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News Values

( Originally Published 1911 )

The newspaper man is compelled, as the price of success in his calling, and often through severe experience, to learn that only that which is true is "news." There is a popular impression that all is grist that comes to the newspaper mill, and that everything brought into the office is published. The fact is that the hardest task of newspaper work is to sift the truth out of the masses of falsehood offered daily. . . . Daily newspaper workers have neither time nor need to fabricate falsehoods for publie deception. Their time and their energies are too fully engaged in trying to winnow out the truth from the ignorant or willful distortions of it with which they have to deal daily. Often the falsehoods are unintentional, and arise from the fact that few people are gifted with ability to tell the exact truth, and nothing else, about what they have seen or heard. But they have also to deal with masses of downright lies, inspired by interest or malice.—From an editorial in the Chicago Inter-Ocean.

The foregoing chapters have dealt with news writing in its general aspects. This and succeeding chapters will be devoted to the more technical phases of the subject.

It is not the purpose here to discuss in detail methods of gathering news, but to tell how to write news. The reporter, when he sits down to his story, is assumed to be in possession of the facts. The problem then is how to put those facts together most effectively. But since news writing presupposes news gathering, a general knowledge of the reporter's work and of what is implied by the terni " news " is essential to a clear understanding of the technical side of the story.


What the eyes are to the body the reporter is to his paper and to the public that reads it. His work is the foundation of modern newspaper making. Editorial comment illuminates the news, make-up and headlines aid in its attractive presentation but after all the story is the main thing. It is for the story that all other features of the newspaper exist.

No matter what branch of newspaper work one may eventually enter, training gained as a reporter will be invaluable. The men who reach executive positions in a newspaper office without having served a reporter's apprenticeship are rare exceptions. Practically all who have attained high rank in journalism began work as gatherers of news. They learned first to see news and to estimate its values.

A reporter may be able to see news without being able to write a good story, but the opposite seldom holds good. Certainly the best news writers are those who have learned, as reporters, what news is. The city editor of a metropolitan newspaper holds his position largely by virtue of his ability to pass quick and accurate judgment on the news value of a story. He has a " nose for news " that enables him to discard the trivial in the grist of the day's happenings for the vital and interesting. It is this ability that the reporter must cultivate by every means in his power.


News has been roughly defined as that which interests people. But that definition is too general. A book or a sermon or a play may interest people, but in themselves they are not news. The fact, however, that a book has been published or a sermon preached or a play produced, is news, if that fact has an element of public interest.

The importance of a story in the eyes of the editor depends on one or more of several considerations — on the property involved, as in a fire or an earthquake; on the number and the prominence of the persons concerned; on the distance of the happening from the place of publication; on the timeliness of the story; on the element of human interest. This list is not exhaustive; local and temporary reasons often have weight in the editor's judgment of a given story. To illustrate, suppose a newspaper is waging a crusade against grade crossings in its city. The story of a grade crossing accident immediately assumes an importance for that news-paper beyond its ordinary news value. Before the crusade was started the story might have been told in a paragraph; now it is allowed to run at length.


Remember, in forming your estimate of the news value of a story, that the newspaper is read by men and women of all classes — by the banker and his stenographer, the day laborer and the college professor. A story is valuable as news in proportion to the number of persons it interests. The account of a great disaster, like the San Francisco earth-quake and fire, appeals to all readers. It is the big news of the day, taking precedence over all other stories in the make-up of the paper. News of an increase in the cost of some necessary article of food is valuable because of the vast number of per-sons it affects. So with the story of a national election, a great labor strike or a declaration of war.

These are the exceptional stories whose importance as news is as obvious to one unskilled in newspaper making as to the trained editor.

But what of the more commonplace happenings of the day? The problem that confronts the editor daily is to make a paper that will appeal to as many readers as possible. The man who asks a news-paper to print, as news, a long dissertation on recent discoveries in Asia Minor mistakes the purpose of daily journalism. Such an article might interest other men engaged in making similar discoveries, but it would be passed over by the vast majority of readers.

