Newspaper Writing - The Correspondent
( Originally Published 1911 )
Too often the complaint against the newspaper is that it is sensation-seeking and has a predilection for scandal and unsavory gossip. Men and women, including some of eminent rank in their own professions, although having only a slight knowledge of the making of a newspaper, have a habit of saying in their ignorance that newspapers give preference to crime, divorce and scandal. It is even added that it is impossible to get wholesome news into a newspaper.
This opinion is wrong. It not only does injustice to most newspapers, but, in a measure, it offers insult to the readers of those newspapers. As a general thing newspapers give preference to only one thing— news. But news is news only when it relates to something of present interest in an interesting way.— From an editorial in the Washington (D. C.) Times.
In addition to getting the service of one of the big news gathering organizations, such as the Associated Press, and maintaining correspondents in the leading cities of the country, the metropolitan newspaper receives a vast amount of material from special correspondents in the cities and towns in its immediate territory. By immediate territory is meant those states in which the mail edition of the paper has its greatest circulation. Chicago papers, for example, circulate not only in Illinois, but reach into Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan and parts of Missouri, Ohio and Minnesota. St. Louis and Kansas City papers have a broad field in the South-west. The newspaper's function is to give all the important news of the nation and the world, and to give besides the special news of that section of the country which it serves. It is to the end that news within this territory may be covered, or covered more fully than it would be by a national news gathering organization, that the paper maintains a corps of special correspondents.
A special correspondent is in effect an out-of-town reporter for the paper he represents, working under the direction of the telegraph editor just as the local reporter works under the city editor. The only difference is that he is not in as close touch with his chief as the local man. Though now and then he may get a definite assignment by wire, he works largely on his own initiative. This is added reason why he should cultivate a " nose for news " and the art of writing news. A mistake made by wire is usually harder to correct than a mistake made in the office. Time is lost and unnecessary expense incurred if the correspondent sends in a slipshod story about which the office has to ask questions.
The correspondent is as much an agent of the paper as the local reporter. He is responsible for all the news in a given territory, and if wide-awake and efficient he can do much toward increasing the prestige of his paper in his community.
WRITING FOR THE WIRE
The general rules that govern all news writing apply with equal or greater force to the telegraph story. So far from taking an unworthy advantage of his comparative freedom from supervision, the correspondent should feel perhaps even more keenly than the local reporter the news writer's obligation to be absolutely fair and accurate. It goes without saying that he should be concise, because the newspaper pays for every word that he sends over the wire. On the other hand he should never sacrifice clearness to save a few words. Few newspapers want their dispatches skeletonized — boiled down, that is, by the omission of such words as " the " and " of." If the 'dispatch is skeletonized intelligently, the editor in the office can easily supply the missing words, but most newspapers consider that any saving effected in this way is more than offset by the loss of time in editing the story. Unless a news-paper specifically states that it wants its news in skeleton form, the correspondent should put it on the wire exactly as he would like to see it in print.
In estimating the value of his story to the paper he serves, the correspondent should never let his personal interest in the doings of his own community bias his judgment. A story that is worth a column of space in his local paper may be of no value whatever to a paper published 100 miles away. In " sizing up " a story let the correspondent imagine himself a stranger, in the community for the first time. What would be of interest to him? What, in other words, is of more than purely local concern? Not the fact, surely, that a new sidewalk is being laid on Elm street. That is a matter in which the residents on Elm street, Smithville, may be vitally interested, but it has no news value out-side of Smithville. The correspondent who makes a newspaper pay tolls on trivial items is certain to get a peremptory order to stop sending, and if he is not an authorized correspondent, the telegraph tolls may be charged back to him.
No newspaper worthy of the name will knowingly print fake stories. If for no other reason than self-interest, the correspondent should hew close to the narrow line of truth, for the faker cannot hope long to escape detection and dismissal.
Neither should the correspondent try to win favor by inserting in his stories " puffs " of persons to whom he feels indebted for information. The writer who seeks to use the columns of a newspaper for personal ends is unfaithful to the trust reposed in him as the newspaper's agent. Newspapers are in the business of buying and selling news. They want the facts that are news — and the facts only.
SOME PITFALLS TO BE AVOIDED
" Remember," the Chicago Record-Herald tells its correspondents in a pamphlet of instructions, " that while news is always truth, the truth is not always news." Essentially the same warning is given by other newspapers. While it applies partly to matters of trivial importance, it is intended chiefly to put the correspondent on his guard against stories that are forbidden by good taste or decency. When a gossipy individual approaches a correspondent and whispers that he has something " that will make good reading," the chances are he will tell something that no reputable newspaper would print. The writer should beware of malicious gossip and unfounded rumors. Things that are merely rumored are not news. No newspaper cares to give space to libelous matter and no newspaper that is edited on right principles will intentionally print anything that will injure the reputation of an innocent person.
