The editorial meeting on Oct. 1 began with a New York Times piece about the NY Giants. Our Cleveland Stater adviser Dr. Kumar shared the article with us to illustrate a few things. The umbrella under which our examination of the article took place was that of “good writing.” The focus on the story was on what had currently been a losing season for the Giants. So right off the bat, a challenging scenario for the reporter on the sports beat. But as a true newsperson does, the writer did their due diligence and got a story anyway. The headline read something like “Nowhere to go but up for NY Giants” and spoke to what the reporter observed – that despite the chips being down the team, support staff and fans were hopeful that better times lay ahead.
One of the points that emerged from our taking a look at the article was that sports journalism has a penchant for breaking the rules that the rest of us (i’m not a sports guy) tend to follow. The language is different, the approach is different and you can get away with stuff that you can’t in a straight-up news story. Now take that with a grain of salt though – those of us more straight-laced reporters can get playful too. But, to use an analogy that i’ve found applies to just about any other endeavor you can think of, good journalism is like cooking. You’ve got to know your basics inside and out before you start playing around and experimenting. You’ve got to know why you do things the way you do before you start not doing them (and you’ve got to have a good reason too). Essentially, that’s the meaning behind the phrase “writer’s voice.” That’s the difference between the strategic ritual we learn while picking up our craft, and sharing a well-tuned piece of writing with our audience. It’s not hard to find a story seed, attend an event, talk to someone, type up their quote…that’s the rote part of it that becomes second nature.
It’s only after you carefully consider each word, re-arrange chunks of material for flow and thematic continuity, re-write…and then re-write again. And again. And again. And, if we’re being completely honest, time spent staring out the window or going on contemplative walks in the cool autumn air clutching a steaming cup of rich, dark coffee. It’s only then that your article transforms from a cut-and-dry “this is what went down” to a real story.
So anyway, the NY Giants and the lessons learned therein. Another point brought to our attention was the headline – a no-nonsense summary of the story. In journalism these days, with the influence of the vast and myriad “news sources” out there, there’s a tendency towards what i like to call “mystery headlines.” These are headlines whose goal seems to be that of enticing you to read without telling you anything. Don’t get me wrong, a good mystery headline for a feature or enterprising article can work quite well. But when you’re dealing with the news, the idea is to distill the story down into a few words – selected to grab a reader’s attention enough to spur them to read the rest of the story. In that way it’s kind of part of the inverted pyramid. If you didn’t go any further than the headline, you’d still have at least some idea what the story is about. Generating a great headline requires editors to really read a story carefully and identify the most compelling part of it.
Lastly, we were advised to take note of the structure of the story. In it, the writer provided terrific observations about the most recent game. Included were little details of the sort that immediately informs you that the writer was present. The descriptive observations were vivid and particular to the moment. Additionally, the story was sourced through numerous people. Through what the writer learned from those people, their story emerged into thematic blocks. And, in true 101-style form, the writing followed the beloved claim-paraphrase-quote format. An oldie but always a goodie, this flow of information never lets a journalist down. After all, what is a news story but a writer’s report on what they learned through observation and gathering information from others? The goal we all strive for is to really own our stories, and to tell a compelling story. As our adviser put it to us: your story is like show & tell. It shows evidence through sources and quotes, and tells a story through observation and narrative.
As is our tradition this fall, the editorial meeting began with my follow-up to ideas and issues from the previous meeting. The night prior, i’d spent a considerable amount of time pouring over old notes and generating new ideas for challenging the staff. If i have any sort of goal for my tenure are EIC, it is to push my staff forward and give all of us a chance to evolve. So for instance, i knew in advance that some of the story ideas were solid, but they needed a bit more oomph to get them going. On my notes for the meeting is an italicized bold phrase: “convince me.”
Ultimately, the story turned out well. [Pardon the hieroglyphics embedded in the font; we’re working on it! – ed.] That reporter followed up for the coming edition with coverage of the event. i’m looking forward to reading how it turned out. The edition set to hit newsstands next Thursday, Oct. 24 has shaped up to be a terrific volume. We’re covering Homecoming weekend and previewing Halloween in its pages, and the staff is eager to knock their stories out of the ballpark (or the football stadium, to keep the analogy from the intro going).
For the most recent edition, i picked up a story about a scholarship’s approaching deadline. It’s my philosophy that there’s a story in every little blurb you read or hear, so i approached this one with a mind towards finding out what made this scholarship important. After making contacts among the first line of stakeholders (program director), i read up on the person for whom the scholarship is named. As it turns out, that in itself was a story worth telling.
Information he provided led me to speak with two professors, one of physics and the other of computer & electrical engineering. i was also put in contact with two students currently participating in the program.
And then i wrote, re-wrote, re-arranged, edited, copied, pasted, deleted, inserted, cleaned, tweaked and fiddled with it until the final deadline and got it in just under the wire Monday night. Yes, i am a procrastinator of the highest order. To the Nth degree! But, a deadline is a deadline is a deadline. Gotta respect that. Tuesday morning is press day and we’ve got to have those stories polished and ready to set.
During press day, i suspect the staff is hip to my crankiness by now. In my defense, i grew up reading stories with Perry White and J. Jonah Jameson. That’s the way a newsroom is supposed to be, right? A curmudgeonly editor under pressure to get a publication to newsstands and a room packed with disorderly reporters with whom to get it done. Certainly, there’s no supervillains threatening to destroy campus, and i have no personal vendetta against any local vigilantes, but basically it’s the same thing.
At the end of the day (the long, arduous day that includes the following morning and early afternoon), we get the job done. A new edition of the Cleveland Stater goes to the printer – 12′ wide, 250K MB photos and all. It shows marked improvement over the previous edition and i am happy. Sure, there’s some things we could have done better, mistakes we made and things we recognize we could have done better, but that’s what the next edition is for.
Yeah…i know i’ve used this trope before. It’s a classic.
“The next one will be better.”
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