Newspapers are often charged with pandering to the sensational. Why, it is asked, do they print the story of a murder on the first page, while general religious news is published in a separate department, if published at all? The shop window of the merchant furnishes the answer : the merchant, like the newspaper, puts his most alluring wares in front. The display in both cases is based on a sound knowledge of human nature. What do people talk about in the evening? On his answer to that question the editor's choice of stories largely depends. Mrs. Jones, talking to Mrs. Smith, tells first about the elopement of a neighbor's daughter.

Not until that is disposed of does she comment on last Sunday's sermon.

Newspapers formerly were made on the assumption that men were the only readers. Now they are made with the tastes of women ever in mind. The evening newspaper, especially, is edited for the women, on the theory that it is taken home in the evening, while the morning newspaper is taken out of the home by the man going to work.

The newspaper is a business enterprise. In or-der to live it must get advertising. To get advertising it must have circulation and to get circulation it must interest its readers. It can not do this by shooting continually over the heads of its readers. But, while the newspaper reflects public taste, it is generally a little better than public taste. Certain classes of news are suppressed and others are care-fully edited. What is done with news on the border line depends on the individual policy of the paper.


While the variety of news is infinite and no hard-and-fast classification can be attempted, news stories may be roughly grouped in three large divisions:

I. The story based on a recent happening of more or less importance in itself, as a fire or a business transaction, told without attempt at embellishment. This may be called the plain news story. It is the primary form of news writing. Clearness and conciseness are its first requisites.

2. The story called by the newspaper man a feature or a human-interest story. Into this class falls practically all news writing— except that set aside in departments — which does not fit in the preceding group. Some writers perhaps would make a distinction between " feature " and " human-interest " as applied to news, but since the terms are often used interchangeably, it has seemed simpler to include them under one head. A feature story, then, adopting this as a general term, is a story based on something odd or unusual, humorous or pathetic. Such a story often depends more on the manner of the telling than on what is told. " Human-interest " narrows the definition to the story that appeals to the emotions by its humor or pathos. Stripped to the bare facts, a human-interest story may be without news value; but told with the keen sympathy that comes of accurate observation and a knowledge of human nature it may have an even greater value, that of giving the reader a clearer insight into the real life about him. Feature stories concerning odd or unusual or grotesque things, such as the man with the longest beard in the world or the boy who builds an airship in his back yard, may be only a few lines in length or they may be developed into page Sunday articles. A study of the magazine and feature pages of any metropolitan daily paper will show the possibilities of this kind of story. Almost any subject may be made into a feature story if the writer has the gift of originality.

3. Department or classified news. Under this head come stories that are grouped by the newspaper in separate departments, as sporting news, market reports and society notes. The extent to which news is classified varies widely with different newspapers. Some include only a few broad departments, while others classify news on many subjects, as schools and colleges, genealogy, women's clubs, etc. When, however, a department story becomes of general interest, it is taken out of its department and placed in the general news columns. This may be done, for example, with the story of a world's championship baseball game or of a sudden break in the stock market.

It must be understood that this grouping is subject to many variations. There is often an overlapping of the three kinds of stories described.

The nature of news, based as it is on the doings of people, makes it impossible for one to put a finger on a story and say : This falls under Section A and is written according to Rule Blank. The classification is suggested only as a guide in the study of news writing.

The interview, one of the most important features of the modern newspaper, is not here listed as a distinct kind of story. It may either form an essential part of a story or be itself a news story of any of the types mentioned.


I. Tell how the following plain news story could be developed into a feature story of a column or more :

BOSTON, Nov. 12.-The third new star to be discovered at the Harvard College Observatory in the last six weeks was announced tonight by Professor Edward C. Pickering. Miss A. J. Gannon of the observatory staff found the star in an examination of old photographic plates taken August io, 1899. It appears in the constellation sagittarius from that date until October, 1901.

II. Concise, well-told story of a humorous incident, used by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as a "filler " on Page i. Note that the story is not clogged with irrelevant police data :

Two burglars enjoyed a laugh, and a saloon keeper's money was saved by the wit of Joe Johnson, a negro porter, early Wednesday. The burglars entered Edward Krenninghaus' saloon at 3948 Easton avenue, and finding the porter asleep in the back room awakened him.

" Where's the boss' money?" asked one of the burglars as he held a revolver to Johnson's head. " Sakes alive," the porter stuttered. " If the boss kept his money here he wouldn't let me sleep in the place." The burglars laughed heartily and departed.

