"It is the newspaper's duty to print the news and raise hell."
- Wilbur F. Storey
A newspaper contains all sorts of things: headlines, photos, graphics, sports scores, weather forecasts, gossip columns, obituaries, TV schedules, police reports, birth announcements, bird sightings, sudokus, etc. etc.—plus, in the digital editions, there are also all sorts of videos, audios, commentaries from readers, web links, and a million other bits of information and communication. Each of these is of great interest to some readers. But the most important things in the newspaper are its news stories, its opinion pieces, and its advertisements. Please note that news stories, opinion pieces, and advertisements are three very different things.
The definition of news is changing as newspapers respond to a changing world. Once, it was "news" that someone in Newport, Rhode Island held a dinner party, and then for decades no one remotely cared, so it was not news, and now it is news again (read the Style section of The New York Times!). But even though the definition of news is changing, there are some traditional criteria for what is important enough or interesting enough to be considered news. This is called the news value:
- Timeliness – A story that just happened is more important than a story from the past; remember, the word is NEWs.
- Proximity – A story happening nearby gains news value because it may impact readers.
- Consequence – A story that directly affects the readers gains news value.
- Prominence – Stories that involve important people are traditionally more important than stories involving the rest of us (though great reporters with beautiful writing skills produce riveting stories about the rest of us).
- Human interest – Stories increase in news value when they contains oddity, emotion, or conflict.
- Exclusivity – Scoops still count; breaking a story that no one else has still has great value.
Newspaper editors must decide every day which stories in their community to cover, which ones to ignore, and where and how to display each one on the printed or online page. They make these decisions based on several factors: news value, staffing, space, and time. Some days, the editors really wrestle with these decisions, but lots of days—in fact, I'd say most of the time—when they hear that something's happened in their town or the world, they know instantly whether it's newsworthy, and they leap immediately into a frenzy of bossing the reporters around. These editors possess the elusive quality called news judgment: they know when something is news and when it isn't, and, interestingly, they often can't explain how they know. More on this soon.
News stories are objective reports of the truth, so far as such a thing can be ascertained. They don't contain a reporter or editor's opinion. They are written by reporters on the newspaper's staff; or the newspaper buys them from wire services (such as UPI, AP, Bloomberg, or Reuters) or collects (and verifies) them from sources on the web.
News stories can be broken into four broad categories:
A hard news story is a response to an event. These are stories on fires, crimes, speeches, votes in Congress, testimony in court, hurricanes, etc. These are stories that essentially tell the readers what happened. Reporters and correspondents assigned to various beats are responsible for keeping track of what's going on in their beats, so they know when something "happens"—and of course editors also know what happens by reading other newspapers and the web and wire services and listening to TV and the radio. These are also called spot or breaking news stories.
A feature story is a response to an idea; feature stories may be human-interest stories, profiles of individuals, or stories on trends or innovations. These are stories that essentially describe for readers what something is like. Editors and reporters come up with these story ideas, and there is no magic formula for how to think them up. My rule of thumb is: If you are alive and aware and paying attention to your world, you will find stories everywhere. If something interests you, if it matters to you, if you want to tell your friends about something and you know they wouldn't be bored, it's a story.
An investigative story often springs from news events; they are in-depth stories reported over a long period of time and are usually designed to expose corruption or misdeeds.
News analysis is explanatory journalism, written by a reporter with expertise in a complicated subject who breaks it down to make it understandable to the reader and interviews experts for their opinions. It is not an opinion piece.
Some other news terms:
- Folo story – A story that follows up on a news story about breaking events ("folo" is short for "follow-up"). The breaking story will contain much information but will not be complete; elements of the story will come to light in the days to come. A folo story can be either hard news or a feature and would appear in the paper the next day. (For example, if the breaking story is about a tsunami, folo news stories would include more information about what happened when, what caused it, the number of victims, the status of survivors and aid efforts, and the status of investigations; folo feature stories might include a profile of the place, a detailed first-person account, or background information on weather science, economics, politics, history, technology, etc.)
- Sidebar – A shorter side story accompanying a main news story that covers a related angle or provides additional information. It's called a sidebar because in a print newspaper, it was placed alongside the main story, or beneath it. (For example, if the main story is about the tsunami, sidebars published concurrently might include a timeline of events, a compilation of immediate eyewitness reactions, or a summary of official government statements.)
