Crafting and Structuring the News Story in Journalism
Even the most confident of writers can use a few tips here and there. In fact, with the proper advice, you may never face a blank sheet of paper and fear the dreaded writer's block. That is because there are directions for penning a news article that will make the process much easier to engage in and complete. Remember, it is important for the news to be timely, otherwise, you will miss the boat, and someone else will get that scoop. So, in this article we invite you to learn all about the specifics of structuring and crafting a news story. You really are almost there – ready to enter the field of journalism with the proper education and skills that will make you a success! Remember, you are like the tens of thousands of other learners who are looking to break into journalism. You must remember that writing is a skill that will take you years to hone, but like all those before you – you are beginning at the beginning! That is, understanding the basic building blocks of writing leads and the structure of a story.
Figure Out The Lead – It Will Take Your Story in the Right Direction
A lead in news talk is the main point of a story. It's like a hook that captures your reader's attention and makes them want to delve into the rest of the story. It answers the question, "What is the point of this story and what is it about?" A direct news lead is the opening sentence or sentences in a story that give the reader the basic gist of what he or she will learn about in greater detail if her or she continues to read. It is the infamous 5 w's – who, what, where, when, and why. See if you can identify them in the following two news leads.
John Doe stole $5 million from the Bank of Canada on Wednesday, January 7th at 2 p.m. Authorities say he took the money to support a long-time drug habit.
Who – John Doe
What – stole $5 million
Where – from the Bank of Canada
When – Wednesday, January 7th at 2 p.m.
Why – to support a reported drug habit
The head of the Peruvian army, General Pedron, staged a military coup of the government on Friday, September 19th, ousting Madame Sync and placing her entire cabinet under arrest. Pedron is said to have acted in response to a vote of no confidence by the Parliament for Sync's recent series of economic reforms.
Who – Pedron
What – staged a military coup
Where – in Peru
When – Friday, September 19th
Why – after a vote of no confidence for current President Sync due to economic reforms
Do you see how easy it is to create a lead-in to a story that gives the reader the basic information that will be expounded on if he or she continues to read? The journalist should be practicing the development of leads on a regular basis. Whenever you are interviewing, note taking, or even looking for ideas for a story, you should be creating a potential lead in your mind – or on paper. Are you gathering information to write about a series of break-ins at elementary schools in the area? How's this for a lead?
Unknown assailants have illegally entered three grade school buildings in the last week, causing thousands of dollars in vandalism, and stealing electronic equipment.
Who – unknown assailants
What – staged robberies
Where – several elementary buildings
When – in the last week
Why – to cause vandalism and steal electronic equipment
Every story has a lead – as a journalist, it is your job to create it. When you do that, you are also engaged in is the process of organizing and developing your story! Now you try it. Here are the facts – create a lead yourself.
A parent-teacher organization meets monthly. The president of the group has pushed parents to work toward a higher cause – pressing families to become more involved in their children's academics. They have decided to form weekly homework clubs, where they meet at the school, the public library, and other public places to work collaboratively to help support their children's pursuit of academics. The teacher's report there has been a noticeable increase in the children's attendance, and improved grades.
Did you come up with any ideas? How about this:
Chaney Elementary School's PTO has formed a homework club for parents and students who meet weekly in public places to support their children's academic pursuits by collaborating on homework and assignments. Teachers claim there is a noticeable improvement in grades and attendance as a result.
Who – Chaney PTO
What – formed homework clubs
Where – public places
When – weekly
Why – to support their children's academic efforts
The more you practice, the better you will get at writing leads and summarizing the essence of a story into the 5 w's. You can do this while you are standing in line at the grocery store, sitting in traffic, or brushing your teeth! Before you know it – the process will be second nature and you will have mastered one of the most important basic skills of journalism.
Decide How You Want to Structure Your Story
As you prepare to bring your story to life, start by reviewing all of the notes you have taken on the subject. Then think about the ways it can be presented to your audience. Does it make more sense to present the information in a chronological order – explaining events from the beginning to the end? Or does the retelling seem best to fit in an hourglass, inverted pyramid, or narrative format?
The most popular writing format for news writing is called the inverted pyramid. This is arranging the information to appear in a descending order of importance. We will devote the remainder of this article to learning how to organize your information and present it succinctly – or without a lot of flowery language that slows the reader down. That is not to say there is not a time and place for adjectives that set the scene, only that most news stories are straight and to the point, with fancy writing relegated to the annals of fiction!