III. The following story —a mother's account of the death of her son — is a fine example of the best type of human-interest story. It was published in the New York Sun (morning), often referred to as the " newspaper man's newspaper " because of the high standard of writing that it maintains. " Study the Sun's style " is the advice given to reporters in many newspaper offices. The story here reproduced is by Frank Ward O'Malley. It was reprinted in the Outlook of November 9, 1907:

Mrs. Catherine Sheehan stood in the darkened parlor of her home at 361 West Fifteenth street late yesterday afternoon, and told her version of the murder of her son Gene, the youthful policeman whom a thug named Billy Morley shot in the forehead, down under the Chatham Square elevated station early yesterday morning. Gene's mother was thankful that her boy hadn't killed Billy Morley before he died, " because," she said, " I can say honestly, even now, that I'd rather have Gene's dead body brought home to me, as it will be tonight, than to have him come to me and say, ' Mother, I had to kill a man this morning.'

" God comfort the poor wretch that killed the boy," the mother went on, because he is more unhappy to-night than we are here. Maybe he was weak-minded through drink. He couldn't have known Gene or he wouldn't have killed him. Did they tell you at the Oak Street Station that the other policemen called Gene Happy Sheehan? Anything they told you about him is true, because no one would lie about him. He was always happy, and he was a fine-looking young man, and he always had to duck his helmet when he walked under the gas fixture in the hall, as he went out the door.

" He was doing dance steps on the floor of the basement, after his dinner yesterday noon, for the girls—his sisters, I mean—and he stopped of a sudden when he saw the clock and picked up his helmet. Out on the street he made pretend to arrest a little boy he knows, who was standing there—to see Gene come out, I suppose—and when the little lad ran away laughing, I called out, ' You couldn't catch Willie, Gene; you're getting fat.'

"'Yes, and old, mammy,' he said, him who is—who was—only twenty-six—' so fat,' he said, 'that I'm getting a new dress coat that'll make you proud when you see me in it, mammy.' And he went over Fifteenth street whistling a tune and slapping his leg with a folded news-paper. And he hasn't come back again.

" But I saw him once after that, thank God, before he was shot. It's strange, isn't it, that I hunted him up on his beat late yesterday afternoon for the first time in my life? I never go around where my children are working or studying—one I sent through college with what I earned at dressmaking, and some other little money I had, and he's now a teacher; and the youngest I have at college now. I don't mean that their father wouldn't send them if he could, but he's an invalid, although he's got a position lately that isn't too hard for him. I got Gene prepared for college, too, but he wanted to go right into an office in Wall street. I got him in there, but it was too quiet and tame for him, Lord have mercy on his soul; and then, two years ago, he wanted to go on the police force, and he went.

"After he went down the street yesterday I found a little book on a chair, a little list of the streets or some-thing, that Gene had forgot. I knew how particular they are about such things, and I didn't want the boy to get in trouble, and so I threw on a shawl and walked over through Chambers street toward the river to find him. He was standing on a corner some place down there near the bridge clapping time with his hands for a little newsy that was dancing; but he stopped clapping, struck, Gene did, when he saw me. He laughed when I handed him the little book and told that was why I'd searched for him, patting me on the shoulder when he laughed—patting me on the shoulder.

" ' It's a bad place for you here, Gene,' I said. ' Then it must be bad for you, too, mammy,' said he; and as he walked to the end of his beat with me — it was dark then—he said, ' They're lots of crooks here, mother, and they know and hate me and they're afraid of me '—proud, he said it —' but maybe they'll get me some night.' He patted me on the back and turned and walked east toward his death. Wasn't it strange that Gene said that?

" You know how he was killed, of course, and how — Now let me talk about it, children, if I want to. I promised you, didn't I, that I wouldn't cry any more or carry on? Well, it was five o'clock this morning when a boy rang the bell here at the house and I looked out the window and said, ' Is Gene dead ? ' ' No, ma'am,' answered the lad, ' but they told me to tell you he was hurt in a fire and is in the hospital.' Jerry, my other boy, had opened the door for the lad and was talking to him while I dressed a bit. And then I walked down stairs and saw Jerry standing silent under the gaslight, and I said again, ` Jerry, is Gene dead ?' And he said ' Yes,' and he went out.