The Record-Herald thus states some of the pit-falls that are to be avoided :
" If John Smith leaves town and Mrs. Jones pre-cedes or follows him, thereby causing local scandal-mongers to intimate that they have eloped, don't send it; the chances are that the gossip is false, and in no way can a correspondent do more irreparable damage.
" If John Smith has been financially hard up and suddenly disappears, suffering, perhaps, severe mental strain, don't send a dispatch that he is an absconder or an embezzler. He may be neither.
" Or if John Smith be removed from some position of trust, and his employer has seen fit to put experts at work on his books, don't jump to the conclusion that John is a defaulter, and don't send a dispatch that he is under suspicion. Facts, not suspicions, are news.
" Be careful never to confound the name of the plaintiff for that of the defendant, or vice versa; nor the name of a person making an arrest for that of the person arrested; nor the name of a lawyer for that of the client whom he is defending — in short, remember that it is reprehensible, if not actually libelous, to accuse any person of anything that some other person stands accused of.
" Never draw conclusions adverse to conduct or character; never comment upon the facts. Let the facts themselves tell the whole story.
" Carefully scrutinize and consider any court news affecting business standings or business transactions. Ex parte statements filed in court are al-ways one-sided, sometimes malicious, and may be libelous. Not infrequently such statements are filed in the hope that they will find their way into print and thus damage the credit or reputation of the per-son assailed. The fact that such a statement or petition has been filed does not necessarily justify publication.
" Be wary at all times of stories affecting the pro-fessional repute of doctors, lawyers, preachers and members of other professions largely dependent upon the esteem in which they are held.
" Shun, whenever it is possible, all stories affecting the characters of women."
WHAT NOT TO SEND
Here are some of the things that most newspapers include in their lists of what not to send
I. Trivial accidents, such as the breaking of an arm or leg by machinery, unless the person hurt is of wide prominence.
2. Insignificant robberies or burglaries.
3. Murders in which the persons concerned are obscure or in which there is no element of mystery.
4. Unmentionable offenses, breach of promise, abandonment and similar cases. If, however, the circumstances are very unusual, send the facts guardedly, but only the facts that can be verified through judicial proceedings. " Such stories," the Chicago Tribune adds, " should be handled with extreme care. Where lynching or attempts to lynch follow assaults, that fact should be bulletined immediately."
5. Daily accounts of trials, murder or otherwise, unless specifically ordered.
6. Puffs of individuals, hotels, etc., or any other form of free advertising. No press agent stories are wanted.
7. Obituaries of obscure persons.
8. Marriages, unless the persons are prominent, in which case notice should be sent in advance by mail.
9. Ordinary damage suits.
Io. Storm news, unless there is loss of life or great property damage.
11. Condition of crops, except in case of rain, frost or drought at critical times.
12. Ordinary business transactions.
13. Meetings of secret societies, except state or national meetings.
14. Accounts of county fairs or picnics, unless ordered.
15. Abstracts of sermons, unless they contain some striking news feature.
16. Reports of celebrations, unless persons of state or national prominence attend, or of the general observance of Christmas, New Year's or the Fourth of July.
17. Stories of freaks or monstrosities, such as three-legged chickens.
18. School commencements, meetings of teachers' institutes, medical societies, farmers' alliances and the like, in which the interest is purely local.
19. Interviews with " a well-known citizen," " a prominent official " or any other anonymous individual.
20. Theatrical notices, unless they contain some real news feature.
21. Political speeches or gossip, unless ordered.
22. Fatal accidents to trainmen or obscure per-sons, except where there are two or more fatalities.
This list, while not exhaustive, gives a general idea of what is to be avoided. No set of rules could be drawn up to cover every case with which the correspondent has to deal. To equip himself to give the best service he should not only learn the general principles of news writing, but should study the columns of the newspaper he represents to find out its particular needs. He should remember, too, that no rule is iron-clad. A story falling under any head of the foregoing classification may possess some extraordinary feature that will make it worth printing. In that case the correspondent should be careful to build his story around the unusual part.
Most newspapers rely on a news gathering organization for stories of railroad wrecks, big fires, floods and the like. The correspondent should never duplicate a story of this kind that he knows will reach the newspaper through another channel in time for publication. If, however, an event is of unusually grave importance, or if it happens at a late hour, the chances are that a special dispatch will be required, and the correspondent should send a bulletin of the facts immediately. Alertness in fur-.
nishing bulletins of important news is always appreciated. The correspondent should never under any circumstances duplicate a story to two newspapers in the same city.
