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Newspaper Writing - The Mechanics Of The Story

( Originally Published 1911 )

The ideal news story, from the standpoint of mechanics, can be cut off at almost any paragraph and yet remain self-explanatory. This is the direct result of telling the facts in the order of their importance and making the story explain itself as it proceeds. The story that fails materially in this respect receives scant courtesy from the city editor. If passed on to the composing room without revision, it might cause trouble in the make-up of the paper should the necessity arise of cutting it down to make room for later and more important news. Properly written, the story can be shortened by taking off paragraphs from the bottom up. Thus the method of writing the body of the story is suited to the mechanical limitations of the paper.

To understand this fully some knowledge of the manner of making up the paper is necessary. One unacquainted with newspaper work may wonder idly now and then how the editors manage each day to get just enough news matter to make the paper " come out even." The reporter learns quickly that a vast deal that is written for the paper never gets into print. Much is cut out of the copy; what survives and is set into type is often still further subjected to pruning. It is the business of the make-up editor, who watches the type set into the forms in the composing room, to see that the big stories are displayed according to schedule in. the most prominent positions in the paper, with the minor news tapering off. On Page 1 he puts the cream of the day's news — the stories that seem most likely to attract the reader — on the same principle that the merchant puts his most attractive wares in his show window. Suppose now that late news is received that makes it necessary to cut down something in type. It is only a few minutes before press time; there is not time to shorten a story by rewriting it. If the story he decides to cut has been constructed strictly according to rule, the editor has only to take off enough from the end to make the space he requires. In actual practice, however, he may be compelled to use considerable ingenuity in making his cuts, taking out a paragraph here, a line there, and possibly writing a new line to hold the remaining parts of the story together in logical sequence.

Resetting of type, a source of delay and expense, is avoided whenever possible. For this reason care should be taken in marking proofs, especially late proofs, not to make unnecessary changes that would require the resetting of several lines. If a word is to be taken out, try to substitute matter to fill the space so that only one new line will need to be set.

It is not necessary that the reporter know the mechanical side of newspaper making in order to write a good story, but a general knowledge of this phase of the work is desirable. It has been truly said that every scrap of information the reporter possesses may at some time be turned to account. This is true also of information regarding the workings of the newspaper, in his own and other departments. Knowing how stories are pruned down in the composing room, he will be less inclined to bury the main facts of his story in the last paragraph.

While the same general principles of news writing apply to all newspapers, the need of making the story explain itself as it proceeds is more pronounced on the evening than on the morning news-paper. The morning paper seldom prints more than three editions and hence there is less occasion for "making over " than on the evening paper with its half dozen or more editions. The story that occupies a column in the first edition of the evening paper may be reduced to a paragraph before the end of the day. Then, too, the greater speed with which the evening paper is turned out makes it imperative that a story be so written that it can be changed with the least possible delay.

Do not get the idea from the foregoing that your story should be a dry-as-dust recital of bare facts. Try to weave your facts together into a coherent story that will hold the reader's attention at every point. The best news story moves with a swing that carries the reader swiftly and easily along from the lead to the conclusion, and leaves him at the end with a definite and clear idea of what he has read. From the standpoint of the reader there is added reason for making the story self-explanatory as it goes. If he does not care to read to the end, the story nevertheless should stand complete in his mind, as far as the essential facts are concerned, at whatever point he leaves off. The novelist's hint that something startling will be disclosed later has no place in the news story.

Certain of the general rules that govern all good writing are applicable in even greater degree to news writing. Be careful not to omit essential words. The omission of the word " not," for example, may reverse the meaning of an entire sentence. The same is true of an omitted or a misplaced comma.

Observe the standard rules of punctuation, with any special rules that may be in force on your paper. Use pronouns guardedly ; it is better to repeat a name than run the risk of ambiguity. For the same reason the words " former " and "latter " are frowned upon by many newspapers. Although needless repetition of ideas should be avoided, don't be afraid to repeat a word if that is the simplest, most direct way of conveying your thought. A dog is a dog; it is absurd to call it a " canine " (and " canine," by the way, should be used only as an adjective), simply to avoid repeating the word.

Put life and vigor into your story. An apt metaphor may express an idea vividly and at the same time save many words. What has been said of the advisability of short, telling sentences in the lead applies also to the body of the story. It is a good general rule to avoid sentences that would fill more than seven lines of type.

In trying to give your story freshness and originality do not go to the extreme of flippancy, especially in writing of a serious subject. Flippancy is not cleverness, though it often passes for such in the writer's own estimation. You will not err in this direction if you make your story fair, Dialect should be used sparingly, if at all, and it should never be used when there is a chance that it will offend a large group of readers.

Remember the injunction to keep yourself out of the story. The experiences of a reporter in getting a story are seldom of any interest outside of the circle of his fellow workers. Let the story speak for itself. Now and then an occasion may arise that would justify the reporter in recounting his adventures, but in any such event he should first consult the city editor.

