Helping Reporters Improve Stories

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Jun 27, 2008 в Journalism Basics

Each reporter is different and each story is different. None of these techniques will work in every situation or with every reporter. Gauge the needs and personalities of your staff and try these techniques as you think they fit the situations and people. Remember that you are working not just to improve the story at hand, but future stories as well.

Before the reporter turns in a story

  • Talk early and often. However strong your word editing skills, that is the least effective way to improve a story. From the idea stage through revision, talk with the reporter about the challenges the story presents and how she is addressing them.
  • Respect the reporter's authorship. Understand that reporters do their best work on stories where they feel a sense of control and responsibility. When possible, allow reporters to work on stories that are their ideas rather than your assignments. When you have to assign, ask the reporter the best way to attack the issue, engaging him immediately in shaping the story. Whenever possible, don't rewrite a story, but discuss with the reporter the issues you want him to address in rewriting. When you have to rewrite, respect the author's style and voice and try to retain them. Never rewrite or insist on a rewrite simply because the story wasn't written the way you would have written it.
  • Discuss story ideas with the reporter. Many story weaknesses rest with the fundamental idea. The direction you provide at this stage can save plenty of work later in the process. Whether you are making an assignment or encouraging a reporter to pursue her own idea, discuss it in some detail. Ask why we're doing this story now. That forces the reporter to address two questions: Why are we doing this story at all and why now?
  • Focus on the reader. Ask reader-oriented questions early and often, to keep a strong focus on serving the reader. Why will the reader care? Who is likely to read this story? What will the reader tell others about this story? How might the reader act on this story? What information can we give the reader to help her act on this story? Encourage the reporter to think about who will likely have strong interest in this story and who will have casual interest.
  • Encourage specificity. Often a reporter will propose "an in-depth look at (fill-in-the-blank)." Encourage the reporter to be more specific, to narrow the topic, to identify and explain the news peg, the local interest and the national or international context.
  • Ask what the story is about. At various stages of a reporter's work on a story, ask what the story is about. Sometimes the answer will change often from the idea stage through the rewriting and asking that question repeatedly will help the reporter maintain a focus during the story's evolution. Sometimes the answer will remain the same and asking the question will help the reporter stay focused. If the answer changes, ask why it has changed. You want to be sure it has changed because the reporter has gathered new information or understands the story better, not because the reporter has lost focus.
  • Discuss reporting challenges. Ask what the reporter is learning. Ask what avenues he will pursue, what people he will interview, what information might be available online. Ask what obstacles he is encountering. Ask how he is overcoming the obstacles. If he is not overcoming the obstacles, brainstorm where else he might get that information.
  • Discuss records. Ask what records the reporter will examine. Start with general questions that push the reporter to consider where she might find records to help with this story. If she doesn't identify some records you think might help, follow with more specific questions that steer her toward specific records. Know the federal, state and local open-records laws and push reporters to gain access to records.
  • Discuss data. Discuss where the reporter might find data to help with the story. Ask whether the data are available online or whether the reporter has to obtain them directly from the agency involved. Discuss access issues such as open-records laws, cost and which officials might be most likely to provide the records promptly. Discuss whether the reporter has the skills to analyze the data or needs some help from a colleague. Help the reporter develop the skills if he does not already have them. Learn about computer-assisted reporting yourself, if you haven't already, so you can help the reporter more.
  • Seek parallels. Encourage the reporter to find references from literature, history, culture or everyday life that will help readers understand stories. When you see possible references as you're discussing the story, suggest but don't insist on them.
  • Debrief. After an interview, ask the reporter how it went. What did she learn? What surprised her? What moved her? What did she hope to learn that the source would not tell? Who else might have that information? When will the reporter touch base again with that source? Encourage the reporter to start writing, even if much reporting remains. Ask what the story is about.