- Package – Anchored by the main story, a package includes one or more sidebars with related information, photos, graphics (e.g. charts, diagrams, maps), a profile of a major stakeholder, or a news analysis piece. Online newspaper packages may include links and multimedia as well.
- Dateline – The location from which a story is filed.
- Byline – The name(s) of the reporter(s) who reported and wrote the story.
Opinion pieces, unlike news stories, contain the writer's opinion, and they appear in several places in the paper, which should be clearly marked. Opinions are what they sound like—the opinions of staff members or guest writers—but nonetheless, as with everything else in journalism, the opinions must be based on facts. This is often news (ha!) to novice journalists, who believe you can write pretty much anything you want in the paper as long as it's "only" your opinion or it's meant in jest, but this is not the case. (Lots more on all of this later, when you write your own opinion piece and when you study the laws of libel.) Opinions are identified by their placement on the paper's pages or labels on the website. If you ever read something and you aren't sure whether or not it's an opinion piece, the print or digital newspaper you're reading hasn't done its job. Opinion should always be clearly labeled.
Types of Opinion Pieces
The editorial is usually published in the paper's first section, on the last interior page, on the page's left side. On a paper's website, it's identified as "The Editorial." It offers the opinion of "the newspaper" itself on various topics of the day. Because the staff of a newspaper has access to information and a commitment to civic involvement, and because a newspaper is influential in its community, its "official" opinion is valuable to readers.
The editorial is written by an editorial page editor and his or her staff, who work in an office separate from the newsroom. This physical separation is important, as it underscores the philosophical separation between the editorial page staff—whose job it is to figure out and express the newspaper's opinion about the news—and the regular editors and writers at work in the newsroom, whose job it is to keep their opinions and indeed their feelings out of their articles. Consider how this works: If the editorial staff of a newspaper decides the paper is going to endorse Candidate A for governor, then it is clearly in everyone's best interest if these people think this decision through, discuss it, and write it up in a room far away from the newsroom where reporters and editors are racing around on deadline covering the things that happened that day on Candidate A's campaign trail, including the possibly ugly things, scandals, and missteps. The reporters can't be influenced by the editorial staff's preferences. The reporters must carry on "without fear or favor."
Columns are opinion pieces written in the first person by members of the newspaper staff or guest columnists. They're called columns because usually they're laid out in a column, and the columns appear throughout the paper. They are often pegged to this day's news.
Op-ed pieces are opinion pieces written by guest writers and experts. They're called op-eds because they appear opposite the editorial page.
Letters to the editor, and other user-generated comments submitted to digital newspapers, come from the readers. You should promise yourself that at least once in your life, you'll write a letter to the editor of your paper—not just a comment beneath a story online, but a letter.
Ads are things that people pay to have printed in the paper. Advertisements should contain the truth, of course, but they don't have to run out and be all explicit with the truth or anything, given that this is a capitalist land. So if you advertise that your popsicles have "the flavor of FRUIT FRESHNESS!" and lots of mommies believe that this means the popsicles contain fruit, while really it means the popsicles contain chemicals that give a fruit-like flavor—well, that's the mommies' concern, isn't it? And in capitalist America, yes it is. But a newspaper's advertisements should indeed tell the truth to the extent that advertising anywhere does so. (And just to reiterate: A newspaper's news and opinion stories should never be misleading or opaque, obtuse, duplicitous, or in any other way akin to advertisements. There should be no shenanigans. News and opinion pieces should be transparent and explicit.)
Editors are not technically "in" the newspaper, although the top editors' names are printed on the paper's masthead. But editors are a crucial element in newspapers. And I use the term "element" deliberately, because they don't seem like normal humans, at least not to me.
My first editor was my journalism teacher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the late Jim Shumaker. Every morning he walked into class and said, "Good morning boys and girls how in the hell are you?" He didn't pause between the sentences. He was a brilliant editor, and if you worked for him at the Chapel Hill Weekly, or if you got into his class, you never forgot the man. One of his students, an Andover graduate named Jeff MacNelly, himself a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, immortalized him in the comic strip Shoe, about a grumpy bird editor who wears tennis shoes and smokes a cigar.
