Tag Archives: newswriting

Newswriting in the near future

 

Acceleration, with attention to accuracy, is the characteristic of news writing today.

The speed of the Internet and the World Wide Web in disseminating information has forced editors and journalists to rethink the way they present news and the structure of writing.

Consider this:

  • The Internet and the Web have brought the speed of live broadcasting to the written word. People turn to Web sites, RSS feeds or other devices to get news, and they expect it to be immediate and up-to-date.
  • Twitter (and tweets that show up on Facebook and other social media) has become a chief way in which news is conveyed. But Twitter limits writers to 140 characters for each tweet, not nearly enough to develop even a short story.
  • Journalists are increasingly using Twitter, Facebook, social media and updated blogs rather than the Web site of their news organizations to present their reporting.
  • Mobile devices—cell phones, smart phones, Blackberries and other handheld gadgets—are increasingly popular and convenient to use. With a click, a slide and a glance, you can get your news as you are walking from class to another.
  • These developments are beginning to make the inverted pyramid news story structure—which once seemed ready-made for the Web—look old and slow. Is there a new structure of writing news that will emerge to fit into this fast-paced environment of information dissemination? Will such a structure be adaptable to the environment but also preserve the values of accuracy and verification that are the hallmarks of journalism?

What does all this mean for the future of news writing?

Professional journalists and communication scholars are thinking hard about these questions. What is emerging is a form of writing that no longer adheres strictly to the inverted pyramid structure. The form, which is as yet unnamed, consists of a headline, a summary (if a content management system demands it), a lead paragraph, and bullet points of information that give the reader some quick, up-to-the-minute information about the story. The bullet points stand independently. They are not tied together in a narrative structure. They are usually less than 140 characters long, allowing them to fit into a tweet.

Forms of this kind of journalism are on display most prominently on Web sites such as CNN, which uses the term “highlights” for its bullet points that top each news story. Another term for this kind of reporting is “link journalism,” which is simply covering an event or subject through a series of bullet point statements.

The online environment resembles what we think of the “wild west” where anything goes and any off-the-wall idea might just be crazy enough to work. One such idea was Twitter itself, where people originally thought of it as a way to broadcast (or Webcast) “what are you doing?” Twitter has since changed its call for tweets to “What’s happening,” which reflects the way that people are increasingly using it—as a news and information outlet rather than as a personal diary.

What’s next? And where will it settle? We do not know that, and this is what makes many traditional journalists nervous. It also makes the world very exciting for those who are looking to the future.

Note: A version of this essay will appear in the ninth edition of Writing for the Mass Media, which will be published in the summer of 2014 by Allyn and Bacon.

MC 102 Lecture 4: News and newswriting

News is one of the things that holds society together. It is something we all use and share. News is what we have in common.

Up to this point in the course, we have tried to emphasize and apply some of the basic tenants of good writing and to discuss what it means to write in a professional environment. This week, we begin to learn the various forms of writing for the mass media.

We teach newswriting for print for the following reasons:

  • It is a basic form, the form from which many other types of writing are derived.
  • Much of media writing is newswriting; that includes public relations and advertising copy writing as well as broadcasting and print.
  • We assume that if you can learn to write news in the inverted pyramid form, you can learn to write in any other form that we teach.

Newswriting is an important function for society. The newswriter has the job of telling society about itself. Even if you work for the in-house newsletter of a company or organization, it is important that the employees, customers or constituents know about the company and have the latest information to deal with.

For instance, if the University changed registration procedures or raised tuition rates, you would want to know about it. A news writer would have to tell you.

News values

One of thefirst things you should understand about news is news values. These are the concepts used to determine whether or not an event is news. They include

  • conflict
  • currency
  • impact
  • prominence
  • proximity
  • timeliness
  • human interest

An event is judged as newsworthy or not newsworthy depending on whether or not it exhibits any of these values. An event does not have to have all of these things — although sometimes that happens. And almost everything that is news has to have the news value of timeliness.

Make sure you understand these values thoroughly. Read pages 116-118 in Writing for the Mass Media carefully.

Beyond news values

As an MC102 student, you are probably not going to be asked to judge whether or not an event is news as much as you will be asked to evaluate the information you have for writing a news story. In other words, we will assume that the information in your writing assignments is news. The question then becomes, how do we evaluate that information.