WHAT TO SEND
A careful reading of a list of " Don'ts " will give the correspondent a fair idea of what the newspaper does want. In addition he should remember that nearly every newspaper has a hobby — a fondness for a certain class of news of which it makes a specialty. This hobby may be the gathering of news that will help along the cause of good roads, or statistics of Fourth of July accidents, or sporting news; whatever it is, the correspondent can make it a source of profit.
The Cincinnati Enquirer, for example, is particularly insistent that its correspondents keep it in-formed regarding sporting events. The Chicago Tribune includes in its book of instructions a list of " Tribune Specialties." These are :
Cigaret stories, legal, legislative, deaths, insanity, etc.
Animal stories — by mail.
Unique hunting and fishing stories by mail.
Interesting personalities about men and women in the public eye — by mail.
Stories of romance — by mail.
Short human-interest stories, things that will bring smiles or tears to men and women everywhere, are always in demand. It is a perverted notion that all newspapers are eager to get so-called scandal news. The " cleaner " the story, the more likely it is to be printed.
For a newspaper published, say, in Chicago, events involving residents of Chicago have a special value beyond their ordinary worth as news. In such cases street addresses should always be sent.
Advance notices should be sent by mail of wed-dings of prominent persons, of coming elections and political conventions of all parties, and of all meetings in which there is more than local interest. If predictions as to the outcome of an election are desired, go to the political leaders; the personal opinions of the correspondent are not wanted.
Stories of important business transactions and movements in the industrial world are nearly always acceptable.
If the newspaper you represent uses illustrations, don't overlook an opportunity to get good pictures. Photographs illustrating important news stories should be mailed at the earliest possible moment. Use special delivery stamps and wire the newspaper that you have mailed a package which will reach the city at a certain time.
Special instructions regarding sporting matter are given by many newspapers. Note the following : Never take sides in controversies.
Send pictures of the winners of important sporting events.
In sending summaries of trotting meetings, always observe the newspaper's style.
Do not send accounts of prize fights between men of only local reputation, except in case of death or severe injury. Send to the sporting editor by mail advance notice of all important contests, and if possible send photographs of the fighters in advance.
Be absolutely sure of your facts before stating that a record has been broken.
Never say that a contest is for the championship of a city, county or state, or any other championship, when such is not the case.
Watch for general news features. For example, if a spectator is killed at a baseball game, say so at once. Never bury facts of general interest under a story that will interest only those who read the sporting page.
Be prompt. The sporting page as a rule goes to press early, and stories are often left out, especially on Saturday nights, because they reach the office too Iate. File stories of Saturday afternoon events as soon as possible.
HOW TO SEND
The correspondent sends his story in one of three ways — by telegraph, mail or long-distance telephone.
Practically all news of immediate interest is sent by telegraph. Assume that you are the correspondent of a morning newspaper and at 5 o'clock in the afternoon have a story of a fire and panic in a theater, in which five persons were killed and twelve injured. You have plenty of time to send what the newspaper calls a query — a brief dispatch setting forth the salient facts of the story. Nearly all newspapers require their correspondents to file queries on early news.
An acceptable query in this case would be:
" Theater fire and panic ; five dead ; twelve injured ; five hundred." This means that you are prepared to furnish 500 words on the story. It is unnecessary to say, " Do you want the news? " or " How much? " The dispatch in itself is a question.
Get your story into shape to put on the wire without delay if it is ordered. If it is not wanted, no reply to the query will be received.
Assume that the story is ordered in this dispatch : " Rush three hundred fifty theater fire." That means that the correspondent is to keep his story within 350 words. The fact that a newspaper does not order a story or orders less than the correspondent offers does not necessarily imply that his news judgment is questioned. Stories that ordinarily would be used may be crowded out by a rush of news of greater importance. One story like that of the San Francisco earthquake and fire will cause the omission or rigid condensation of news that usually would be " featured." Sometimes the correspondent's story is not ordered because the facts are covered in the reports of a news gathering organization as fully as the newspaper desires.
After the date line at the beginning of your story write the time of filing, thus : " Centralia, Mo., June 6.- Filed 6:3o p. M." This will enable the newspaper to fix the blame if the dispatch is delayed. In sending more than one story make each a separate dispatch, with date line and signature.
For morning newspapers file all day news as early as possible, but instruct the telegraph operator not to send until 6 P. M., when the night press rate, which is cheaper than the day rate, goes into effect. Promptness is essential. News matter received after 11 P. M. is likely to be thrown away unless of great importance.