I took Mr. Shumaker's journalism course more than 30 years ago, and my memory isn't great, but I recall that he often wore a brown corduroy jacket—light brown really, sort of vomit-colored when you got right down to it—and his skin was wrecked the way smokers' skin is. But he was handsome; he had presence. He walked into class and said that funky greeting in a gravelly southern drawl, real slowly, as if it took an exhausting energy to greet us little weasels in our little student chairs, and we were all transfixed. He terrified us; we adored him; we wanted his attention. Everybody called him Shu.
It was as if we were in love! You know how that is, when you write something your crush is going to read, so you want it to be fabulous because your crush—that smart, witty, powerful and clever soul—understands the world in some mysterious, god-like way and will therefore appreciate how brilliant you are and how great your writing is. Naturally, this is nonsense; your crush is an idiot with the critical abilities of a lawn slug (which you will discover when you observe your crush flirting with someone who isn't you). But Mr. Shumaker was no idiot; he was the real thing. He was witty and clever, and he did understand in some mysterious, god-like way just exactly how the world worked.
Now, police officers understand how the world works, too, or understand a part of it, anyway—the part that involves crime and Dunkin' Donuts coffee and violent conflict. Similarly, politicians know their own world (coffee delivered by an aide, someone about your age). As do chefs (brew that coffee properly in a carafe!), and nurses (how we wish we had time for a cup of coffee), and mathematicians (the empty coffee pot's burning because we got distracted by an equation). Astronomers, bond traders, obstetricians, the social glitterati, competitive ice dancers—you name it—all these different people understand how their own particular world works, even though their worlds can be a real mystery to the rest of us. Students, too—you know how your school world works, including (or perhaps especially) those true things about your world that aren't well understood by, or are deliberately kept secret from, adults and other outsiders.
But what was so incredible about Shu is that he seemed to know how ALL these worlds worked. Of course, he couldn't have known EVERYTHING about EVERYTHING on the planet, but he knew how things tended to get done in most civic and social realms, and he had an unerring understanding of human nature, which of course is at the root of most news stories. So when one of our articles crossed his desk, he knew if the article accurately portrayed a world or if the article was somehow off. He knew if information was wrong or missing—even minute or esoteric information—and he also knew if we had "steered" the story somewhere it didn't belong, so that it wasn't necessarily inaccurate, but it hadn't entirely hit the truth.
Plus—and this was the part that really killed us—he also knew exactly why a story was off and whether it was our fault or not. It was as though, under his eyes, our bad sentences peeled themselves off the paper and pointed back at our solar plexuses, right into our souls. The convoluted sentences, the vague ones, the ones (so obviously!) missing a crucial fact, the ones subtly (ha!) promoting a point of view, the ones (ugh, it's embarrassing) showing off—every one of these sentences betrayed something about our characters. We'd become enamored of a source. We'd become afraid of one. We'd run out of gas. We'd been lazy, or smarty-pants pompous, or in love with our own writing. He knew it when we didn't even know it ourselves; he could read it in our sentences.
And Shu was not the only editor who could do this! So could Dick Oliver at the New York Daily News, who was my journalism teacher at Columbia. (He edited our stories with a red felt marker, so they came back looking like road kill.) So could Sylvia Lane and Joe Goodman, my editors at the Winston-Salem Journal: Sylvia edited—that is to say, psychoanalyzed her reporters—with grace and compassion, while Goodman did it a bit differently; his office is the one I described as "the Rage Cage," so enough said about that. Andrew Gully at the Boston Herald did it while wearing a small diamond earring and swearing in a Boston accent.
The truth is, all great newspaper editors have this magical knowledge about how the world works, and also how their reporters work. They don't read like normal people—they read like witchdoctors. And if you are very lucky, you will work for one of these editors some day. They can see inside your soul; they will show you your character, your gifts, and your weaknesses. I call them editors from hell.
You will love and adore these people—yes, because they will show you your soul, but far more critically, because they will catch your errors and correct them. That is the truth. It is the editor's job to catch your mistakes before your stories get into print, and they will do it. Their Martian antennae (or whatever it is) will vibrate when they read in your seventh paragraph that the zoning board approved 1.4 acres for the parking lot—they will somehow know that it must be more than that, or less—and they will protect you from your mistakes. So they are editors from heaven, too!
