DALLAS — Did you ever look at a newspaper or an online news site and wonder how reporters come up with all those story ideas?
I posed the question to a group of teens at a Journalism 101 lecture July 26 at the Back Mountain Memorial Library.
Six pairs of young eyes stared at me.
Their response was what I expected. When I was 11, 12, and 13, I didn’t pick up the newspaper much either, unless I wanted to read the comics.
I had an hour with these teens and was eager to tap into my nearly 14 years combined experience working in television, newspapers and freelancing to give them insight to what it’s like to be a reporter. I also hoped to inspire them to participate in their school’s newspaper or television clubs.
I held up a copy of the Times Leader and pointed to several front-page stories, reading the headlines out loud.
“Stories are everywhere,” I told the group. “There are six of you, and I bet we could develop six different story ideas just from your interests.”
I first called on 11-year-old Juliet Price, of Sweet Valley. She sat in a lounge chair gripping a notebook and said, “I like to write.”
This one stumped me for a second, as my mind raced through potential story ideas.
“Well, you could talk with other children to see if they like to write and what they like to write about,” I said. “You could talk with a teacher about the importance of writing.”
Jacob Speicher, 12 of Dallas, said he likes to play basketball.
“It’s your off-season right now, right?” I asked.
“You could talk to your coach about the benefits of sports training during your off-season,” I said. “Talk with some of your teammates to see what they do to stay in shape during the summer.”
Now you have a story and idea of sources for your story — it’s time to think about art.
“How can you illustrate your story?” I asked.
For Price’s idea, I suggested a photograph of people writing. Speicher’s sports story could have both a video of a training session and photos, I said.
“Video is not just for television stations anymore,” I said. “The Times Leader has a YouTube channel called TimesLeadervideo.”
Now, your story is beginning to take shape.
When I asked for questions, the room remained silent.
“How many of you are thinking about playing Fortnite with your friends later?”
That question got at least a few smiles from my audience, so I knew they were listening.
“OK, so now your sources are interviewed, you know what you are doing for photos or video,” I said. “Now, it’s time to start writing. Always give yourself plenty of time to write.”
Writing and editing
“A newspaper story does have a type of formula,” I said. “Every story has a ‘lede sentence’ and, what we call a ‘nut graph.’”
The lede sentence is the first sentence of a story. It hooks a reader and pulls them in, I said.
The second paragraph is called the nut graph and typically contains information about why the story is important.
Once your story is complete, it is time to hand it over to an editor.
You can think you wrote the most spectacular story ever, but when an editor begins to dissect it and pull it apart sentence-by-sentence, word-by-word, it can be more like a horror show.
“The most important thing to keep in mind is that the editor is not trying to make you feel bad about your work, but is trying to teach you how to be a better writer,” I said.
A few years ago, my editor Dan Burnett identified one of my problem areas.
I developed a comma addiction.
“I had them everywhere,” I said. “They were like confetti and were sprinkled throughout my stories.”
I think I saw some of the kids crack a smile at that admission.
I learned how to master my problem, but still keep an eye out for those troublesome commas.
I shared another personal story with the teens.
“I remember being an intern for the Times Leader and I would be sent to cover local municipal meetings,” I said. “I think it was Kingston Borough, and I tried to take good notes. I tried to write down almost everything that was said.”
I felt confident as I entered the newsroom to write the story — until the night editor took my notebook out of my hand and asked me what happened at the meeting.
“I responded, it is in my notes,” I said.
He was not buying my excuse.
“He let me stumble over my words and somewhere between the uhs and ums, I must have said something right because I remember he gave me back my notebook and said, ‘Good. Write that.’”
“That editor still haunts my mind and, when I cover a meeting, I think, ‘What is the most important thing that happened”’”
By placing the critical aspect of a story near the beginning, you are laying the groundwork to write tightly, which is essential for newspapers.
Newspaper stories have to fit on pages, and sometimes page space is limited. I opened a Dallas Post to show how stories are placed around advertisements.
“Newspaper stories are measured by word count,” I said. “It is important to write condensed, which means no extra words such as ‘in the meantime,’ however,’ by the way,’” I said.
The most important details of a story should be placed near the top in case the bottom paragraphs are cut due to page space requirements, I said.
“When I worked in television, stories are measured by time, seconds. You would be surprised how much information you can give in several seconds.”
Q and A
When I opened the discussion for questions, the kids did not have much to say, but Jennifer Perch, children’s librarian at the library asked what is a typical day for a reporter.
My day is different than say, the Times Leader Crime Reporter Ed Lewis or Patrick Kernan, who covers the Luzerne County Court System.
“Their days can change in a minute,” I said. “As a community news reporter, my days are organized around when my sources are available to meet with me.
“Sometimes people can only meet with me at 7:30 a.m., so I make myself available,” I added. “That same day, I may also have a school board meeting at 7 p.m. so I may take a break in the middle of the day. Keep in mind, night meetings could last an hour or longer, but then you still need to write the story before deadline, which varies between 10 to 11 p.m.”
“What kind of jobs are at a newspaper?” Perch asked.
There are a variety of jobs at a newspaper, I answered. Besides reporters and editors, we have photographers, who also record video, digital design to make our web pages look fresh, page designers to create what you see on the newsstand every day, advertising representatives, classified advertising representatives, delivery drivers, press operators and much more.
If this field appeals to you, I strongly suggest getting involved in your school newspaper or television club,” I said.
“If you are homeschooled, make a family newspaper,” Times Leader Photographer Sean McKeag said.
“Now is the time to start exploring these interests,” I said.
Reach Eileen Godin at 570-991-6387 or on Twitter @TLNews.