Newspaper Writing - Special Types Of Stories
( Originally Published 1911 )
The test of the news value of an event is its element of novelty. Whether news shall be the record of things admirable or things disgraceful practically depends on the community. In the early days of Dodge City, Kan., or Lead-ville, Colo., the information that Cherokee Jake or San Juan Bill had attended church would have been news. But in these communities at the present day the weekly presence of many citizens of equal or greater prominence has no news value. In which city would the rabbi rather live, the one where church attendance has news value, or the one where it has none?From an editorial in the St. Louis Republic, replying to a critic of the daily press.
While every news story, in the nature of the case, presents its own problem, the news writer soon finds that in all the stories on the same basic theme, as those dealing with fires, certain definite points must be covered. It is impossible, of course, to provide a set pattern for any story or group of stories, but a few general instructions will be found to hold good.
In covering an important fire story, in addition to anyspecial news features, get the following facts :
Exact location ; time ; cause; names of owner and occupants of building; losses; insurance.
If possible, see the owner to learn the extent of the damage to the building; otherwise get the fire chief or some other person who can speak with authority to estimate the loss.
If persons were killed or injured, or lives were endangered, get all the details possible. These facts take precedence over all details concerning property loss. Don't forget names and addresses. Among the points to be noted are : Rescues ; exits and fire escapes, or absence of fire escapes; other precautions, or lack of precautions, against crowding and panic ; thrilling, humorous or pathetic incidents; circumstances affecting the work of the firemen, such as a possible failure of the water pressure at a critical time.
In death stories give the following : Full name ; age; time and place of death; cause; account of last illness; funeral arrangements; names of relatives; birthplace; account of business and political life; society and church connections.
Let your story be simple and dignified, in keeping with the theme.
In stories of " big " weddings give the following : Full names of the persons married; their family connections; time and place of wedding; minister officiating; attendants of all kinds; descriptions of gowns of bride and attendants (it isn't necessary to say the bridegroom wore the " conventional black ") ; music ; decorations ; reception ; guests from out of town; presents from organizations and groups of friends; noteworthy presents from individuals ; wedding trip ; when and where the couple will be at home.
In covering a story of murder or suicide, don't stop with the facts that appear on the surface get the motive. When one hears that a friend has killed himself the first natural inquiry is: Why did he do it? It is this question that the city editor urges upon the reporter starting out to cover the story. " Get the motive " is the order, expressed or implied. If the story does not show the motive, it must have other marked elements of interest to receive more than a few lines of space.
It is not within the scope of this book to discuss newspaper ethics and ideals, except in relation to news writing, but attention may be called briefly to that phase of the newspaper's daily problem that has to do with crime news. Whether or not such news is " featured " depends altogether on the news-paper's individual policy; there are no general standards that fit all cases. A story that one paper cuts to a few lines or throws away may be " played up " in another to the extent of a column or more. Any newspaper will give liberal space to a story that vitally concerns the entire nation or community, such as the attempted assassination of a public official. Divergence comes in the treatment of human-interest news. Take for example the story of a shop girl who kills herself because she has been jilted. Here is a story that may be developed for its human-interest features, may be dismissed with a bare statement or may be ignored. The theory is widely accepted that the publication of a suicide story, especially one that goes into detail, may implant the suggestion of suicide in persons of morbid mind, or may lead those who have been thinking of suicide to act. It is largely for this reason that many newspapers give little space to news of this character unless it concerns someone of prominence or contains some unique human-interest feature.
Ordinary, routine suicide stories receive bare mention at the most, and ,then usually in an inconspicuous part of the paper. What shall be done with a story is the editor's problem. The problem of the reporter is to get the facts and present them to the best of his ability. And if a suicide story is to be covered in detail, don't stop with the obvious find out the " why " of it all.
In stories dealing with business transactions, especially court reports, it is particularly important that the reporter get the names right. " Brown and Co." may be the name of one corporation and " the Brown Company " of another. Don't confuse the two.
Don't call a firm bankrupt simply because a petition has been filed asking that it be declared bankrupt. Wait until the case is decided in court.
In general and this cannot be stressed too much remember that the reporter has power to do irreparable harm by a careless or malicious statement. An unwarranted aspersion may work an injury that no subsequent correction can wholly undo. A statement in print is final; it cannot be amended or softened as can the spoken word. It is part of the news writer's plain duty to him-self, his newspaper and the public to choose his words carefully, in order that no misconstruction may be placed upon them. More important still, he should never forget the obligation that rests upon him to say no thing, directly or by implication, that can harm an innocent person.
The second-day story, as the name suggests, relates a development in a story printed the preceding day, of which it is assumed the reader has some knowledge. For example, the story of a death, if deemed of sufficient importance, may be " followed " (as the newspaper vernacular has it) by an evening contemporary. But while the account first published begins by telling the fact of the death, the second-day, or the " follow," story is brought up to date in the lead with some newer facts, probably about the funeral arrangements. News ages quickly in these days of hourly editions, when beats are measured not by days or hours but by minutes. The news writer aims to give the latest possible in-formation about his story, and to give it in such a way that the reader will be impressed with the fact of its newness. An experienced reporter will never write " yesterday " into the lead of his story when there is a chance of making " today " prominent.
The morning newspaper, which sends its city edition to press at 2 to 3 o'clock in the morning, tells of the events of yesterday. It is the breakfast-table paper, setting forth the history of the preceding day. Necessarily the word " yesterday " recurs frequently in its local columns. The reporter must write his story to conform to the date of the paper's issue. Hence, writing for next morning's paper of a fire which occurred at 8 P. M., he fixes the time as " 8 o'clock last night " this form being preferred to " yesterday evening." " Last night," however, is avoided in reference to any-thing that happens after midnight, on the day of publication. In such a case, the reporter, with the conscious purpose of making his news seem as timely as possible, writes " early this morning " or gives the definite time.
An even greater effort to get "today " rather than " yesterday " into news stories is made by the evening paper, because its special field is the news of the day on which it is published. Yesterday is dead; its news has passed into history. Taking up the chronicle where the morning paper has dropped it, the evening paper, in successive editions, records the events of the day. First-page stories in early editions may be ruthlessly cut down or thrown out as more important news develops. It is not enough to tell what has happened already; the newspaper must tell what is happening and what is going to happen. News that appears stale is not wanted. There are so many things of vital interest happening all the time that the newspaper is not concerned with dead events, except as they may have a bearing on the present.
The second-day story, then, if it is worth publishing at all, must have some new feature to bring it up to date. At least it must have the appearance of newness. It is in giving a story this gloss that the tricks of the news writer's trade are called into play. Nowhere does experience count for more than in writing of a day-old event in a manner to convey the impression that the news is being told for the first time. The novice may write vividly of something he has just seen, but the trained news writer excels in the artifice of what the newspaper man calls rewriting.