The first step in writing your news article is to get yourself organized. Start by reviewing the notes you have taken on the subject. Decide what information you think is the most important in the re-telling. Who are your most valuable resources? What is the focal point of the information?
This may be more difficult than it sounds. Consider this example. You have spent several weeks researching a tip that there has been some illegal dumping of toxic waste in a local stream. The person you interviewed expects total anonymity – so you have to find another way to confirm the story. That challenges you to determine who the sources for this story will be. Next, there are several different directions the story can take. Is it more important to uncover the culprits who are doing the illegal dumping – or should the story explain the problems this illegal dumping will cause the immediate community? How about the effect on the environment, short- and long-term? Maybe the story will turn into a series?
Getting organized means deciding the direction of your article, and you can have one or two starts before determining what fits best. Remember to use the 5 w's and this could help you frame the information. Who, what, where, when, and why – are the factors that will frame the story.
Other things to keep in mind? Well, how do you want the article to end; you have to know where you want to end up whenever you set out on a journey, and it is no different in the writing process. You might want to jot down a rudimentary outline to work from. Here is an example for the story on toxic waste dumping:
1. Illegal dumping has been discovered.
2. Unnamed sources refuse to be cited, but have identified the company involved.
3. Environmental experts called to the scene to verify presence of toxic material.
4. Feds are involved – task force formed.
5. Community should avoid using water source.
6. Keep you updated.
Now, this brief list – or outline – explains where you want to go with the story, and what information you want included. This outline can be used to drive more stories on the subject – perhaps focusing on one or two points, such as who is involved in the task force, why the sources refuse to be named, and how long the illegal dumping has been going on. It's up to you, as the journalist, to decide the direction of the story, what its focus will be, and what information is most important.
As the journalist, you should be able to cite the beginning, middle, and end -- and then add the details to fill in the story. There are conflicting opinions about whether or not to include all of the pertinent information early in the article. Some experts believe the writer should hold back some facts till later in the news story, so the reader will complete the article, while others remind the writer that they are not engaged in the art of fiction, and holding back mysterious details is not the stuff of news writing. Here you will have to decide what works best for you, and your writing style. There are simply no right or wrong answers on the issue. Keep in mind that news writing requires short paragraphs that contain a single idea in each. You are not vying for a prize in prose! You are engaged in factual recounting – and informing the public without bogging them down with unnecessary opinions and details. Also, keep all of the information on a subject together; don't jump around.
In other words, strive for clarity in everything you write. Readers will not stick with a story – nor a publisher with a journalist – if they cannot compose their thoughts clearly, and in a straight-forward manner. The reading public has an expectation of the news. Remember, readers do not pick up a newspaper or other form of journalism to be engaged for long periods of time. The entire point of news writing is to be informative and concise.
Now, there are opportunities for news journalists to compose longer pieces – such as for magazines or in-depth collections on a subject. But, as a rule, news is meant to be compact and encapsulated. If you intend to be successful in this industry – it is a skill you will need to master.
Journalism demands that the writer have certain skills. The first of these, as it relates to structuring the story, is to organize the notes you have taken and the research you have done, looking for the direction the story should take. You can do this by outlining the main points of your notes, and shuffle the order until you have decided what the best direction for the article will be. Many times a story can go in several directions – and it is up to the writer to decide where to take it.
Aside from creating an outline, you can identify what you want to be the beginning, middle, and end of the story. This is very important. You have to know where you are going when you start the writing process, otherwise it could become confusing and incoherent. Journalists, more than any other type of writer, must be organized in their thinking and writing. Your readers will turn on you if you are not!
Aside from being organized, the journalist must have the ability to create a lead. This is a skill that you can become adept at with practice. The journalist need only make it a habit to think of things in terms of the 5 w's – who, what, where, when, and why. This is not necessarily the format for all other types of writing – such as fiction, non-fiction, suspense, or children's pieces. But for the journalist, it is essential. This is the skeleton for explaining to your reading audience the essence of your news article and what they will learn more about, if they read it in its entirety.
Finally, your language should be plain; you should only commit one idea to a paragraph; and you should be able to explain yourself in an organized, step-by-step fashion – otherwise you run the risk of losing your readers.
Structuring and Crafting the News Story - Part II
Every journalism school teaches beginning writers three structures for developing their news stories. You have probably read enough news in your life time that you are probably unconsciously aware of these formats, but have not had to put them to professional use just yet. By the time you have completed this section, you should be able to decide which structure you would use to write any type of article you are assigned in your career. The formats we will examine are the inverted pyramid, the narrative, the hourglass, and the chronological order pattern.