  • Encourage summarizing. Use some technique to encourage the reporter to summarize the essence of the story in a few words. Jack Hart of the Oregonian recommends a theme statement of 6 to 8 words. Bill Luening of the Kansas City Star recommends boiling the story down to a three-word sentence: subject, verb and object. Bruce DeSilva of the Associated Press advises writing a headline for the story (insist on a good headline). You may not use any of these devices in the final story, but they are helpful in focusing the story.
  • Ask about the lead. The reporter probably is thinking about the lead without prompting from you, but talking may be helpful if the reporter is struggling with the lead. After your discussions about the lead, forget about them. The reporter may come up with something different, and if you force him back to an old lead, you'll kill future early discussions about leads. Ask how the lead will entice the reporter into the story.
  • Set short-term writing goals. As the reporter is starting to write a story, challenge her to focus on improving a single skill. You can focus the challenge on past weaknesses: For instance, if you noticed unnecessary passive verbs in the last story, challenge the reporter to focus on verb usage this time and to use one rewriting pass to concentrate strictly on making sure each verb is as strong and active as she can make it. Or you can focus the challenge on the story at hand: This one is complex and required the reporter to wade through a lot of bureaucracy and regulation. Challenge her to find an analogy from everyday life that will help the reader understand. Or build on previous successes: I loved the way you made the reader see and hear and smell the scene in the last story. Make sure you take the reader right into the main character's kitchen in this story.
  • Suggest sidebars and graphics. Ask the reporter what facts you can tell better in graphics than in prose. Ask what points should be told in sidebars, rather than bogging down the main story. Can a photo make a point better than prose?
  • Suggest an outline. If a reporter appears disorganized on a story, suggest that he outline. If the reporter resists or has not outlined effectively in the past, talk through an outline. You might write down the outline yourself as the two of you identify main points.
  • Suggest writing without notes. Notes can distract a reporter. The story should be in the reporter's head. Suggest that she review the notes, then set them aside and write without pausing to find facts and quotes. When she's finished, she can return to the notebooks and get the facts and quotes right. In the notebooks, she'll find some things she omitted. Ask whether they're really that important if she forgot about them. (They may be, but tell her to be especially demanding of any passages she adds to the story.)
  • Study work habits. Ask and observe how the reporter works. In some cases, you might be able to suggest new habits that will help a reporter improve: writing as he reports, writing from notes and then seeking quotes on the tape rather than transcribing every interview, writing without notes, working harder on revision. In other cases, you can tailor your suggestions to a reporter's habits.
  • Ask for a plan. If a reporter has organizational problems or is taking on a story more complex than he has tackled before, ask for a written plan. Have him outline sources to interview, records to check and data to analyze. Deal with sidebars, graphics and photos in the plan. Set deadlines, allowing time for rewriting. The plan should be a collaboration, but more of it should come from the reporter than from you. And you both should be flexible when breaking news, inexperience and unexpected obstacles force changes in the plan.
  • Share the joy of discovery. If you discuss the story early and often with the reporter, you and the reporter and your fellow editors will develop expectations. You may commit those expectations to budget lines, whether you write them or the reporter does. As the reporter reports and writes, she will discover a story that does not meet those expectations. It may fall short of them. It may exceed them. It may go in a different direction. Share the joy of discovery with the writer. Don't hold her to expectations you developed early in the process or you will thwart early communication on future stories.
  • Encourage reporters to write early. Writing as they report is one of the best ways for reporters to improve their performance in each skill. Encourage it generally and encourage it in each story. While the reporter is gathering information, ask frequently if he is writing yet.
  • Talk about story elements. To encourage storytelling by reporters, ask them questions about story elements. Who's the main character? What's the conflict? How are you going to describe the setting?
  • Encourage rewriting. Perhaps the best way to see dramatic improvement in a reporter's work is to encourage a reporter who turns in first drafts to spend some time rewriting. Don't approach this as remedial work, but as professional development. Even good stories benefit from rewriting. Even great stories benefit from revision. Set a deadline for finishing the first draft, then another deadline for finishing the rewrite. Talk about specific things to look for in rewriting: strong verbs, sentence length, redundancy, etc.
After you get the first draft