Unless you are pressed for time, read over your story before you hand it to the city editor and make sure that you have let no errors creep in. Read it, too, after it appears in print and note what changes, if any, have been made. Everyone makes mistakes — but the news writer can't afford to make the same mistake twice.


I. The following account of a disastrous fire illustrates the standard newspaper method of handling a big story. Observe that the climax — the death of twenty-five girls in a fire-trap — comes first. That is the vital fact, beside which all other features are of minor importance. The paragraphs are numbered for reference:

1. NEWARK, N. J., Nov. 26.- Twenty-five girls were burned alive or crushed to death on the pavement in ten minutes this morning in leaping from the windows and fire escapes of the four-story brick factory occupied by paper-box companies at 216 High street, corner of Orange. The fire caught from a blaze which started in some gasoline used in cleaning an electric lamp.

2. Nearly all the victims were young women employés. The latest count to-night showed that sixteen bodies re-covered have been identified and that six girls are still missing. They may be among the unidentified dead or they may be in the ruins. The collapse of a wall late to-night interrupted further search. Forty-nine were taken to hospitals, and two of them may die.

(List of the dead and fatally injured follows, this ac-count having been published in a newspaper in a nearby city.)

3. Among the injured is Joseph E. Sloane, deputy fire chief, who was overtaken by the falling wall and buried in bricks and rubbish. He is badly hurt, but may re-cover.

4. The ambulance from the City Hospital and the patrol wagons from all the precincts were dispatched to the scene. An immense crowd kept the police busy.

5. One of the spectators said that at least fifteen girls had jumped from the fourth floor of the burning structure. With the exception of two girls employed by the AEtna company, all the employés on the first and second floors of the building escaped, either by means of the exits or the one fire escape. The two girls suffered burns about the head and face.

6. Twenty of the injured were taken to St. Michael's Hospital in the ambulance. The salvage automobile took four more. Of these two died after reaching the hospital.

7. Life nets were put into use immediately after the arrival of the firemen. Perhaps thirty lives were saved in this way. One girl, Hattie Delapey, was badly hurt by striking the edge of the net and falling to the pavement. Another girl suffered a broken ankle. Eugene McHugh, a foreman in the employ of the Etna company, guided several scores of girls in his employ to safety down a fire escape. Nearly all escaped injury.

8. Less than twenty minutes after the arrival of the firemen the interior of the building was flame-swept. The floors of the upper part of the building fell shortly afterward. It is believed that a search of the building will re-veal other bodies.

9. Among those who were early at the scene was the Reverend E. F. Quirk, assistant rector of St. Joseph's Church. He gave last rites of the church to seven of the victims. Mr. Quirk said he counted twenty-three prostrate forms on the sidewalk. All were young women who had leaped from the upper windows of the factory.

10. The rush of the flames was so swift and threw such unreasoning terror into the huddled working girls on the top story, that the body of one was found still seated on a charred stool beside the machine at which she had been busy when the first cry of " Fire!" petrified her with fright.

11. Horrible as must have been what went on in the smoke of that crowded upper room, what befell outside in the bright sunlight was yet more horrible. The building was furiously inflammable and the first gush of flames had cut off all possibility of escape by the stairways. The elevator made one trip, but took down no passengers and never came back.

12. The only exit was by two narrow fire escapes, the lower platforms of which were twenty-five feet from the street. On to these overcrowded and steep lanes, scorched dancing hot by the jets from lower windows, pressed for-ward a mob of women, blind with panic, driven by the fire and the others behind them.

13. A net had been spread beneath the windows, and the girls began to jump. " Like rats out of a burning bin," was the way a fireman described that pell-mell de-scent. Some of them were dashed off the fire escape to the pavement sixty feet below. Others stood in the windows outlined against the flames and jumped clear; others from the landings ; still others from the steps where they stood. The air was full of them and they fell everywhere — into the net, on the firemen, and fifteen of them on the stone slabs.

14. When the awful rain of human bodies ceased there were eight dead in the street. Seven more were so badly crushed that they died in hospitals. Fifty are still under surgeons' care.

15. Clouds of smoke and showers of burning embers spread over the city. (Further details follow. The fore-going, with the headlines, fills one column.)

(A laboratory guide to the analysis of the story: Paragraph s.— Note that the essential points are summarized in the opening sentence. There is no attempt to describe the " lurid flames," no philosophizing, but a plain, terse account of what happened — the result of the fire. A brief statement of the cause follows. Often a story of this kind begins coming into the office just before an edition goes to press. If the Story is constructed on the right plan, the lead can be sent to the composing room as a complete story for that edition, while the rest is put into type to be added in succeeding editions.

