Skills for journalists in print and digital media

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Storytelling 7: Writing that shows, lets readers feel

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Once your have your themes, main character,  timeline and story frame, it’s time to start writing. When attempting a “narrative” of any kind, the old advice about writing to show, not tell, becomes crucial. For most people, especially journalists used to writing hard news, this is usually impossible in a first draft. Much of the attention to show versus tell will come in revisions. So a skill to cultivate in storytelling is the ability to see those places where the writer has blurred the timeline or digested events and is sharing conclusions rather than a scene.

A primary goal in storytelling is to elicit feelings in a reader. This is done by providing stimulation that the reader processes and which give rise to feelings. If the writer (and thus the story) does that processing ahead of time, and delivers conclusions rather than stimulation, the reader is left out of the process. The piece becomes a recitation of information, like a regular news story. The viseral power of a well told story is lost.

Here is a short example I like to use in training programs, from a series by Sue MacDonald called “Christopher’s cancer,” published years ago in the Cincinnati Enquirer. It was the story of a young boy’s fight against cancer. Here are two versions of the same short passage, the first draft followed by the revision:

Grit and determination remained with Chris to the end. On April 5 – just 13 days before he died – he donned a tuxedo and stood during his sister’s 40-minute wedding ceremony, refusing several times to obey Barry’s hand motions to sit in a wheelchair strategically placed behind him.

“Shanna asked me to be in her wedding, and I wasn’t going to mess things up for my sister on her wedding day,” he said afterward.


On April 5 – two weeks before he died – Chris donned a tuxedo for his sister’s wedding. With slow, awkward steps, he escorted his mom, Debbie, down the aisle to her seat. He stood during the entire 40-minute ceremony. Watching from his pew, Barry signaled several times to his son to sit in the wheelchair an usher had placed behind him. Chris refused.

“Shanna asked me to be in her wedding,” he said later, “and I wasn’t going to mess things up for my sister on her wedding day.”

This brief passage illustrates a couple things.

Chronology is essential. Let events — the stimulation — unfold in a natural sequence, even down to individual sentence construction. Let the stimulation (sights, sounds, quotes) fall into place so the reader sees the moment take shape. And avoid inserting conclusions or summaries.

In this example, removing the opening sentence of summary (“Grit and determination remained with Chris to the end.”) opens up a blank canvas for the reader. After reading what happened, a reader might also feel things like grit or determination. But there may be other qualities or sensations tripped by the scene, based on the reader’s experience and perspective. Don’t limit the response. This moment of stimulus and response is at the heart of great storytelling. The art is in setting up the experience for the reader.

And one technique that supports that effort is letting chronology rule. By letting the moments come in order — “Chris donned a tuxedo for his sister’s wedding. With slow, awkward steps, he escorted his mom, Debbie, down the aisle to her seat. He stood during the entire 40-minute ceremony. Watching from his pew, Barry signaled several times to his son to sit in the wheelchair an usher had placed behind him. Chris refused.” — the reader is given a better chance to “see” or feel the raw material of the event and then feel a response.

Another helpful technique is to stick with short, declarative sentences much of the time. That makes it easier not to slip into the passive voice, or bend the timeline and interrupt the flow of stimulation building up in the reader’s mind.

Attention to writing that shows versus tells is a large part of a successful story.

Storytelling 1: Touching shared emotions

Storytelling 2: Chronology is your best friend

Storytelling3: Pick a main character

Storytelling 4: Microcosm, telling details, and meaning

Storytelling 5: Subtext and universal experiences

Storytelling 6: Outline the story, frame a chronology

Storytelling 7: Writing that shows, lets readers feel


Written by mroberts8

01/21/2011 at 6:26 pm

Watchdog reporting tips from ProPublica

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ProPublica has posted a “reporting recipe” with how-to advice and resources for investigating how states regulate medical professionals.

This comes in the wake of ProPublica’s own investigation, with the Los Angeles Times,  into how poorly California regulates registered nurses. And it’s an extension of ProPublica’s desire to work through collaboration with other journalism organizations.

Editors Paul Steiger and Stephen Engelberg explain why they are sharing the recipe:

ProPublica was created two years ago to pursue stories that would spur change. As part of this mission, we make our finished work and its underlying data available to all. Other news organizations are free to republish stories posted on our site. …Now we are taking this principle a step further, giving away the recipe for what has been one of our most powerful reporting efforts to date. We are doing this because we believe there are many ways to prompt change through journalism.