A newsroom looks just as you imagine it does—a space with the reporters' desks laid out to the horizon. The managing editor has an office with glass walls; at my paper, as you know, we called this the Rage Cage. Everyone in the entire room is always aware of what's happening in the Rage Cage—and all around the room for that matter—even as everyone is also intensely focused on his or her own work. Therefore, of course, the rooms can be seething nests of gossip, which in some offices might be distracting but in my old newsroom just added to the sparkling atmosphere.
Here are the jobs in a typical newsroom, with most newspaper staffs now adding online tasks to the job descriptions below:
Publisher – The paper's owner in some cases, but this is becoming increasingly rare in the era of corporate ownership.
Editor-in-Chief – The boss of everything in the newspaper except advertisements and the editorial.
Editorial Page Editor – The boss of the editorial and op-ed pages of the newspaper.
Managing Editor – Usually the hands-on manager of the newspaper.
Section editors – Editors in charge of each section, such as Metro, Features, Living/Arts, Business, Sports, Photography, Multimedia, Graphics, Library/Info Technology, and Production.
Investigative reporters – These are usually the most talented and experienced reporters, who work on special stories.
Beat reporters – These are usually experienced reporters who cover a specific area, such as politics, courts, the police, social services, business, the environment, etc. Beat reporters usually tell their editors each morning what story they'll be working on that day.
General assignment reporters – These reporters don't have a beat, so they are free to cover any story that comes up. Sometimes they tell the editors about stories they'd like to do; often, the editors assign stories to them. This is your spot or breaking news team.
Cub reporters – The newest members of the staff. They often start out by writing obituaries. This is not because obits are dull and gruesome chronicles of death. Actually, obituaries are about people's lives—they are feature stories about people who happen to be dead. And they teach young reporters crucial lessons about how to do things right in a newsroom.
Deadlines – Deadlines are not people, but they are entities in a newsroom nonetheless, and they affect everyone the way weather does in the summer, charging the atmospherics, shaping the plans. A news story is a living thing, and time is an element that defines its shape and depth.
In the old days, at the morning newspaper, deadlines were set late in the day, and the printing press rolled at night. Mornings in the newsroom felt calm. People would read the papers, drink their coffee, smoke their cigarettes, and hack and spit. (The old days were disgusting but fun.) Around 9 or 10 a.m., the editors gather in a conference room or in the managing editor's office for a budget meeting, in which they discussed which stories would be pursued that day. (Movies about newspapers always do a great job portraying budget meetings; I recommend All the President's Men and The Paper.)
As the morning rolled on, reporters made phone calls to sources or left the newsroom to interview people or track down documents. At 3 p.m. or so, the editors gathered for the afternoon meeting, in which they learned how the reporting was going and decided which stories would appear in tomorrow's paper and where they would be placed.
Then more cigarettes. The reporters smoked as they clacked away at the keyboard. When evening fell, the editors began roaming the newsroom, lurking over people's shoulders. They wanted the articles. They wanted them NOW. They had to read them, edit them, find and fix the mistakes in them. And the curtain of deadline had fallen.
These days, people don't smoke inside buildings, and a paper's news cycle isn't necessarily determined by the run of the printing press because stories are posted—and updated—on the paper's website constantly. Thus, the whole idea of deadlines is changing, and most papers are only beginning to sort out how their deadlines work.
For that matter, most newspapers now are trying to figure out how they should work in the new world of the web. What they do know, however, is that no matter how their news is delivered, they are in the business of digging it up and making sense of it for the people. So their reporters still wake up, drink coffee, read or listen to the news to learn what's happened in the world while they slept, and formulate their story ideas for the day. The editors still have budget meetings at 9 a.m. and again in mid-afternoon. And they and their reporters still race against an afternoon or evening deadline by which time the first version of their stories must be filed. So they gather—and put into perspective—the information they've found and verified up until their deadline, and they publish. Inevitably, the story, of course, will continue to unfold—time does not stop. But for today, their work is done.
- Deconstruct a section of a print newspaper. With a pen, identify whether each element on the page is a hard news story, a feature story, an investigative story, a news analysis piece, an opinion piece, or an advertisement.
- Find a news story presented as a package and make a list of its components.
- Read a breaking news story and come up with four ideas for folo stories. Brainstorm questions you still have about the breaking story, and outline both news and feature stories you think should appear in the paper tomorrow.