The inverted pyramid form of writing — which we will discuss more below — demands that you make judgments about the information you are given and put it in an order of importance.

How do you do that?

Here is a set of criteria or questions that you should ask about the information you have:

Were people killed or injured in the event? Death and injury are usually the most important parts of an event. When you read or hear stories about the big storm that hit the eastern United States this week (January 2000), notice that many lead off with how many people were killed because of the storm.

Was property damaged? Like death and injury, property is a major consideration, and damage to property should be near the top in importance.

How many people were involved? This is the news value of impact in action. The larger the number of people involved, the more important the information. For instance, a storm may blow through Tuscaloosa, and if your neighborhood (and only your neighborhood) loses its electric power, that’s one thing. If power is lost for 50,000 or 60,000 people, that’s another.
Here’s another example. A city council might take a number of actions, including rezoning a piece of property. That rezoning could affect a number of people who live around the property. If, however, the council voted to raise the sales tax in the city, that would affect just about everyone, and it would be the sales tax — not the rezoning — that would be in the lead paragraph.

How much money is involved in a news event — and whose money is it? A woman might get her purse snatched and lose $20. A bank might get robbed and lose $20,000. The amount of money involved in a story is an important and interesting fact that readers will want to know soon after starting the story.

Are there differing points of view or disagreements in this story? Here we have the news value of conflict. Conflict is often what makes an event news, particularly if it is something like a trial. Look for the conflict in a story and emphasize that.
But use some judgment about how much to emphasize it. The news media are often accused of overemphasizing conflict. That over-emphasis is called sensationalism.

How unusual is the event? Emphasizing the unusual or the bizarre nature of an event is tricky. In this area, too, the news writer needs to take care to avoid sensationalism. When the unusual or bizarre nature of an event is emphasized over other more important aspects of an event, the news writer has not done a good job and deserves to be criticized.
Still the unusual aspects of an event are often of real interest to a reader, and a news writer needs to weigh this in considering facts.

What would be of interest to readers? This follows from our previous question. News writers should remember that they are writing for an audience, and that audience has certain demands and expectations. A news writer must satisfy those demands.

The inverted pyramid

The inverted pyramid is an anti-narrative structure of writing about events. Instead of starting at the beginning, the inverted pyramid structure demands that you begin with the most important information and that you present information in decreasing order of importance.

Some historians argue that the inverted pyramid form developed in the mid-19th century when news was first being transmitted by telegraph wires. The wires were unreliable — or during the Civil War would be taken over by the military — so a style of presentation had to be used that would get the most important information out first. The outcome of a battle might be the most important thing that happened during the battle. But rather than writing a narrative that delayed telling what happened until the very end, the journalist had to say it at the beginning of the report.

Today the inverted pyramid structure is highly developed and widely used, not just in newspapers and wire services but in many kinds of writing. Many business letters, for instance, use an inverted pyramid structure to tell the recipient immediately what the most important information is.

The most important part of an inverted pyramid news story is the lead paragraph. In MC102, a lead paragraph should be one sentence and a maximum of 30 to 35 words. Those are the technical requirements. The content requirement is that it tell the most important piece of information that occurred in the event.

In addition, a lead should contain the main who, what, when and where of the story. And they

  • should be direct and simple; they should have the most important information near the beginning of the sentence;
  • should not try to tell everything, but they should be good summaries of what the story is about;
  • should include specific information — concrete facts — about the story;
  • should not begin with the when element because this is rarely the most important thing you have to tell the reader;
  • should use a strong verb to describe the action;
  • should be accurate — above all else.

The second paragraph

Almost as important as the lead is the second paragraph. The second paragraph is where you develop some idea or piece of information that is in the lead.

You should not drop into a narrative in the second paragraph. Many students concentrate on writing good leads but then have a tendency to start at the beginning in the second paragraph.

Resist that temptation.

Remember that you are presenting information in decreasing order of importance. Each new paragraph should present the reader with some new information. But it should be tied to the previous paragraph by the skillful use of transitions.

Look at the examples in your supplement near the lecture outline for this week. You will see a lead paragraph and then three different second paragraphs. Notice how each one takes an idea from the lead and develops it. None of those paragraphs drops into a narrative about the story.

Those are good example for you to study carefully.