Making the Morning Papers

For those avoiding the 24-hour news cycle, the So-Called President of the United States recently launched a scattershot volley against his perceived enemy, the Press. In the rambling press conference (and I use the term generously), he asked a black reporter to set up a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus, shot down a Jewish reporter to claim he’s not anti-Semitic, asked (but didn’t answer) what Uranium is, and harped on his above/below average Electoral College victory. Most my Facebook and Twitter news feeds are reactions to how unhinged the man sounded, speaking as a representative of the American People.


A few years ago, I worked as a reporter/editor for a hyper-local media startup. While I’ve semi-seriously sworn to never return to that world, accusations of media bias always raise my hackles. Not because I don’t believe the media to be biased, but because it’s an dismissive accusation that very clearly shows the accuser knows nothing about the industry. As so many people don’t understand how the media works, I thought I’d take some time to explain (loosely) how the news is made.

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Note: I’m speaking mostly from my limited and untrained experience. If it’s a topic that interests you, seek out people who are still committed to journalism. I’ll stick to broad strokes, however, as a few of my colleagues may read this and have corrections. (Former colleagues, feel free to chime in with anything I’ve missed or mangled).

So, you’re a journalist now. Congratulations! I hope you like coffee, research and sifting through government propositions.

1. Plant the Seed

First thing you need is the seed of a story–the initial idea. Not all of these are going to be Woodward and Bernstein meeting Deep Throat. Odds are far, far better that you’ll be looking at the upcoming town meeting agenda, or someone will send you a press release for something that’s relevant to your audience. Sometimes, it’s something in the dozens of pages of police reports you receive every day, or you’re walking down a street and a shop sign catches your eye. Regardless of the origin, you need a story that will interest and illuminate your readers. If it affects them, you need to figure out how.

2. Gather Ye Sources While Ye May

Next, gather your sources. These are critical. Your job is not to explain how something works, your job is to find someone who can explain it to you. Partly, because you’re not the expert on the topic at hand, and partly so you can cover your ass: Anything you print, you are responsible for; if you invented it or later learn that your source was a fraud, that could end your career.

A great place to find sources is relevant public events. There, you could get quotes from speakers, and sometimes connect with experts who you could interview on-the-record. As in, they will speak with you and are willing to have you print their name with whatever they say. If you’re at a public meeting, it’s fair to quote anyone whose name you can copy down in time. I spent a lot of time Googling people and searching directories for people who spoke too quickly and left too soon. There were quotes I’d toss out because I couldn’t attribute them to anyone, and the words lost impact coming from “Area Woman.”

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Documents are also great resources for some stories. You need something that’s public record–police reports, government documents, books or papers written by one of your relevant sources. Press releases will do for some stories. We are seeing more stories citing peoples’ Facebook pages or Twitter accounts (which is a bit of a grey area between document and real person speaking), but if I’m honest, I never loved social media as a source. Ideally, you want a document that your readers could conceivably go and request from the relevant owners. You might dig up some stats around here, too, which are useful for the big-picture learners.

3. Great, We got Sources. Time to Write, Right?

Probably not. Take a few minutes to check out what the competition wrote. Make sure what you’re saying is still relevant, or adds something new. If it’s a breaking story, this usually goes out the window, because people are looking for info now. If it’s an older storie, this is part of the research, and you may need to find more sources. If it’s an exclusive story, awesome; you’re taking a bit of a risk, though, because everyone’s going to be repeating what you write now.

Important: This is ‘make or break’ time for the story. If you don’t have any sources, it’s not a story; it’s an interesting thing you heard. The types of sources you have will also make a difference: If you’ve just got documents, it’s a procedural story, and you need to keep to what’s in those docs. If all your sources contradict the initial story seed and you still have a story, it’s just not the one you set out to write (happens a l0t), but you must write accordingly. If you’ve just got links to other newspapers, you’ve got an aggregate story, and you need to credit those other folks (and also vet those sources: Random Loud Dude with Blog doesn’t have the same cachet as a major newspaper).

4. Business Time

Everything checks out? Cool. Now it’s time to write. Synthesize the sources, the stuff you can back up, the data and the documents into a single, cohesive story. One of the things that blew my mind, coming from a narrative fiction background, was that a news story is like prose written backwards. The thing you want to lead with is the most interesting piece. The hook is the seed of the story. My rookie mistake was that I’d “bury the lede,” or put the most interesting info at the end of the tale and try to build to it–like I was leading a character to a pivotal moment in their life.

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Something to consider: word choice matters. If someone’s been accused of a crime, but not tried or charged, it’s “alleged”. Calling someone a criminal before their trial is libel. In one of my early on-the-job lessons, another editor explained that the “money phrase” for police reports is “arrested and charged,” because if you’ve got a police report that says they arrested someone after an incident, that phrasing is indisputable. The charges may later be dropped, but the fact remains that at one time, the police arrested the person and charged them with something (I’ll get into story updates later).

5. This Part Sucks

You’re not going to enjoy this next part: Editing. I always enjoyed more clinical detachment from my news output than my literary, but it’s still not fun. You’ve got to make sure that the story is fair, that it’s well-written, and you’ve got to make sure that, if someone tried to sue you for libel, you could back up every word in the piece (this is way easier if you’ve got rock-solid sources).

Cool. You’re still not done. You’re too close to the project now. You’ve got to take a step back, and (ideally) let someone else read over this thing. This is where someone can tell you that you’re a little biased one way or another, or that your premise is flawed and you need to head back to step one and adjust. I always did this for stories that were hit on controversial topics. For a meeting summary or a police blotter, I’d usually wander off for a few minutes to clear my head.

