Tips for Writing a NeighborMedia News Story
Tips for Writing a NeighborMedia News Story
Tips for writing a NeighborMedia news story
Back in the 1980s when USA Today launched, journalists and others mocked it as the "McPaper" because of its emphasis on stories of short length, punchy headlines (long a province of tabloids) and bold graphics. That was before the internet existed. Looking back, it seems it was ahead of the times. Much of what it did then is routine now on the websites of newspapers and other news outlets. Over the past 25-plus years, a lot has changed, including with USA Today. As it evolved into a more respected, mainstream newspaper, its story got longer, while those of the Boston Globe, the New York Times, and other traditional news outlets got shorter, until they seem to have converged into a mid-range.
Today, most people read stories on their computers and mobile devices. That means they want stories that are: relatively short; have photos or graphics or both; and are broken up visually so that readers are not confronted with a photo at the top and then a big block of text. Like it or not, people have short attention spans and reading stories on the Web has only exacerbated that. Even the New York Times has shortened its stories.
So, first of all some general guidelines:
- Keep Your Stories to 600 Words or Less: To get a good idea of what that length looks like, go to the New York Times website and click on any Op-Ed column. The NYT's limit for Op-Ed writers is 600 words. Joe Nocera, who just started writing for the Op-Ed section after spending years as a business writer for the NYT, recently said that it was hard to get used to that limit, but it forced writerly discipline.
- In general, one sentence equals one paragraph, unless your sentences are very short. (Ernest Hemingway, who began his career as a newspaper reporter, was a master of short sentences. Most people are not). Again, the reason for this is that run-on paragraphs make for large blocks of copy, which is a turnoff for readers, especially on the Web.
- For the purpose of writing for NeighborMedia, keep in mind the photographs you have taken, and where they fit into your copy. Our limit is four photos in the text of the story; don't stretch out the text just because you have a bunch of photos, but if you do have them, they are another good way of maximizing the visual appeal to the reader. Click here to read more about how to add multiple photos to a story.
Now, first things first, your headline. At all but small newspapers, reporters don't write the headlines, copy editors do. And the best headlines are found at tabloids such as the New York Daily News or New York Post (not the New York Times, which is much too ponderous). Most famous NY Daily News headline: "Headless Bodies Found in Topless Bar." Chances are we won't get an opportunity to write anything like that, but your headline doesn't need to be dull, either. And just as your story should be limited in number of words, so should the headline. Try to keep your headline to about 50 characters, plus spaces, so it all fits in one line when a reader sees the story full-screen.
After the headline, the lede and the two or three paragraphs that follow (or graphs/grafs) are key to drawing in and keeping the reader. You may have read about the "who, what, where, why, how" ledes in newspapers, but not only is that passe, but it really only applies to breaking news stories, and that's not typically what we do at NeighborMedia. There are variations of ledes, from "when" to "anecdotal," and so on.
Say you want to write about Jane and John Doe, a young professional couple who bought a condo in Cambridge at the height of the real estate bubble in the past few years and are now facing foreclosure because one or both lost their jobs. The "when" lede: "When the Does bought their condo on Prospect Street just before the economy crashed in the fall of 2008, they never imagined what would happen next…"
This has the virtue of being both "when" and "anecdotal." And you can also make a short sidebar video of the Does to go along with the story. (What's a sidebar? I'll explain later).
Then there is the "second-day lede" for a story that is newsier, and less feature oriented. Say you covered a meeting of the city council or one of the city's commissions and you are writing about an issue that came up. It's too late to say they did this or that. So think ahead: "In the wake of the city council's decision to (do X), the next likely step for neighbors in the (Y part of the city) is …" Then, farther down, succinctly explain whatever it was they did.
The "Kicker:" After the headline and the lede and first few graphs of your story ("nut graphs" in journo speak) the most important part of your story is the last sentence. Literally, the last line, and your opportunity to leave readers with a lingering thought. Think back to the hypothetical Does. Maybe they'll say, "Now, we don't know where we'll go. Perhaps we'll be on the street." Make it short and with impact.
If you have multiple points you want to make, a good way of doing that is using "bullets" and "bullet points." It is a means of saying a lot within the minimalist space the Web imposes. (For an example from one of my recent stories, go to: http://www.cctvcambridge.org/Mass_Ave_Improvements.)
And now, sidebars. When I started writing for newspapers, sidebars were short, written pieces that accompanied a main article (the mainbar). Generally, sidebars focus on one aspect of the main story. Their virtue is that they lessen the need for trying to shoehorn all the information into one article. Today, many (if not most) sidebars take the form of a short video. Look at the Boston Globe or the New York Times and you'll find that their videos are generally not meant to stand alone but accompany a mainbar. The main story typically also has photos and very often, graphics such as maps as well. In other words, a whole multi-media package.
In the hypothetical story about the Does, an obvious video sidebar would be an interview with them standing in front of their soon-to-be-foreclosed house. To see a story I did about Cambridge's "CitySmart" program that includes a video sidebar, go to: http://www.cctvcambridge.org/node/51807.
Finally, a few words about the Associated Press Stylebook and using HTML. The stylebook is the journalist's guide to subjects such as standard spellings and common language usage. (Alternatively, there is "The New York Times Manual of Style and Useage.") A good example of what you'll find in the stylebook is in a recent Columbia Journalism Review article about when to use "between" or "among:" http://www.cjr.org/language_corner/just_among_us.php. You can get a stylebook in bookstores or an buy (or subscribe to) an online version downloadable to computers and mobile devices.
As far as HTML goes, for NeighborMedia purposes using it is another good way to break up a block of text visually with such variations as boldface and italics. You can also use italics for information distinct from what's in the main article, such as for photo captions or to add updates. For an example of how I used italics in a "Cambridge Eyesores" story, see: http://www.cctvcambridge.org/MBTA_Park_Porter_Square. For a good cheat sheet of simple, common HTML commands, go to something Margaret Desjardins put together: http://www.oldpineinn.com/cctv.htm.
Have other suggestions for what makes for a good story? Please leave them in the comments below.