As with the first volume of this remarkable series, award-winning writer Michael B. Davie shares with readers some of the outstanding news and feature articles he's created during a professional journalism career spanning decades.
Straight-ahead, factual reporting is what news writing is all about. News writing is the most practical form of journalistic writing. The intent is to get the facts out and convey the importance of a given issue or development.
More often than not, news stories follow an announcement, press conference, politics, crime, business financial results or some other newsworthy development and the reporter barely has time to compile and organize the information into a short news article, free of opinion or analysis.
News writing often tends to be basic reporting because the pressing time element leaves little room for anything more. Analysis, further details and counter viewpoints are often left to follow-up stories for which time constraints are less onerous. For now, the emphasis is on getting something in the paper fast. You're dealing with time-sensitive, timely, breaking news. Move fast. Get the rest of the details, reaction and commentary later.
This is basic, bread-and-butter, meat-and-potatoes reporting - and it's at the heart and soul of every newspaper. Although news writing also encompasses investigative and analytical reports, the bulk of news writing consists of cobbling together a story as quickly as possible with whatever facts and details are immediately available to meet a pressing deadline that leaves no scope for anything more elaborate. With its just-the-facts approach, tight space restrictions and deadline pressures, news writing is often as much a science as an art.
Indeed, the standard, time-honoured approach to news writing involves a somewhat scientific, formulaic approach in which the basic questions - who, what, when, where and why - are all addressed in a lengthy first paragraph. So, if there isn't much space, the first paragraph alone can be squeezed into the paper - and the reader gets the basic story in a nutshell (or news brief to be more precise).
This approach involves providing the big picture while cramming all-important information at the top of the story, with supportive details and quotes following further down the article.
Many smaller newspapers still cling to this formulaic approach. Their small budgets and low pay rates usually leave them with untalented editors who can't get a job anywhere else. And such editors can often edit a story for length by cutting from the bottom up, rather than rephrasing and tightening passages throughout the story to ensure as much information as possible stays in the shorter story. In essence, such editors separate the wheat from the chaff - and print the chaff. Reporters working at such publications are well advised to cram all the information at the top of their story (and follow with supporting details) or they may find important elements to their story hacked out of existence.
Fortunately, most newspapers take a more flexible approach to news reports and prefer a short, thought-provoking and compelling lead paragraph to bring the reader into the story.
All of the important information is still near the top of the story, but it's carried through several paragraphs, not just one. As well, time permitting, there is more of an effort to incorporate information - such as interviews, quotes, reaction, counter viewpoints, expert opinions - that might have, in the past, been left to a follow up story.
I've found it's possible to bring a fair measure of creativity into the news writing process.
The stories selected for this chapter should bear this out: The selected articles include a number of stories that appeared in The Hamilton Spectator and Toronto Star. A range of articles can be found in this chapter, such as a story on the impact of low interest rates; a $105-million upgrade at Stelco; Jumbo Video's decision to be publicly listed on the stock exchange; Hamilton steelmakers’ strong financial results; Hotz Environmental's decision to explore markets in Asia; a rise in profit for the Intermetco firm; consumers winning a food fight as giant grocery stores duke it out; and, a Toronto Star piece on the biggest mass poisoning in history – due to the arsenic contamination in wells in India.
The trick in approaching any news story is to gather all of the pertinent information and process it in a way that you fully understand so you can then express in terms the reader will also understand.
Once this important task is achieved, the writing of the piece takes the field. Certainly a well-written, interesting and provocative news article has a far greater chance of capturing the reader's attention. As always, the writing makes the difference. All of the articles you're about to read involved detailed interviews - asking the right questions is vital - and solid research. This, combined with engaging writing, best achieves the goal of communicating with the readers.