Paragraph 2.- Further details concerning the loss of life. Observe how the elements of greatest interest, those relating to persons, not things, are kept uppermost. Temporarily the fire itself is ignored ; what the reader wants to know about is the effect of the fire on its victims. So, too, the destruction of the factory, under ordinary conditions worthy of being " played up " in the lead because of the heavy property loss, is passed over as of minor consequence. Detailed information about the victims is properly given early in the story, to answer the questions that first come into the minds of their families and friends.

Paragraph 3.- Here the name of the deputy fire chief, who was hurt while on duty, is singled out for special mention.

Paragraph 4.- Detailed story of the fire begins. The facts here told indicate the magnitude of the disaster.

Paragraphs 5 and 6.- Further human-interest details.

Paragraphs 7 and 8.- note the short sentences. The story moves swiftly from fact to fact. The writer is telling what happened, without commenting on it.

Paragraph 9.— Human-interest feature deemed worthy of a prominent place in the story.

Paragraph 10.— Effective description of the quick spread of the fire by means of incident. At this point the "fine writer " might have lugged in his artillery of adjectives. Note the opposite method—the right news method — of telling specific details.

Paragraph 11.— Continuation of the same method. " The elevator made one trip, but took down no passengers and never came back," is finely descriptive.

Paragraphs 12 and 13.- Swift, vivid description by specific details., The precision with which the story is told, indicating accurate observation, is noteworthy, as in "twenty-five feet from the street," "sixty feet below," "fifteen of them on the stone slabs." The exact figures are obviously far more effective than a vague expression such as " a number of."

Paragraph 14.—Detailed summary. Note that every sentence adds something to the story. There is no padding.

Paragraph 15.— The story continues a column from this point, fact piled on fact in the order of importance. A story written in this manner has been likened to a pyramid. It may be cut from the bottom up at almost any point and yet stand complete.) II. Another kind of fire story, from the New York World, in which the news value is not so obvious as in the foregoing. Here the writer has seized upon the human-interest feature and developed his story accordingly. The fire in itself was of no importance :

Fire visited last night the lodging house conducted by Mrs. Hannah Tracy, 102 years old, and Mrs. Sarah Wrinn, ninety-five years old, at No. 803 Washington street, and now the two aged landladies, who never demanded board money in advance, are in Bellevue and their boarders are minus their care.

Children playing in front of the old-fashioned brick house near the Gansevoort Market saw smoke coming from the basement, where the two women had their living quarters. Little Arthur Weldon of No. 826 Washington street ran to a fire box and gleefully sent in a call. Margaret Havlick and Elizabeth Irving, also of No. 826, skipped across to the store of Joseph White with the news.

White ran to No. 803, broke in the basement door and found that a cat that looked to be at least one hundred years old had upset an oil lamp on a table and that the table cover was burning. He threw the cover to the floor and stamped out the flames. Then he sprang into a rear room and found Mrs. Tracy in bed, feebly calling for help, while Mrs. Wrinn lay on the floor. He carried them out, one at a time.

Though they had not inhaled much smoke their advanced ages led an ambulance surgeon from St. Vincent's Hospital to take them to Bellevue. Neighbors said the women were sisters. Mrs. Tracy's husband kept a dry goods store in Christopher street fifty years ago and when he died left her a little money.

Mrs. Tracy is known in the neighborhood as " Mother " Tracy. Children have made it a point to follow her in the street, for she often distributed cents from her little old-fashioned reticule.

(An exception that proves a rule already stated is found in the second paragraph, which tells how a child turned in the fire alarm. An effective touch of local color is added in the last paragraph. The story is a good example of restraint in writing. No undue effort is made to impress the reader with the underlying pathos, but the facts, simply and concisely told, are allowed to speak for themselves. The headlines on the published story were : " Sisters, 102 and 95, Put in Peril by Cat — Children in Street Give Alarm After Animal Knocks Over Lamp and Starts Fire.")

III. Write a story of 300 to 350 words from the following notes. Do not manufacture any de-tails, but put those here given into the form of a readable news story :

Fire in brick tenement, X93 Adams street, 10 o'clock last night. Damage $2,000, estimated by Assistant Fire Chief Dunn. Cause was'the explosion of lamp on second floor. All the tenants got out safely except Charles Lawrence, 35, a painter, who lived with his wife and three children on the top, fifth, floor. He was asleep in bed when his wife called out that the house was on fire and told him to get out quick. He got out of bed and told her to go along with the kids; said he would come as soon as he got his clothes on. She went with the children and on the stairway met Patrolmen Quinn and Brown. Told them her husband had delayed to dress. The building was filling with smoke and they turned their attention to rescuing those on the lower floors. When the firemen heard that Lawrence was still in the house, they went to his room and found him lying face downward on the floor, unconscious. He had inhaled smoke. He died in an ambulance on the way to the City Hospital. The fire was extinguished in forty-five minutes.

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