News writing for beginners

Image by Hans and Carolyn released under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Image by Hans and Carolyn released under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

This training module was written for a journalism training course in Azerbaijan where those attending had no previous journalism experience or training.

How to construct a news story

A journalist writing a news story is the author, organiser and decision maker. Without them the story may never be told.

They assemble the material they have at hand and which they have researched and uncovered, and then they make the most important decision of all by asking the question – is there a story?

Thousands of possible stories disappear each day because they fail to make it through this first stage of the production process, let’s try to make sure that yours don’t.

If you decide that there is a story, you then need to think through which part or parts of it are of potential interest.

This affects how should you tell the story, what angle you should take and the main points you should try to get across. Perhaps even more importantly, what you can leave out.

There is almost never enough time or space for all your material. Something usually has to go, and it’s as well to start thinking about this sooner rather than later.

Writing a news story is a personal thing

There are as many ways to write a story as there are people prepared to do it. Some will be better than others, some may even be dreadful, but they will all be different.

There is no pro forma or template to replace individual thought and application.

Despite what you may hear about the objectivity of news, you as the writer cannot help being subjective because you are applying your own judgement and values.

The important thing is that your judgement is not just a personal preference. It is guided and based on journalistic principles.

If you are knocked down by a car and break a leg, a limited number of people will be interested – your family and friends, of course, your employer, your insurance company, and just about nobody else. The incident is unlikely to make a news item.

If the president of your country is involved in a road accident, that is front-page news and maybe even the lead item in broadcast news bulletins.

Is a story newsworthy?

The different responses to these two events are a matter of judgement, of news judgement. A range of considerations comes into play every time you have to decide if a story is newsworthy or not. Here are some of them:

The source:

Is it reliable, trustworthy, independent, honest, believable? If you have doubts, can you carry out checks?

The subject:

Does it fit my output? If you are writing for a sports magazine, you will probably not be too interested in finance, crime, science, international trade or health, unless there is a sports angle.

The people:

What interest is there likely to be in what the individuals in the story are doing? If it’s a choice between you and the president, you lose every time.

The audience:

Will this story appeal to many of my readers, viewers, or listeners? There’s not much point in carrying serious financial news in a celebrity-centred popular newspaper.

The surprise:

How unusual is this event or development? Something unexpected is more likely to make the news than a routine happening.

The knowledge:

Is this story new or has it been published before? If so, by whom? Will it have been widely circulated, or will most people be learning about it for the first time?

The timing:

Even if the story is not recent, and the event many years old, it can still be worth running if the information has only just come to light.

The yawn:

Have we just had too many stories on this subject? Let’s look for something else before we lose our audience through boredom?

What next? You have decided to run a story. One of the key stages in preparing it for publication comes next – how do you organise and structure the material?

There are two main models for news writing. One the pyramid, the other involves six honest men.

Pyramid journalism

When you write an essay for a school project or devise a presentation for a business meeting, you assemble all the information, set it out in an orderly manner, link it together as appropriate, and finally present your conclusion.

So, if the subject was “Who was more influential – Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King?” you would set out your arguments and finish with a flourish, “So for these reasons I believe that X was the more influential.”

Similarly, if you were asked to say if your company’s range of products needed expanding, you would examine the current market, likely changes in demand, effectiveness of any competition, and conclude either yes or no.

It is an upside down pyramid, with the point – the conclusion – at the bottom, and all the supporting arguments and information above.

News writing uses exactly the opposite technique.

You start with the essence of the story, for example, “The price of cotton has fallen by 15 per cent” and then add extra information – what impact will it have on producers, the textile industry, the national economy, world markets, consumer prices, employment, poverty; was it unexpected, what is being done about it, is it a short- or long-term change, how are people reacting to the news, and so on.

If I am very interested in this story, I will read every word you write or pay close attention to every word you broadcast.

If, though, I really don’t care much about it, I can stop reading or listening, having established what the story is about by reading the top line.

The structure is a pyramid.

Graphic by David Brewer shared via Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0
Graphic by David Brewer shared via Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0

The nose of the news item is at the top, and then additional information is added according to its relevance and newsworthiness.

At the base of the pyramid, the really avid reader will find background information on the state of the cotton industry; the less interested will have moved on to read something else.

It’s a simple but effective technique and it relies entirely on how well focused you are.

You, the journalist, must decide what the top line is, what comes second, third, and so on, always mindful that you risk losing your audience if you get too bogged down in detail and offer too much of one kind of information (export figures, say) at the expense of other aspects of the story.

The six honest men

The elements that make up a news story were neatly summarised by Rudyard Kipling in one of his “Just So Stories”.

“I have six honest serving men (They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.”

This little rhyme can help you make sure you have the complete story, that you have not missed out anything which ought to have been included.

It’s important to say, though, that any story you write does not have to answer all six of these questions.

There may be times when you deliberately leave out one or more of them. That’s fine, as long as you have made a conscious decision to do so.

So use the six as a checklist. Run through them as a matter of routine to assure yourself that you have not omitted anything by mistake.

  • Who – are the people involved?
  • What – happened?
  • When – did it happen?
  • Where – did it take place?
  • Why – did the event to take place (the cause)?
  • How – did it happen?

Generally speaking, the two most important elements of the six are WHO and WHAT.

News is often about people doing things (or sometimes not doing things) so the who and the what are frequently the most crucial parts of your tale.

How much other detail you include is down to your news judgement and the time and space available to you.

One final point: despite what you may be told by some people, do not try to answer all six questions in your opening sentence or paragraph.

Two reasons – it makes for a cluttered, dense opening and it leaves you with little else to report.

Try this:

“A climate change protester, John Smith, today drove the wrong way down the M6 motorway in Birmingham in a protest against the building of a new runway at Heathrow airport.”

Rudyard Kipling would be proud. All six serving men are accounted for, but it does not make for elegant or interesting writing.

Ration your information. Use it sparingly and to good effect. Try to keep your audience interested.

In this case, the what is more interesting than the identity of the who, so something like this would have more impact:

“A climate change protester caused mayhem today by deliberately driving the wrong way down a motorway.”

There are lots of other ways of writing this story, but however you choose to start, the other details can be incorporated into the next two or three sentences.