The inverted pyramid, as a journalistic style of writing, is said to be traced back to the Civil War in this country. When writers were attempting to telegraph their stories to people that needed to know the status of a battle, it was common for soldiers from the other side to sabotage the telegraph lines by cutting them. In order to ensure that the important news got through, writers got in the habit of putting the most important information first.
Today, the inverted pyramid is the most popular format for writing news stories. In this structure, the information is written in descending order, with the most important points appearing at the top of the article, and the lesser news written in a shorter, downward direction – ending at a fine point in the manner of a pyramid that is turned upside down. In a pyramid, the strongest, widest part is usually at the bottom, serving as a base for the rest of the shape, but in a news story, your strongest point is at the top -- or beginning -- and this forms the basis of the rest of the article.
In other words, you lead with your main ideas, and the remaining paragraphs support and explain them – giving greater detail to the classic "who, what, where, when, and why." It is not only the writer that tends to rely on this structure for framing their article, readers have come to expect it, as well, realizing that the headlines of the story will appear first, and supporting details will be delivered in descending order, with the least valuable or necessary information in the final paragraph or paragraphs.
Now, the writer should know that this does not necessarily make for good writing overall. It is not necessarily the way that other types of writing are done. However, it is the classic journalistic writing style that serves the writer and reader best.
See if you can put the following facts in an inverted pyramid order as practice for using this structure.
There will be a public forum at City Hall on November 1st.
The city is planning on turning all four-way stops into traffic circles.
Many citizens are upset with the idea.
In inverted pyramid form it would read like this:
The city is planning on turning all four-way stops into traffic circles. Many citizens are upset with the idea. There will be a public forum at City Hall on November 1st.
It is possible to state that all of that information is important – but the manner in which it is written makes the most sense and gives the reader the scoop in descending order of importance. To put those sentences in any other order would confuse the reader.
Let's try another one.
Snow removal will occur between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.
It was the heaviest snowfall to hit the city this year.
Schools were closed and many people are snowed into their homes.
Fifteen inches of snow fell between the hours of 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. today.
Fifteen inches of snow fell between the hours of 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. today. It was the heaviest snowfall to hit the city this year. Schools were closed and many people are snowed into their homes. Snow removal will occur between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.
The fact that over a foot of snow fell in a short period of time is the clincher of this story. The interesting thing about news is that even if people are experiencing it – they still like to read about it! It makes them feel that they are part of the story. The rest of the information flows and is presented in descending order – the big news is the amount of snow the area received.
We are going to try one more, and then we will look at other story structures.
The highway is expected to be closed to traffic through the end of the year.
Traffic will be rerouted to allow for construction.
As a result, six miles of the I-95 corridor is going to be rebuilt, starting June 2nd.
The legislature has approved a $3 million expenditure for road construction.
Well, people like to stay informed about road construction andhow the legislature is spending your hard earned tax dollars. So this story has merit. But how to frame it? Try this:
The legislature has approved a $3 million expenditure for road construction. As a result, six miles of the I-95 corridor is going to be rebuilt, starting June 2nd. The highway is expected to be closed to traffic through the end of the year. Traffic will be rerouted for construction.
The story flows. You learn that the legislature is acting, and your highway will undergo construction that will last for months, causing traffic to be rerouted. The necessary information appears in descending order, but the order could be changed, depending on the focus of the story. For example – if you were doing a story that focused on all of the highway construction the area is expected to suffer through in the coming months, then you might lead with the line about I-95and list other roads that were going to be affected. Or, maybe you might want to do a story about the fact that there are a number of roads that will be rerouted and the paths they'll take. But for now, with the information you have – the application of the inverted pyramid fits.
Remember, as a journalist your job is to get the information to the public in the most direct way possible. That is what makes the inverted pyramid so popular. It tells the reader what they want to know as quickly as possible, in the beginning of the news article, and also forces the journalist to identify what is the most important element or elements of a story – in descending order.
In journalism, the first paragraph that contains the most important information is also known as the 'lede' – and that is how it is spelled. It underscores the structure of news writing, using the inverted pyramid format, placing the most important information at the beginning – or lede – paragraph. If you are going to be a journalist, this is a writing style you must master.
Now, let us consider the narrative structure.