6. Start Spreading the News

 

Now, we go to press. I also had to make sure it got scheduled to post at times people would read it, promote it on social media, plan out the day’s newsletter, etc.

On to the next story, right?

Wrong. A lot of stories have follow-up. A second side to the story you couldn’t get at until the original story ran (a lot of times, someone wrote in to say “I represent the opposing side, let’s chat about the story”). You’re now connected to this story, so expect to pick up every detail about it going forward.

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6. Stop the Presses

You made an error and have to print a retraction.

It happens, it sucks, but accept it and move on. You’re a human being, and your sources aren’t always perfect. But it’s not the end of the world: Update the story, re-promote it with the new details, dig deeper and talk to new sources. (There is a fine line between update and follow-up. I’d usually try to do both: if there was a new article, I’d link back to it from the old one).

Lather. Rinse. Repeat until your paper goes under and you have to find a new job.

Speaking of burying the lede: I’ve never really watched much of the Simpsons. These were just perfect gifs for the post.


“Wait a minute,” you might be thinking, “what about op-eds and stuff like that?” That’s not really journalism, per se. There is an ongoing industry debate about how to separate opinion content from journalistic content. It’s important because some news outlets (I’m thinking of Fox News, you may be thinking of MSNBC) blur the lines. The talking heads are expressing clear opinions about journalistic facts–which is only really confusing if you have a hard time differentiating fact from opinion.

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This is edging into a topic for another time, but here’s the short version of my opinion: As a journalist, your job is not to express an opinion, but to provide the information others will need to form their own. But it’s unreasonable to expect that a journalist gathering resources doesn’t have an opinion. This is why external editing is so crucial: someone else can tell you where you’re erring on one side better than you can.

Before you go (if you’ve made it this far), one last note: Journalists aren’t chasing one story at a time. The upshot is that any story that’s not panning out will probably fall by the wayside.

Procedural Cop Drama

Let’s start with the controversial statement: Black Lives Matter.

Yes, we can also acknowledge that they aren’t the only ones that do. The reason those lives in particular are significant right now, is that they’re the ones being killed disproportionately right now, often by police.

Let’s also acknowledge that it’s not all cops: There are good cops, and there are bad ones. One bad apple does not actually spoil the bunch (except in your crisper drawer, although I think we can all agree this is not where the majority of news happens).

The Sci-fi version of the adage goes: one alien worm can infect the whole ship.

It’s always been particularly jarring for me to see bad cops coming to the fore when I consider the police officers I have worked with in the past: During my time as a journalist, I worked in a handful of towns and with the local law enforcement in each one. One of the departments in particular, as I got to know them best in nearly 2 years working with them, really impressed me with their openness to the press and to the people who would wander in. I spent a good couple of hours copying police blotter items from a public terminal behind the front desk in the station, and overheard a number of people come in with any number of complaints (none of which I recall or ever recorded for the paper).

My sense is that the Chief of Police in that town affected the department. He came to all of the discussions hosted by the town’s governing about installing an automated license plate readers on a couple of their vehicles. The Chief of Police attended several of the town’s Board of Selectmen meetings, listened not only to the arguments the Selectmen made, but to the townspeople who were concerned about the technology’s potential to invade privacy of ordinary citizens. Leadership can make a huge difference.

The discussion ultimately ran long enough that a potential grant the local PD could have used to purchase the technology ran out. The department said they might explore other grants in future and would try to develop a better policy for the future. Since leaving the town, news coverage there has been a bit spottier, but I couldn’t really dig up anything more recent than my articles about the topic, so it may have died there three years ago (I lost track of the story and could be wrong, though).

It’s anecdotal evidence that doesn’t at all exonerate police officers who are not upholding the laws evenly to all people. Your mileage may vary. While the counter-refrain that “All lives matter” is not an incorrect statement, it’s mostly associated with either serious misunderstandings, or outright lies about Black Lives Matter as a movement and as a slogan. The cops who are out there, and are actually trying to do good work certainly deserve our praise. Those who are committing atrocities in our name deserve to be called out and stopped.

My point is this: We’re hearing about bad cops and not good ones because there is a bias against those positive stories, but it’s not the bias the right-wing “news” machine is constantly banging on about. It may actually be a bias that Rupert Murdoch created: the bias to sensationalism. Another observation from my admittedly short years as a journalist was about the types of content that did well. The stories that I loved, poured my heart and soul into, and spent my time chasing down were invariably the ones that got a quarter of the reach of the stories I kind of hated and copied from police-provided materials: the police blotter from that public terminal and the arrest logs (which were handed to me with personal details redacted).

I’ll admit, I’m not an expert and this is a partially researched idea, so I may not be able to lie the blame at the feet of Fox and Murdoch, but I do know what the end result looks like: It looks like stories that fit into a prevailing narrative getting more attention. It looks like news outlets taking a relatively minor kerfuffle over Starbucks making their coffee cups minimalist, and plopping it on your Facebook feed, so you can mock the ‘War on Christmas’ crowd. They in turn will see our mockery and take that as clear signs of a liberal conspiracy, and it’ll feed up through their news-based echo chambers. Both sides will make a huge ado about cups we ultimately toss in the trash, and the people writing the articles will rake in the ad revenue.

What I’m saying is this: If you want the news to be better, start reading better. Stop sharing articles that aggregate three or four tweets into a news story Look for stories that get to the heart of the matter. Do you want to see less of a media firestorm about random crap? Find stories about things you’re actually interested in, share those instead. Do engage in the Facebook-based whack-a-mole that is unfollowing crappy viral “news” outlets. I encourage you to challenge yourself by trying to find stories that challenge your understanding of a narrative, even if that may not be for everyone–if you are going to do it, though, stick to sources you recognize and trust.

And this is how you unfollow a news source.