Timeless tips for producing quality journalism

by Steve Buttry
Oct 30, 2018 in Miscellaneous

Some journalism skills are timeless. They were as important when I started my career using a typewriter and fat editing pencils as they are today. And I think they will be important 40 years from now, when today’s journalism students are men and women of middle age, teaching the skills to young journalism students.

Write tight

I learned the importance of writing tight as a student at Texas Christian University in the 1970s. Then, and for much of my career, you needed to write tight because newsprint was expensive and space in newspapers was precious. Now you need to write tight because online readers will move on to something else if you don’t hold their attention and because Twitter gives you only 140 characters to make your point.

More than a decade ago, I developed my workshop Make Every Word Count and the advice I shared there remains important today. Newspaper writers too often try to cram too many thoughts or details into their lead, a practice we call the “suitcase lead,” as though the writer were trying to cram as much stuff as possible in for a long trip. In my writing workshops I have long encouraged writers instead to write a g-string lead: brief and enticing.

Twitter actually presents a great tool for writing leads. If your lead doesn’t fit into a tweet, it’s probably too long.

Answer the 5 W’s (and How)

The 5 W’s are a cliché of journalism because their importance has not diminished with time. They were old-school when I started my career and they remain important today, whether you’re producing text stories, videos, interactive maps or data visualization.

One of my most-read blog posts is about why the 5 W’s are as important for business as they are for journalism. The reason it gets so much traffic is because lots of people search for the 5 W’s. I don’t know whether they are journalism students or bloggers with no journalism background trying to learn some journalism basics, but it gets about 800 views a month, nearly all of it driven by search traffic, so it’s certainly relevant. (Oddly, my post of the 5 W’s of writing for the web doesn’t do nearly as well in search traffic, but would probably be more helpful for the searchers.)

You should consider whether a blog post (or even a tweet) should answer the crucial questions of journalism: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? I also add this question, essential to ensuring accuracy: How do you know that?

Tell a story

As important as the 5 W’s are, the elements of a story remain as important as when you learned them in eighth grade. Those story elements match up with the 5 W’s but turn those facts from a list of answers into a story:

  • Character. Develop characters (exploring their personalities, backgrounds and motivations) and you answer Who? in a more memorable, engaging way.
  • Plot. Unfold the plot and you answer the What? and How?
  • Setting. When? is a place on the calendar or clock and Where? is a place on the map. Setting is the intersection of time and place in context.
  • Theme. Give your story a theme, a narrative thread, and you may be answering Why? or How?
  • Conflict and resolution. These story elements answer Why? and How?

These tips first appeared on Steve Buttry's blog, The Buttry Diary and are reposted here with permission. Buttry is the director of community engagement and social media at Digital First Media. He first shared this advice and more at a series of four workshops for students at Northern Kentucky University. To read the full article, click here.

The image is CC-licensed on Flickr via moirabot.