A narrative is storytelling. It is recounting an incident with the intent of touching the reader's heart. While it is not hard-hitting news, it is the path of most human interest stories, and quite common in journalism. The narrative takes the form of story or book writing in that it provides a beginning, middle, and end. There is no inverted pyramid to be found in this writing structure, and there is greater license to use flowery language that reaches and influences the reader. A narrative helps the reader create a mental image of the story by describing the main character, or characters, and incorporating dialogue and action. It is not the proper format if you are trying to deliver information. Rather, it is a way to share with readers an experience or event that an individual may have endured – with perhaps a lesson to be learned along the way.
For example, there are many human interest stories on people who have suffered and lived through diseases such as cancer. Human interest stories have been written on the struggles of the underdog – such as a youth who has lived through gang violence, or a mother who returned to school to finish her degree, so she could provide her children with a better life. There are simply no parameters to the human interest story, and people tend to gravitate to them as readers, because they are heartwarming and inspirational. They almost need to be sprinkled into the hard hitting news to prevent readers from turning away altogether; after all, even the hardiest of us can only take so much bad news.
See if you can choose which of the following ideas would make a good narrative.
War in Afghanistan
Supreme Court docket
Child starting lemonade stand to get money for sick sibling
Fire in a deserted warehouse
No doubt, you – the ace journalist – recognize the only one of those ideas that has the potential for a narrative is the child starting a lemonade stand.
As a journalist, one of the first lessons we discussed was gathering ideas for news stories. You should keep a separate section of ideas for human interest stories, and add to it as you go through your career. There are times when you may want, or need, to write something that inspires and uplifts your audience, and, for that matter, yourself. Writing good news is as important to the journalist as writing hard-hitting news.
The hourglass is not as commonly used an organizational style in journalism - reserved for writing longer stories, such as feature articles for a Sunday edition. It begins by asking a broad question, then narrows it down by providing information, such as facts and figures and observations; then the scope of the story broadens again by offering conclusions and then generalizing back to the question. An hourglass structure actually incorporates several journalistic styles at the same time.
The hourglass structure is interesting, because it is actually a mix of styles. First, there is the strong lead in – typical of the inverted pyramid. But then the story turns to a more narrative style, returning to the inverted style at the end. The order follows this framework:
lead – important facts – transition – important facts – conclusion
Like an hourglass it is weighted down on either end, with a narrowing in the middle where the journalist inserts a transition point to the story.
Basics of the hourglass include the following:
Open with a lead that also summarizes where the article is headed.
Develop the story using facts in descending order of importance.
Build in a transition halfway through the article.
Again, continue the second half of the story with facts in descending order of importance.
Draw to a conclusion – that could lead back to the opening.
Use interesting language – as this is a longer article.
The hourglass structure summarizes the news, and then shifts it to narrative form. The top of the hourglass provides the most important information. Then a transitional phrase of some sort is offered – telling the reader that the format is about to change to narrative form, and this part can contain dialogue and details.
As you can tell – the hourglass structure challenges the journalist to have greater command of writing. It requires the journalist to be able to compose hard-hitting news and narratives, and blend them seamlessly for the reader's enjoyment.
Chronological order pattern
This writing structure speaks for itself. To put something in chronological order means to put it in order by the time the events occurred. Words such as first, next, and finally are apropos for this framework. A chronological structure has a place in journalism, but is not as popular as the inverted pyramid. It is common when journalists are explaining the order in which something occurred, such as a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, or other natural weather event – or, if the writer deems the most valuable way to relate the story is as it unfolded. Chronological order can be written in reverse order, as well.
Try this simple exercise: Put the events in order as they occurred.
The fire was extinguished at around 6 a.m.
An explosion rocked the building around 10 p.m. last night.
Firefighters arrived on the scene within minutes.
They battled the blaze for the next eight hours.
To put it in chronological order you would write it this way:
An explosion rocked the building around 10 p.m. last night. Firefighters were on the scene within minutes. They battled the blaze for the next eight hours. The fire was extinguished at around 6 a.m.
This same story could lend itself to an inverted pyramid, with additional facts. We know the what, when, and the where – but perhaps could use additional details to relate the who and the why. There are plenty of readers that might find telling this story via the inverted pyramid would be of more value than in chronological order.
Could you use the same information to write an hourglass structure? Certainly. Again, you would need access to some additional details – perhaps the history of the building, what people in the area experienced, what the cause of the fire could be, if there are similar incidents in the recent or distant past. There is a part of the reading public that would appreciate reading the story from this point of view, as well.
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