Never write a " blind" query, such as " prominent citizen killed" or " horrible accident." State plainly and specifically what your news is. It is especially important that the correspondent observe this rule in sending late news of comparatively small happenings. Much can be compressed into a hundred words. If it is too late to order more, your dispatch — in this case a compressed news story rather than a query — can be treated as complete in itself.
HANDLING THE BIG STORY
The rules that apply to the sending of the early story may be waived when the correspondent has late news of big, vital importance. The main thing then is to get the story into the office, and get it there as quickly as he can. The Cincinnati Enquirer says: " Never postpone sending in a good piece of news. Get it to us somehow, no matter at what hour the event may occur. Remember that a few words of an item tonight are worth more than a column of the same to-morrow night." That is a good rule for the correspondent. Do not delay sending news in the hope that it will be al-lowed greater space if you hold it a day.
Assume that you have the story of a railroad wreck in which a dozen passengers were killed. You are sure the story will be wanted. It is io o'clock at night. There is not time to query and get instructions. As soon as possible send a brief bulletin, telling what the news is and about how many words you will have. Then begin to send the story at once. Don't wait until you have completed the story before handing it to the telegraph operator. Give him the lead and write the story as he works. Send the big facts first, then the details. Write simply and naturally, without padding.
If you cannot get to a telegraph wire, do not hesitate to use the long-distance telephone. Have your facts well in mind so that you can tell them without an expensive waste of time. A big story may be rushed into type for the city edition of a morning newspaper as late as 2:30 o'clock or even later. News that is important enough to warrant " making over " the first page or the issuance of an extra edition is available up to 4 or 5 o'clock.
Evening newspapers, as a rule, are essentially local in character, and hence use less special telegraph matter than those published in the morning. But a big story is a big story at any hour of the day or night, and if it develops in time for day publication the correspondent of an evening newspaper should use every effort to get it in. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch says : " In the early hours of the morning— say up to 10 or 11 o'clock —a brief bulletin on any important news item will be sufficient; if the telegraph editors want more they will notify you by wire. But after that hour the Post-Dispatch would rather have too much of a good thing than not enough. Remember that the Home Edition — the principal edition of the Post-Dispatch—is practically closed to its correspondents at noon. If anything BIG happens in your locality about that time, rush it to the Post-Dispatch without any preliminary notification. Do not hesitate to ` take a chance' at any time if you believe you have something that the Post-Dispatch would like to know about."
SENDING BY MAIL
Feature stories, which are as interesting at one time as another, obviously should be sent by mail. To what extent the correspondent should use the mails for matter of more immediate interest depends somewhat on the instructions he receives from his office. As a rule, early news matter for a morning newspaper should be sent by mail if the correspondent is sure his letter will reach the office by Io o'clock at night. If news of great importance is mailed, wire the office to that effect, telling what train your letter is on. Most newspapers furnish special envelopes to their correspondents for use in mailing stories. Don't hesitate to use a special delivery stamp in mailing important news. It is often possible for the correspondent to send news in advance by mail, to be held until a dispatch is received from him releasing the story for publication. A speech or a report of which the correspondent has an advance copy may be handled in this way to save telegraph tolls and time.
For the evening paper, stories of the late after-noon or night may be sent by mail when the correspondent is certain they will reach the office early in the morning. But an important story, which depends for its interest on immediate publication, should never be entrusted to the mails when there is any likelihood that it will not be received on time. In brief, the correspondent should strive to get all worth-while news for the paper he serves and get it to his office first.
Below are some general instructions that hold good for the correspondent of any newspaper, in any territory :
I. Don't send more than ordered.
2. Keep the local telegraph office informed of your address and telephone number, so that messages may be delivered to you at any time.
3. Get a substitute to do your work when you are temporarily absent from town. Have him sign dispatches with your name to avoid confusion in accounts.
4. Make it a point to keep on friendly terms with the telegraph operators. They can often be of great service.
5. Write your dispatches plainly.
6. If possible, use the typewriter in preparing stories to be mailed.
7. Never send letters or photographs by express. The express companies deliver only during the day.
8. Study the style of the newspaper you represent by comparing your stories as sent with the stories as printed.
9. Spell out round numbers in dispatches.
10. When an extract from a speech or a document is sent by wire, indicate the beginning of the quoted matter with the word " quote " and the end with the words " end quote."
11. Incur any legitimate expense in getting important news and photographs. If possible, however, query the office and get instructions before doing so.
The correspondent is paid on the basis of matter used. Rates vary, but the average is $5 a column, usually estimated at I,500 words. Extra payment is allowed for exclusive news. A few newspapers require correspondents to send in at the end of each month a "string of their published stories, but the majority keep an account with each correspondent by means of credit tabs showing the date of each story, the name of the sender and the number of words.