How to write a basic news story and not confuse everyone

Week three and four of my game journalism mentorship is all about putting some of what we’ve learned to use. So Andrea was assigned a story, put together some questions, did an interview and then we sat down to discuss angles and the basics of news story structure in this video.

I’ll write up some of what I went over in the video, below the embed.

The Inverted Pyramid

The ancient Mesopotamians built pyramids for their gods, the Egyptians built them for their god-kings and journalists build inverted pyramids for their readers.

😀

The idea of the inverted pyramid was born out of the need to make stories easy to quickly cut. Laying out a paper on deadline, an editor or layout artist could simply cut from the bottom up to fit a story into a particular space. The inverted pyramid format ensured nothing important would be lost.

Fortunately, websites don’t have the same constraints as print, but our readers are still as impatient, as easily distracted, as unwilling at times to read to the end. So we still follow the inverted pyramid structure.

How’s it work? Simple. A story needs to be constructed with the most important information at top, followed by details for the story, followed by general information and background. Think of it as digging down into a story.

The whole thing should be topped with a “summary lede,” which is another way of saying, essentially, a conclusion.

Ex:

Linda Boreman, who starred as Linda Lovelace in the 1972 pornographic film Deep Throat, died Monday from injuries she suffered in a Douglas County car crash earlier this month.

Boreman, 53, was injured April 3 near Highlands Ranch and taken to Denver Health Medical Center. She was taken off life support and died about 3 p.m. Monday, said her daughter, Lindsay Marchiano.

“I want her to be remembered not as L.L., but as Linda Boreman, as herself,” she said.

The April 3 crash happened about 10 a.m. when Boreman’s Kia Sportage veered off the right side of eastbound C-470 between South University Boulevard and South Quebec Street. Her Kia hit a mile-marker post, then spun and rolled twice, throwing Boreman from the vehicle. She was not wearing a seat belt.

Colorado State Patrol investigators have not determined what caused the crash, but do not suspect alcohol or drugs were involved.

(This is just the top half of the story)

Further listening: http://www.columbiamissourian.com/stories/2011/05/20/dear-reader-introducing-world-premier-inverted-pyramid-song/

Further reading: http://www.poynter.org/how-tos/newsgathering-storytelling/chip-on-your-shoulder/12754/writing-from-the-top-down-pros-and-cons-of-the-inverted-pyramid/

Ledes

The lede is the first sentence or paragraph of your story. There are several styles that can be used. The one you need to learn first, and will use most, is the aforementioned summary lede.

The anecdotal lede is another approach, kicking off a story with a imaginative, eye-catching example, anecdote or description that fits with the story. There are also more complex ledes.

Straight lede ex:

Victor Brancaccio’s mother fainted and his grandmother had to be helped out of the courtroom in a wheelchair, but the man who angrily beat to death 81-year-old Mollie Mae Frazier in 1993 hardly reacted Friday as a jury declared him guilty of kidnapping and first-degree murder.

Anecdotal lede ex:

Blank-faced, Sean Paul Hanify tries to explain.

When I’m hurting somebody, I want to see them.

I want to crash their skull.

And I want to get them with that knife.

And I like to hear the sounds of the pounding.

And I like to see the breathing when I’m killing them.

And when I’m killing somebody, I don’t care I’m killing them.

The words fill the silence of the Denver County Jail’s visitation room.

Hanify, 31, glances up at the Rocky Mountain News reporter he’s invited here to confess to killing as many as seven men. Police say it may be as many as eight. He has been charged with one murder and police are looking seriously at four others.

Complex lede ex:

Shack died amid the discarded cans and cigarette wrappers of Northwest Second Street, his bitten and bruised body lying in the knee-high weeds of a South Florida dirt alley.

Tossed into a fighting pit with a trained and vicious dog, the pet pit bull lasted only 15 minutes.

He was put there by Deroy Dawes, a 19-year-old who had found the dog wandering the streets of a coastal South Florida town a week earlier, police say.

After the April 4 fight, Dawes told police he washed the blood from the dog’s body, walked him to a nearby house and chained him to a backyard fence, where he died hours later.

Shack’s owner, Alonzo Austin, found him the same day and buried him where he lay. It was a week after Austin had reported the dog he had owned for three years missing.

“I couldn’t move him, I’d gone through so much,” Austin said. “For me to see my baby like that, it really hurt me.”

