News report writing guide

A guide to writing news stories for the independent and alternative media.

Submitted by Steven. on October 13, 2006

The first thing to remember about reporting for a libertarian or anarchist newspaper or magazine is that it is not propaganda.

Western consumers are far too media savvy to put up with preachy, badly written rhetoric. If you want to spread the word (hallelujah) then fine, go down the pub or knock on doors and ask people if they've heard the good news yet. Don't waste time writing it down and sending it to newspapers.

The only thing between us and the mainstream media is that we are out to tell the truth, and they are mostly out to obscure it. Don't waste that basic strength by muddying the waters with excessive comment.

With any publication though, a certain amount of bias is inevitable - that's why we wear our ideology on our sleeve. Media audiences all understand this, and if we wish to make an impact with what we write it must be able to stand up to the scrutiny of cynics and people looking to find fault. That means it must be fact, not opinion.

Have confidence enough to let people make their own conclusions.

With this in mind, here are some basic tips for reporting technique:

There are six questions every journalist should ask about every news story. Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. The most important of these is Why, but find out the other stuff first, as it is the basis for all further questions.

Think about the angle you want to come at it from. For instance, 2 million people are starving in the UK. Possible angles: UK government/society is letting down the elderly, a tragic but unavoidable loss, two million homes may be freed up for young families etc...

Any of these can be made into articles, but it is important to know where you are coming from when you make up your list of questions.

Motive is vitally important when talking about any misdeeds, and given the subject matter, your subject's motives will almost invariably be money and power.

Follow those and read other lefties who have written about it - there often are some - and it will give you an idea of what other questions to ask.

Always get paper, wherever you go. Contact numbers, official documents, stuff lying on the table where it shouldn't be, all of it. The more facts you have that have been written down, the better able you will be to justify the article you've written.

Record conversations, either in written form, or via a tape recorder. Preferably both. The UK has the toughest libel law in the world and if you are trying to get into print in any paper with a circulation in four figures this becomes an all-important factor. I'll be writing about the basics of the law later, but remember the only sure-fire defence against libel is provable truth.

Above all, don't fall into the trap of finding an easy answer which fits into your world view and then writing it up as unassailable fact. Dig, dig and dig some more. You aren't writing this for a wage and you don't have an editor forcing you to get as many stories done as possible.

There is no excuse for laziness in your research (though equally, if you have a deadline for Christ's sake stick to it, there's nothing worse for an editor than slotting in an article to the paper and then being let down).

One of the famous phrases that hover around in even mainstream circles is 'If you're not pissing someone off, you aren't doing it properly'. The other phrase is 'a good journalist has a little literary ability, a plausible manner and ratlike cunning'.

Both make a good point. Don't get put off by someone making an angry denial, that just means either you haven't got your facts straight (so here's their chance to correct you) or you're on to something.

Equally don't go in with all guns blazing looking for a fight, people will always be more likely to talk to you if they think you're on their side.

If possible, always take or find a picture of the event you are reporting on. Pictures sell papers, and not just that, they give readers a much clearer view of what you are talking about. Where you can, have a camera with you at all times, preferably digital (for easier storage, transfer and not insignificantly, so you don't have to get worrying photos developed). Try and get wide angle shots so the sub-editor has more to work with, and a high pixel resolution so it’s big enough to look good on a page.

Court reporting
Do not report on active court proceedings unless you have taken an NCTJ or media law course, or have learned the ropes thoroughly from someone extremely experienced. It can end up putting you, the paper publishing you and their distributors into bankruptcy. You can even end up in jail if you don't know what you're doing.

Writing with structure
Once you have all the relevant information, the structure of the story is very important. Most professionals have a mental checklist:

First paragraph: A very quick summation of the story (less than 3 lines for, including the 'hook' (the most interesting part of the story, the gimmick that makes it newsworthy).
Second paragraph: Explanation of basic facts.
Third paragraph: For preference, a quote from a source who is likely to know what they're talking about (this is to supplement the fact you are a journalist, not an expert in the issue you're reporting on).
Fourth paragraph: More information and introduction of the other side - there always is one.
Fifth paragraph: Quote from the other person.

Subsequent paragraphs can have more quotes or info depending on the story, but always order it in descending level of importance/interest. Editors cut from the bottom up, and people read from the top down.

Depending on the importance of the story it will warrant more or less attention. The current policy of Freedom is to give Features anything from 1,200-1,500 words, Headline articles and leads 600, Page second stories 450, page thirds 300 and Nibs (news in brief) 100-150. However if and when the paper changes to become a tabloid format, these numbers are likely to drop.

Be concise. If a story can be adequately explained in 50 words, then do so. A good exercise is looking at news articles in the papers and working out how you could sum them up in ten words.

Sad but true, most people rank their interest in the news as follows: 10,000 dead on another continent = 1,000 dead on the same continent = 100 dead in your country = 10 dead in your county = 1 celebrity eating grubs in a jungle. We can probably disregard the last bit, as it's far better covered by the mainstream press but the rest is still, unfortunately, relevant. The more local it is, the more interested people will be.

People in general expect a certain style of writing from newspapers.

This doesn't mean writing in stereotypes and clichés, it means not using long words when short ones will do (that's not a patronising attitude, it's just polite, I absolutely hate it when I have to translate from 'clever' to layman's terms - why say 'endeavour' when you can say 'try'?).

More specifically, your writing style and tone should be aimed squarely at the market you are trying to capture. Freedom currently aims at people used to reading lengthier, more informative pieces, but has been looking to shorten at least some of its articles to accommodate a wider audience (hence the nibs section for example on page 2).

To get an idea of the audience you want to try for, read the mainstream press. They're arseholes, but they've been refining their techniques, with a great deal of thought, money and effort, for 150 years. The UK press know how to get a point across better than anyone else on the planet. We are up against a massively well-oiled media machine, which cannot be dismissed. They have all the funds, all the manpower, the backing of every major business and every governmental source. Don't, whatever you do, dismiss them as a load of crap.

This is all dependent on you personally having the confidence to research and write about subjects you are interested in. The Freedom collective is made up of only four or five regulars working every other Sunday, and we have full-time jobs.

As has been sharply demonstrated by the crisis at Black Flag and the lack of interested faces at the Book fair's editorial meeting last year, anarchism's alternative media is in desperate need of more help, or it simply will not survive.

Taken from the Freedom newspaper 'Welcome Pack'