The step-by-step breakdown of the reporting process provides a great training opportunity for reporters in any state, and for editors who would like to help their reporters develop more sophisticated skills.

Written by mroberts8

03/11/2010 at 5:54 pm

Evolution of news consumption

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The Pew Research Center has a new study out on how Americans consume news across multiple platforms. The study was developed by Pew’s Internet & American Life Project and Project for Excellence in Journalism.


  • 92% of Americans use multiple platforms to get their daily news
  • 46% get their news from four to six media platforms on a typical day; 7% get their news from a single media platform on a typical day
  • 33% of cell phone owners now access news on their cell phones
  • 28% of internet users have customized their home page to include news from sources and on topics that particularly interest them

And we like to share. Among those who get news online, 75% get news forwarded through email or posts on social networking sites and 52% share links to news with others via those means.

Understanding the Participatory News Consumer contends that, “In this new multi-platform media environment, people’s relationship to news is becoming portable, personalized, and participatory. …To a great extent, people’s experience of news, especially on the internet, is becoming a shared social experience as people swap links in emails, post news stories on their social networking site feeds, highlight news stories in their Tweets, and haggle over the meaning of events in discussion threads.”

Written by mroberts8

03/08/2010 at 11:04 pm

Try a NewsTrain workshop in 2010

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I’ve been working with APME’s NewsTrain workshops since the beginning. After seven years of them across the country, we’ve worked with thousands of editors. And now we’re drawing and working with an increasing number of journalism educators. If you’ve never been to a NewsTrain, here’s a taste.

More background, the schedule, and how to host one in your town.

Written by mroberts8

02/22/2010 at 7:45 pm

Plagiarism is plagiarism is plagiarism

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The chilling, maddening, twisted account of NYT Business reporter Zachery Kouwe and his resignation over plagiarizing Wall Street Journal and Reuters material is also, sadly, a rich training opportunity. Kouwe was initially called on material he took from a WSJ story on Bernie Madoff and posted on the NYT DealBook blog. Times editors apparently found more examples from the WSJ, Reuters, and other sources.

Consider Kouwe’s explanation, quoted here from the New York Observer, of how it happened:

“I was as surprised as anyone that this was occurring,” said Mr. Kouwe, referring to the revelation that he had plagiarized. “I write essentially 7,000 words every week for the blog and for the paper and all that stuff. As soon as I saw, I guess, like six examples, I said to myself, ‘Man what an idiot. What I was thinking?’”

Mr. Kouwe says he has never fabricated a story, nor has he knowingly plagiarized. “Basically, there was a minor news story and I thought we needed to have a presence for it on the blog,” he said, referring to DealBook. “In the essence of speed, I’ll look at various wire services and throw it into our back-end publishing system, which is WordPress, and then I’ll go and report it out and make sure all the facts are correct. It’s not like an investigative piece. It’s usually something that comes off a press release, an earnings report, it’s court documents.”

“I’ll go back and rewrite everything,” he continued. “I was stupid and careless and fucked up and thought it was my own stuff, or it somehow slipped in there. I think that’s what probably happened.”

Apparently Kouwe has no idea of what he did in terms of process, and maybe even what constitutes plagiarism in the rip-and-clip-and-link-a-thon of digital publishing.

After reading Kouwe’s bizarre explanation, what are your staffers or students doing when it comes to “…the essence of speed,” or throwing things into a publishing template, or going back to re-report a story broken by another publication. And what are the workflows associated with blogs and other quick-to-print portions of your web site — if any?

Perhaps it is time to revisit what constitutes plagiarism, in all its forms, especially in the digital context. And perhaps it’s time to evaluate emerging workflows, accuracy measures, editorial oversight (even after the fact) for digital content. And then clearly convey the standards and best practices needed to ensure credibility in a training setting where examples, discussion, and simulated exercises are tossed out for writers, editors, copy editors, and online producers.

Proactive training can protect the essence of your good name.

Written by mroberts8

02/17/2010 at 11:32 pm

Q&A: Effective A1 story pitches

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QUESTION: I think I have good story ideas. But I have trouble getting my pitches past the A1 editors. How can I write better budget lines so they take a chance on my stories? — R.K., California

Bad story pitches — as expressed in budget lines — usually come in two forms.

Take a look: A too-short budget line written something like, “Acme School District unveils its new budget for the coming school year. We take a look.”