Police arrested Dawes April 27 on felony charges of fighting animals and animal cruelty, making him the first person in Palm Beach County to be charged in five years.

“He told us he fought Shack because he wanted to see what he could do,” said Liz Roerich, an animal control officer in Boynton Beach, a small coastal city between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale. “It’s becoming fashionable for teens to have pit bulls and fight them.”

Further reading: http://www.columbia.edu/itc/journalism/isaacs/client_edit/Mencher.html

Nutgraph

This is the sentence or “graph” that explains why you’re writing the story, why readers should care, why now.

In traditional inverted pyramid news stories, the nutgraph is often also the lede. But some stories that use anecdotal ledes, or that tackle bigger, longer topics, have a secondary graph that is the nutgraph.

All news stories absolutely need a nutgraph.

Ex:

At first glance, Furtune Troni, clutching a bagel in one hand and a half-empty cup of McDonald’s orange drink in the other, acts like any other 10-year-old: staring at strangers from under her father’s elbow, playing with her braided hair, thoughtfully eating her food.

But on Sunday, when her father started talking about his family’s horrific 20-hour mountainous trek through Kosovo to the refugee camps in Macedonia, the slight girl ran from the room to vomit.

”Our children are very traumatized,” her father, Ilirjan Troni, explained later through a translator. ”They saw things that no child should have seen.”

Ilirjan Troni, his wife and their four children along with two other refugee families from the war-torn region spoke at a rally of 70 hushed and sometimes crying supporters Sunday in suburban Delray Beach.

(The nutgraph is the fourth graph.)

Further reading: http://michellerafter.com/2010/01/07/back-to-basics-the-nut-graph/

Brevity

Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it’s also the soul of journalism.

Given the time, a writer should slowly walk through their stories and measure each and every word’s weight, judging it for its value and its use to a reader.

Or as a journalist would put it: Keep it short.

An educational facility is a school. A North American head of public and media relations is a spokesperson. “Has” is rarely needed before a verb.

After you are done writing, go back and see how much you can cut without changing the meaning.

This is especially true with ledes. Flowery, creative ledes are almost never as powerful as a short, punchy sentence.

Twitter is a great agent of brevity; practice your writing there. Try to get across complex thoughts without butchering the English language or breaking the Twitter character count.

Ex:

Melven Febres died twice Tuesday.

Mopsy has looked into the face of death, and it is whiskered.

Gary Robinson died hungry.

When they heard the screams, no one suspected the rooster.

Further reading:

The corpse had a familiar face by Edna Buchanan

 

Strunk and White, aka The Elements of Style, aka The Journalist’s Bible.

http://www.poynter.org/how-tos/newsgathering-storytelling/chip-on-your-shoulder/10589/the-power-of-brevity/

http://www.poynter.org/how-tos/newsgathering-storytelling/writing-tools/94055/25-non-random-things-about-writing-short/

A bit of advice

There are plenty of tricks you can use to shorten your ledes and make your stories more easily comprehensible.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Tell a friend: Are you struggling to come up with your lede or summarize your story? Try talking to a friend, a cat, yourself about the story. People naturally summarize when they talk about subjects. What you find impossible to condense in writing you will do automatically when speaking. (I used to call my wife up on deadline at midnight and tell her about the most gruesome murders, car crashes and fires. )

Say it, don’t just type it: When you’re done writing, after you’ve read through and copyedited your own work, take a minute to read it aloud. I don’t mean in your head; I mean as if you’re on a stage, speaking lines to an audience. And read what you wrote, not what you meant to write. You’ll find yourself stumbling over poorly crafted sentences, confused comma splices and misspellings. It’s amazing how much better your writing becomes when you write it to be read aloud. If you find yourself running out of breath in one sentence, it’s probably too long. (When I first started working from home, my wife thought I spent much of my days on the phone with people, until she discovered I was reading my stories to myself.)

Art and science: All of these rules are guidelines. You absolutely need to master these skills and know how to write a summary lede, a nutgrapaph, a “straight” news story. Once you do, then you can start poking at the borders that seem to separate a hard news story from a feature. There’s a reason that a journalism degree is a bachelor of arts at some universities and a bachelor of science at others; good journalism blends both.

Read and write: Not just for work, but for fun. Never stop learning, never stop being inspired by the talent of other’s work.

That’s it for this week. You can check out all of the mentorship stories and videos right here.

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