  • Encourage alternatives. Encourage the reporter to try a different lead. Even if you both like the first lead, encourage trying a different approach. Coaching should not concentrate only on making bad work good, but on making good work and even great work better.
  • Don't suggest or dictate exact words. As you discuss story approaches or leads or as you edit, don't take over the reporter's job, which is to write the story. Ask questions that stimulate or direct the reporter's thinking. Suggest approaches to consider. Explain problems you have with the first draft. When you hear words you like, react enthusiastically and encourage the reporter to write immediately. But when you suggest or insist on exact words, you discourage the reporter. And you limit the story.
  • Ask the reporter to read aloud. If a lead is long or a story is laden with long sentences or does not flow well, ask the reporter to read it aloud, to you or to herself. Often that will help the reporter identify the fat sentences and weak passages. Also ask the reporter to read aloud the passages you love. That will underscore how well those passages work. Ask the reporter to imagine a reader reading this passage aloud to a spouse.
  • Suggest areas to condense. Avoid cutting stories yourself. Instead, suggest that a particular passage could be condensed, that a particular sentence seems too long. Ask what certain passages add to the story. Ask whether the reader really needs to know all the information in a particular section.
  • Count words in the lead. If a reporter has written a lengthy lead, count the words and ask whether the story needs a 35-word lead. Or suggest that the reporter count the words in this lead. Or suggest that the reporter always count the words in every lead.
  • Don't rewrite the lead. Tell the reporter what's wrong with the lead. Suggest possible alternative approaches. Demand a shorter, brighter or clearer lead. But make the reporter rewrite the lead.
  • Don't insist on your approach. If you do rewrite the lead, or suggest a different approach, don't insist that the story has to use your lead, or your approach. Explain why the original version didn't work and explain the thinking behind your revision. Then challenge the reporter to write something better than either.
  • Find examples. If the story needs to be cut considerably, identify a few phrases, sentences or whole passages to cut and explain why you think they are expendable. Then challenge the reporter to find and make similar cuts.
  • Admit when the hole is too tight. If the story is good enough to run as written, admit that you're requiring cuts because the paper is tight. Reporters should know when they have to cut because they're telling more than the reader will want and when they have to cut because you don't have room to tell all the reader will want.
  • Challenge reporters to raise standards. Sometimes when you cut a story you cut substance. But sometimes you raise standards. If a reporter has written a 25-inch story and you only have a 20-inch hole (or think the reader will have only 20 inches of interest), challenge the reporter to raise standards and keep only the best 80 percent of the original draft.
  • Explain editing changes. Whether you changed because of style, grammar, clarity, brevity or some other reason, explain why you changed a story. Those changes will help the reporter turn in a better story next time.
  • Reduce attribution. Ask the reporter whether he knows something as fact. If so, can you reduce unnecessary attribution? Or maybe you can condense attribution when you are attributing lots of information repeatedly to the same source. If the reporter doesn't know something as fact, ask whether the reporter can check other sources that will confirm or contradict the first source.
  • "How do you know that?" When the reporter states facts without attribution, ask how she knows that. Perhaps you need to add some attribution.
  • Challenge every fact. For big stories or projects, consider "line-by-line-editing." For every fact, the reporter has to present the supporting notes or documents.
  • Give feedback. Ask the reporter what he liked about the story. If you agree, say so. If you liked something else, tell what pleased you. Ask how the reporter achieved the successes and discuss how these techniques might apply to specific stories in the near future. Ask the reporter what he wished he had done better. If you agree, discuss ways to improve in that skill, if possible on the next story. If you wish the reporter had done better in some way he didn't identify, present a challenge for the next story. Don't present a laundry list of faults for any one story.
  • Apologize. Maybe you were on deadline and didn't have time to consult with a reporter on a story. Say you're sorry (even if you also have to encourage the reporter to get future stories in sooner). Maybe you edited an error into the story. Apologize. Even if you made the error in trying to clarify a muddled passage. However bad the original copy was, you should have run such a change past the reporter, so say you're sorry without excuses. Deal with the clarity issue in the next story. An editor who doesn't apologize is either a perfect editor or an editor who's damaging relationships with reporters.