Full story: A too-long budget line that begins in the past and recounts in excessive detail all that has happened leading up to this particular story.

Both usually fail to clearly state the news at the heart of the proposed story and the impact of the news. A1 editors study budgets from several departments looking for stories with broad appeal. They want to avoid routine process stories or stories of interest to a narrow audience. Impact is a first important measure of appeal. Impact might a matter of precedent (e.g. first; last; biggest), scale (e.g. in dollars, people, geography), universal experience (e.g. something many people or organizations face), or human emotion, as in a story about a death or courageous act or happy ending.

If you have a good story, articulate the news and its impact in clear, concise terms that someone unfamiliar with the subject can grasp. Avoid jargon and vague references. Cut to the chase. Think of how a freelance writer might frame the pitch to the New York Times for regional play.

In the school example above, A1 potential might be how drastic a cut is expected, or that the district has struggled for years and this could put them under state control, or what the loss of a band program will mean to the students. If you have some preliminary information, put it in the pitch.

In the second example, a little context goes a long way. Do not recount the long history of the district or delve into other issues unrelated to the budget. This may be how you think about the story, the subject, or your beat, but the people studying budgets just want the essence of today’s story pitch so they can quickly compare to other contenders.

And if possible, update the budget line. Maybe send an update e-mail to your online and print editors. Once the kernel of the story is clearly stated, it is easier for people to become invested in your story and work with you to shape it.

Send your questions to

Written by mroberts8

02/02/2010 at 5:26 pm

Storytelling 2: Chronology is your best friend

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The best starting point for planning and writing a compelling story is a good timeline. The timeline is not necessarily a big part of the finished piece. But planning a good story starts with understanding the time frame, those parts of the story that occurred before the start of the time frame (exposition and context that must be worked in), and if necessary where the tale did or may go at the end of the story.

A timeline helps structure early reporting by focusing on a clear understanding of the chronology of events, the cause-and-effect that occurs, and how the timeline may naturally break down into chapters or sections. As Jon Franklin notes, narrative power comes from “chronology with meaning.” Building and studying a timeline is about discovering the patterns and meaning that comprise the story.

This applies to timelines that run over weeks or months, as well as a timeline that may run just a day or less. And that clear sense of chronology also applies to key moments or scenes, so a timeline could involve something as short as a conversation.

Consider the opening of this story about how a mercury spill unfolded at an Arizona high school:

Maylene Byers’ Physical Science class was reviewing a set of articles. Students worked in groups in a classroom located next to a science laboratory in one of several buildings that make up the Agua Fria High School campus.

Two boys sitting in front weren’t paying attention. One was a junior, the other a freshman. They had noticed a plastic bottle on the open shelf next to their desks. They removed the screw cap, looked inside, and swirled around a metallic liquid they did not recognize.

Curious, they poured some onto the floor to see what would happen. The boys liked how the liquid balled into tight beads. The freshman scooped it up from the floor and put it into an empty Gatorade bottle.

Byers walked over to see what the boys were doing. Looking down, she thought the droplets on the floor were small BBs and swept them into her hand. She dropped the mercury into the trash and told the boys to get back to work.

Byers did not realize the freshman still had both bottles of mercury, which he slipped into his backpack. After class, the boys each took a container and went their separate ways, unaware they were carrying a dangerous substance.

Two types of chronology or narrative are at work here. Summary narrative compresses time and summarizes a series of events. Dramatic narrative slows down for a scene that is in the moment, unfolding in real time. In this passage, the summary gives way to dramatic narrative, then backs out to summary. The accuracy of this account — in both forms of narrative — begins with a clear, accurate chronology.

One thing reporters and editors often underestimate in planning and writing stories like this is the amount of time and detail that goes into building the overarching timeline and the chronology of even short scenes. Think of the painstaking detail in flipbook animation and how once the pages are set and flipped the visual chronology comes to life.

And that coming to life is the goal. Stories built on quotes present readers with digested narrative information, second-hand information. Stories built on clear chonologies allow readers to experience information and reaction emotionally. That’s the chemistry of great storytelling.


Storytelling 1: Touching shared emotions


Storytelling 2: Chronology is your best friend


Storytelling3: Pick a main character


Storytelling 4: Microcosm, telling details, and meaning


Storytelling 5: Subtext and universal experiences


Storytelling 6: Outline the story, frame a chronology


Storytelling 7: Writing that shows, lets readers feel


Written by mroberts8

01/21/2010 at 4:45 pm