setting demands description. It evokes the senses. It demands relationship in time and place to surrounding places and to the events that came before and/or after.

Plot is not a set of events, but a series of events, each flowing from the one before and leading to the next.

Conflict demands resolution, or explanation of the pursuit of resolution or the inability to resolve.

Elements shape lead

Story elements may help you write your lead. Which is the most important element for this story? Perhaps that should be the focus of your lead. What is the climax? Perhaps that’s where you should open the story.

Does the intersection of two elements (a character in a setting, the setting of a climax) bring the reader immediately to the point of a story? Then establish both immediately, link them clearly and develop them simultaneously. Is one element secondary to another but still essential? Then introduce the secondary element but keep its development clearly secondary, so you don’t shift or confuse the focus.

Use dialogue, not just quotes

If a quote just gives the reader information, perhaps you should do that in your own words. Use quotes if a character is speaking as a character, telling her own story, giving his opinion, showing emotion, using colorful or distinct language.

Too many journalists confuse quotes with color. Colorful quotes provide color, but quotation marks don’t make information more colorful and don’t turn a dull sentence bright. Paraphrase when you’re giving information or when you can say something better than the person you’re quoting.

Use dialogue, though, to give voice to your characters, to bring a scene alive to your reader.

Video, audio and official transcripts can be effective tools for capturing dialogue and bringing the characters’ actual voices to your stories.

Where recordings or transcripts aren’t available, ask people to reconstruct dialogue for you. “What did you say then? How did she respond?”

Consider non-human characters

Sometimes in a news, feature or issue story, you can make a character of something other than a person. In a medical story, a disease might be the primary character. In a religion story, a church might be a character. When you treat an institution or something intangible or inanimate as a character, you develop it more fully. You are more conscious of the actions of the character, of conflicts with actual people or other institutions or objects.

Consider mythical characters

You can create a mythical “average” character to bring statistics to life. A mythical average person of a certain demographic can allow you to discuss statistics in terms of what is likely to happen, or not happen, in the person’s life.

If you can find someone who is almost or exactly average, you can use the real character to bring life to demographics and statistics.

Gather detail on setting

As you are reporting, you do not know whether setting will be the key element or an important secondary element. So gather information as though it will be. Go to the crime scene or the disaster scene. Interview the character in her environment: home, workplace, school, church, place of leisure or recreation (hopefully more than one).

When you can, a moving interview is effective: start out in the workplace, go out to eat, ride home in the character’s vehicle, ask him to show you the house and the yard.

Video and photos can be important tools for helping place the reader/viewer in the setting.

Learn plot details

If plot may be important, make sure you know the sequence of events. Ask characters to show you who was where when critical events happened. Have them walk you through the events if possible. Seek documentation that may clarify or verify what happened and when and who was present. Watch any videos that may be available.

Look for contradictions and inconsistencies in people’s accounts and see if you can resolve them. They may not mean anyone is lying, but may indicate the different ways people perceived an event, or they may show how confusing it was.

Decide how long your story should be

The success of some news sites specializing in long reads and the phenomenon of binge-video-watching demonstrate that people will stay with a story that’s well told. Decide whether your story justifies binge-watching or reading, and use story elements to hold your readers/viewers’ attention.

But many times, either the nature of the story or your editors’ expectations or limits of print space or broadcast time will require you to work quickly in establishing story elements. You may not have time or space to develop all the elements. After you’ve gathered all this information, identify the most important elements, the most compelling characters, the key moments, the most telling details. You may develop one character fully but have only a few words to establish minor characters.

Watch how quickly a good television commercial establishes a character or setting, or how quickly it resolves a conflict. Read my post on learning narrative techniques from songwriters.

Other writing workshop handouts

Make routine stories special

Strong from the start: advice for writing leads

Getting personal: Learning and telling life’s most intimate stories

Make Your Story Sing:  Learn from songwriters how to tell stories in just a few words

Finding and developing story ideas

Organizing a complex story

Make every word count: Tips for polishing and tightening copy

Grammar matters

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I am leading some workshops for the Southern Regional Press Institute at Savannah State University today. 

I participated in a panel discussion on “Ethics, Urgency and Accuracy” this morning.

Here are some links relating to ethics, urgency and accuracy (I made some of the points you’ll see in these links).

