2017-04-13 / Opinions

Writing the news has one simple rule: we put the most important stuff first

By KIP BURKE

Have you ever wondered why news stories are written the way they’re written, and why we rewrite most of the stories that are sent in to us? The answer is simple: because of our respect for you, our readers, we put the most important information first.

We know that your time is valuable to you, and we don’t want you to have to waste any time getting to the most important part of any story. We write a headline that tells you, briefly, what’s in the story, and then write a first paragraph, called the lead paragraph, that tells you the most important facts in the story.

That way, by investing just a few seconds to read a headline and a lead paragraph, you can decide whether or not you want to trade any more of your valuable time for the information in the rest of the story.

We know that whenever anybody reads anything, they’re mentally asking, “Why should I care? What’s in it for me?” With our headline and lead paragraph, we try to answer those questions for you right up front, so you can decide right then if it’s worth swapping more of your precious time for the information in the story.

That’s why, when I covered a meeting of the city council or the board of education, for instance, I didn’t report everything that was said, in chronological order, from the Pledge of Allegiance on. Most of you would quickly get bored and want me to get to the point.

So I had to decide what action was taken in that meeting that affects the most people, or has the greatest impact on our readers, or is of the greatest interest to the largest number of people. That’s my lead, and after I write all about that subject, then I write about every other action taken in the meeting for those of you who are interested.

In other words, news stories are written in such a way that allows readers to quit reading at any point along the story and still get the most important facts. In journalism school, it’s called the “inverted pyramid,” with the big important stuff at the top and the little stuff at the bottom. The most important of the who, what, when, where, or how goes first, and everything else follows.

You can see how we adapt that idea to the stories sent in to us. In a recent example, a high school teacher sent in a report about a statewide convention that the club she advises went to. She wrote it in a perfectly thorough chronological order from their arrival through the ending awards ceremony, when one of our kids was chosen as the highest-achieving club member in the entire state.

But hold it! One of our Washington Wilkes kids was the highest achieving club member in the entire state. Now that’s a very big deal, but without the magic of the inverted pyramid, the most important fact got buried in the last paragraph. Unfortunately, most people would have quit reading the story long before they got there, so in editing the story, we moved that important fact to the very beginning, giving that high-achieving student the prominence she deserved.

Does that make sense?

We also edit stories that are sent in for a thing called “voice.” News stories are always written in the newspaper’s voice, speaking as the newspaper, unless the story is clearly labeled with a byline – the line that says “By Kip Burke,” or whoever. When somebody else talks in a story, giving their opinion, that has to be in quotes and attributed to somebody, since the newspaper itself has no opinion. When you send in a club report saying that 25 people attended, that’s a fact. But if you said everybody had a wonderful time, that’s an opinion, and it needs to be attributed to somebody.

If that’s confusing, don’t worry. At the News-Reporter, we’re college trained professionals who do this for a living, and we’ll straighten it out. But don’t give us a hard time for maintaining our professional standards in the news sections of the paper and expect us to still run your story with a smile.

And last of all, if you slip an unsigned letter under the door as a few folks have done recently, please understand we have no respect at all for the accusations of anonymous cowards. Man up and say it to our faces, or keep it to yourself.

That’s just the way it works.

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