" After a while I went down to the Oak Street Station myself, because I couldn't wait for Jerry to come back. The policemen all stopped talking when I came in, and then one of them told me it was against the rules to show me Gene at that time. But I knew the policeman only thought I'd break down, but I promised him I wouldn't carry on, and he took me into a room to let me see Gene. It was Gene.

" I know today how they killed him. The poor boy that shot him was standing in Chatham Square arguing with another man when Gene told him to move on. When the young man wouldn't, but only answered back, Gene shoved him, and the young man pulled a revolver and shot Gene in the face, and he died before Father Rafferty, of St. James's, got to him. God rest his soul. A lot of policemen heard the shot, and they all came running with their pistols and clubs in their hands. Police-man Laux — I'll never forget his name or any of the others that ran to help Gene—came down the Bowery and ran out into the middle of the square where Gene lay.

" When the man that shot Gene saw the policemen coming, he crouched down and shot at Policeman Laux, but, thank God, he missed him. Then policemen named Harrington and Rourke and Moran and Kehoe chased the man all around the streets there, some heading him off when he tried to run into that street that goes off at an angle — East Broadway, is it?— a big crowd had come out of Chinatown now and was chasing the man, too, until Policemen Rourke and Kehoe got him backed up against a wall. When Policeman Kehoe came up close, the man shot his pistol right at Kehoe and the bullet grazed Kehoe's helmet.

" All the policemen jumped at the man then, and one of them knocked the pistol out of his hand with a blow of a club. They beat him, this Billy Morley, so Jerry says his name is, but they had to because he fought so hard. They told me this evening that it will go hard with the unfortunate murderer, because Jerry says that when a man named Frank O'Hare, who was arrested this evening charged with stealing cloth or something, was being taken into headquarters, he told Detective Gegan that he and a one-armed man who answered to the description of Morley, the young man who killed Gene, had a drink last night in a saloon at Twenty-second street and Avenue A and that when the one-armed man was leaving the saloon he turned and said, ` Boys, I'm going out now to bang a guy with buttons.'

" They haven't brought me Gene's body yet. Coroner Shrady, so my Jerry says, held Billy Morley, the murderer, without letting him get Out on bail, and I suppose that in a case like this they have to do a lot of things before they can let me have the body here. If Gene only hadn't died before Father Rafferty got to him, I'd be happier. He didn't need to make his confession, you know, but it would have been better, wouldn't it? He wasn't bad, and he went to mass on Sunday without being told ; and even in Lent, when we always say the rosary out loud in the dining-room every night, Gene himself said to me the day after Ash Wednesday, ` If you want to say the rosary at noon, mammy, before I go out, instead of at night when I. can't be here, we'll do it.'

" God will see that Gene's happy to-night, won't he, after Gene said that?" the mother asked as she walked out into the hallway with her black-robed daughters grouped behind her.. " I know he will," she said, " and I'll — "

She stopped with an arm resting on the banister to sup-port her. "I — I know I promised you, girls," said Gene's mother, "that I'd try not to cry any more, but I can't help it." And she turned toward the wall and covered her face with her apron.

This story was reprinted in the Outlook, under the title, " The Death of Happy Gene Sheehan," with the following editorial preface:

" The ` stories' of the reporter on a daily paper are written under such trying conditions of hurry and confusion that they seldom have, in the very nature of the case, what is called the ` literary touch.' But occasionally a news writer produces a story which has real qualities of vividness, pathos and power. The following account of the death of Happy Gene Sheehan, which we reprint by special permission from the New York Sun, belongs to this class. On the morning when it appeared, a group of business men, one of whom has related the incident to us, were riding from Peekskill to New York in a commuters' club car. Several games of cards were in progress, and the rest of the passengers were busy with their newspapers or in conversation. Suddenly a clergyman, who had been reading the Sun, rose and asked permission to read a story which he had just finished. He had read only a few lines before the card games were stopped, newspapers were laid down, and every man in the car was giving earnest attention to the reading. It was the story of Happy Sheehan; and the effect which it produced upon such a group of busy men, not easily to be moved by sentiment, and not at all, except to disgust, by sentimentality, was the best compliment which it could have received."

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