How to verify information from tweets: Check it out

Suggestions for new guiding principles for the journalist

My version of Craig Silverman’s accuracy checklist

The Verification Handbook is now available

I led a morning workshop on using Twitter to cover breaking news. In addition to the links above, this workshop covered information from these workshops:

Denver Post staffers’ #theatershooting coverage demonstrates Twitter breaking news techniques

You don’t tip competitors on Twitter; you beat them

Twitter is an essential reporting tool

Here are my slides for that workshop (I developed them knowing we weren’t likely to cover all the topics. We covered the first three and skipped to verification):

I developed these slides to use in either the panel discussion or the breaking-news workshop. I ended up using them to wrap up the breaking-news workshop:

I also will lead an afternoon workshop on showcasing your work and your skills in a digital portfolio. This workshop is based primarily on this blog post:

Use digital tools to showcase your career and your work

The workshop also will cover points made in some of these posts:

Your digital profile tells people a lot

Randi Shaffer shows a reason to use Twitter: It can help land your first job

Elevate your journalism career

Tips on landing your next job in digital journalism

Job-hunting advice for journalists selling skills in the digital market

Here are my slides for that workshop:

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Journalists learn (or could be learning if we took the time) about new tools almost weekly. As I started writing this Sunday morning, I had already learned about a couple new tools this week: Facebook’s Timeline Movie and Screenr, the screencasting tool I used to record my Facebook Timeline Movie and upload it to YouTube and embed it below.

But some journalism skills are timeless. They were as important when I started my career using a typewriter and fat editing pencils as they are today. And I think they will be important 40 years from now, when today’s journalism students are men and women of middle age, teaching the skills to young journalism students.

I will be leading four workshops today for students at Northern Kentucky University. The first three workshops will deal with issues of digital journalism. For the final workshop, we will deal with timeless skills that should serve them throughout their careers:

Get your facts right

Accuracy will be as fundamental to these students’ careers as it has been to mine. Trust still matters and you build trust by the diligent, unglamorous work of accuracy and verification. As Craig Silverman teaches, a simple checklist helps you ensure the accuracy of your work. (more…)

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Reporters and editors everywhere battle and complain over length of stories. Even online, where newspaper space or tight broadcast schedules aren’t an issue, you need to write tightly to hold the reader’s attention and keep the story moving. You need to hone your ability to organize information and write tight stories that make every word count.

Plan to write tight

Coordinate with your editor. Discuss story ideas in some detail with your editor before you start gathering information. Make sure you agree on the probable scope of the story. This can save time wasted gathering information you don’t need. As you are gathering information and writing the story, you will need at some point to agree on a probable length if you are writing for print. If you delay this discussion too long, you may waste more time and effort and invite more frustration.

Consider the reader. A failing of some long stories is that they are written for sources, rather than for readers. Consider why you are including information in a story. To impress sources with your knowledge? To keep a source happy? Or to inform the reader? A tougher challenge is to decide whether you are writing for the reader with strong interest in the issue or for the reader with average interest. For most stories, you should write primarily for the average reader who would read the story. (more…)

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Grammar matters

Even professional writers have difficulty with some grammar points. Grammar matters in any writing format, including tweets and other social platforms. I won’t try to cover everything here, but I’ll pass along some tricks to help with some of the most common grammar challenges I’ve seen trip up journalists:

Who and whom

A general rule is to use who as the subject of a verb or the person who is doing the action of a verb. Otherwise, use whom. (Same with whoever and whomever). (more…)

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I’ll be leading an #ASNEchat about newsroom training today at 2 p.m. Eastern time, 11 a.m. Pacific.

We’ll discuss a variety of challenges and opportunities in newsroom training during an exciting and volatile time in journalism.

Panelists will be:

Training is a longtime passion of mine. It’s been at least a part-time pursuit since 1997 and it was my full-time job from 2005 to 2008. Many of my blog posts are handouts for my workshops or supplemental resources related to my training. To promote and supplement today’s chat, I have compiled links to my own training resources as well as other links that might be helpful in planning and delivering newsroom training. (more…)

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Readers give you just a few seconds to capture their interest before their eye moves on to the next story, photo or link. On any platform, in any format, you need a crisp lead and a strong focus to keep the reader going.

Keep a sharp focus

To write a strong lead, you need to identify and understand the focus of your story. Using any or all of these techniques before you even start writing can help strengthen your story, especially the critical top few paragraphs:

Ask what the story is about. As you gather information and as you write, ask yourself frequently why a reader would want to read it. Novelist Bruce DeSilva, formerly of the Associated Press, suggests asking these questions as you try to find the story’s focus: Why do you care about this? Why did you want to write this story in the first place? What touches you emotionally? Who is benefiting/being harmed, making money/losing money? How are readers being affected by what you have found? What is new here? When you know what the story is about, you know what you need to tell the reader at the top of the story. (more…)

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Here are resources to help journalists using Twitter and other social media.

For the last few months, as I’ve been visiting Journal Register Co. newsrooms and blogging more tips for journalists using social media, I have been meaning to update my Twitter resources for journalists (now more than a year old). After today’s news that a new Journal Register subsidiary, Digital First Media, will start managing MediaNews Group, I suddenly got messages that I was being followed by lots of MediaNews journalists, particularly from the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

I don’t know yet what my specific role will be in working with MediaNews, but I think it’s safe to say I will remain a leader in social media news for JRC, with likely roles in leading social media use for Digital First and/or MediaNews. So maybe I should introduce myself to my new colleagues with a list of resources for journalists using social media.


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