So you wanna be a reporter, huh?

Absolute Blank

By Rhia Perkins (Kittlekatt)

Writing journalistic nonfiction is one of the easiest ways to break into paying markets. And while there are pricey journalism schools out there that purport to teach you how (and they do! I went to one), following the basic tenets of good journalism will let anyone do a great job on reporting on local events and characters.

Remember, journalism is just storytelling. The main difference is that you let real people and events form the basic facts of the story. You must use the actual words of real people, and suppress your voice as much as you can. But the weaving of the piece is still up to you.

What are these basic tenets, you ask?

  • Be Fearless
  • Ask Good Questions
  • Never Assume
  • Focus
  • Accuracy, Accuracy, Accuracy

Background Image: eltpics/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Be Fearless

One of the most important things a reporter must do is find the “experts” who can provide the information for a story. This can be a person who you are profiling, a researcher at a university, a public official, or just about anyone.

Once you’ve identified who you need to find and back up the facts of your story, you have to do the scary thing–cold call them.

Don’t be afraid–but don’t feel bad if you are. Just pick up the phone and dial. Generally, people will be more than happy to speak with you. But be persistent–even if they’re busy, they’ll often make room in their schedules for you if you explain exactly what you want, and how long you think the interview will take.

Make sure to be polite to receptionists and secretaries. Very often they’re the ones who’ll control whether or not you get a chance to talk to your expert. But be extra polite when you are calling individuals. They may be nervous about talking to you, so you must work hard to gain their trust.

Ask Good Questions

The only way you will get good quotes for your story is to ask good questions.

Make sure to ask questions that cannot be answered with “yes” or “no”. Ask one question at a time, and make sure it’s a question, and not a statement.

The best open ended questions start with one of the 5 Ws. Who? What? Where? When? and Why? Don’t forget the H-questions, too. Asking “How?” can get you great detail.

Make sure to follow up on answers.

  • “What happened next?”
  • “What examples of that can you give me?”
  • “How did that make you feel?”
  • “What does that mean?” or better yet “How would you explain that to a six-year-old?”
  • “What led up to this?”
  • “How much did it/will it cost?”
  • “Where will you find the funding?”
  • “Who will benefit?”

If you’re working on a profile, ask questions that will give readers an idea of the person’s personality. (You could even ask your characters this kind of question when writing fiction.)

  • “What’s your earliest childhood memory?”
  • “What’s the scariest thing that ever happened to you?”
  • “How do you feel when you do XX?”
  • “Where’s the most exciting place you’ve done XX?”
  • “If you could be anyone in history, who would you be?”

And always end interviews with the following questions:

  • “Is there anything I’ve forgotten to ask you?”
  • “May I contact you again if I need clarification or more information?”

Be scrupulous in writing down your subject’s answers. Use a tape recorder if your notetaking can’t keep up with the conversation. But most important…

Never Assume

You cannot assume that your interview subject is telling you the truth.

They may not be lying, but may be working under false assumptions themselves. This means your probing questions are essential. If you have reason to doubt an answer, it’s okay to ask, “How do you know that?” or “What documentation do you have?”

For facts and figures, always try to get the paperwork. Try to confirm factual information through other means (the Internet, encyclopedias, library databases). Interview enough people to ensure you’ve looked at as many angles as you can. If there’s a point of contention, call back your subjects to confirm or clarify.


Now that you have your interviews, your additional research, and a good idea of your story–it’s time to focus it.

The scope of your article depends greatly on its length. If you’re writing 500 words, you can only look at one or two very specific aspects. If 1,000, you can dig a little deeper, or write a little broader. At 2,000 or more words, you’re reaching a point where you can look at all the aspects of a simple story, or the most important ones of a complex story.

Identify which points are essential to your readers. This is the meat of your story, those five Ws and one H. Next, you should identify the motivations, the causes for the what. These two aspects must be in every story. The next step is to write a clear focus statement: This person is doing this thing BECAUSE this reason is happening.

Hang the rest of your story off that statement. If a detail doesn’t apply to that sentence, it doesn’t belong in your story. And remember to tell most of the story through your QUOTES.

Accuracy, Accuracy, Accuracy

This phrase is often referred to as the three tenets of journalism. What it means is, GET EVERYTHING RIGHT! Sounds easy, right? It’s not, always.

Some good tips. Ask people to spell their names, and those of any people or organizations they refer to. Don’t assume you know how to spell a name. There are always alternate spellings. (Spike Jonze for example.) Repeat figures back to the person giving them to you (or better yet, get the paperwork.) Look up addresses in the phone book.

Go over your work several times to make sure you’ve got the facts right. There’s nothing that makes a writer look worse than a letter saying they’ve got basic facts wrong. But don’t worry, everyone screws up sometimes.

And make sure all the information is attributed to its source. Use “says”. “According to” makes it sound as though you doubt the source.

Basic Structure

When you sit down to create your story, keep just a few things in mind.

  1. A strong lead is essential. Your first sentence should grab the reader’s attention and get them reading. Stay away from wasting it with clichés (It’s that time of year again…) and from dry recitations of too many facts (Claire St. George, 43, was run over by a blue Dodge Neon at Barrington and Gottingen at 5:45 Tuesday morning). But do try and get enough detail to get people’s attention. Try: A fatal accident in downtown Halifax Tuesday morning marks the city’s 5th traffic fatality this month.
  2. The most important info goes at the top.
  3. Weave together info and quotes. Make sure to attribute all your quotes, and to insert plain paragraphs between quotes.

Now who do you write for?

A great market for beginning journalists is the alternative media. Look around the town you live in. It’s very likely there are several small publications distributed free of charge. Start picking them up. See what sort of stories they run, what sort of viewpoints they look at, what sort of audience they cater to.

When you’ve found one that interests you, make an appointment to speak with the editor, whether you have story ideas ready to go or not. You can even telephone or e-mail, but be sure to introduce yourself and give the editor an idea of your background and your interests. Ask them to assign you a small story when they have one. When they do, ask them if they have an idea who you should call for info.

Meet your deadline. Ask for feedback. Because most alternative papers publish weekly or less often, there’s a good chance they’ll be able to spend some time going over your story with you. Pay attention to their feedback, and be sure to follow up on any questions they’d like to see addressed.

You may have to write several drafts, but don’t lose hope. When you and the editor agree the story is ready to go, you’ll get your byline in the paper, and a cheque (hopefully!) to boot.

And when you’ve built your confidence, don’t be afraid to roam further afield. Try alternative papers in nearby towns, or send off an idea to a magazine. There’s nowhere to go but up.

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