Creative Newspaper Writing
Creative Newspaper Writing
Edem Djokotoe | June 27, 2008
1. Introduction: A Review of Newspaper Writing as we know it
If there is one thing many newspapers around the world seem to have in common, it is the rigid adherence to the Inverted Pyramid as a style of news presentation. Editors justify the Inverted Pyramid as an effective way of informing readers very quicky about what happened, when, where, why, to whom it happened and how, without losing their interest and attention.
Tho’ there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this treatment, it has created the impression that all the news has to be reported in the very first paragraph, hence the use of summary leads.
Unluckily, few editors want to place the Inverted Pyramid within the context of its history and the purpose it was meant to serve when it was created. As a style, the Inverted Pyramid was derived from “Telegraphic Journalism”, where news has to be summarised and dispatched quickly before the telegraph lines got clogged and broke down. Previously, reporters relied on chronological narratives to inform readers about what was going on. But eventually, newspaper proprietors and editors felt that tho’ chronology was timeconscious, it tended to obscure the most significant elements of the news. Chronological presentations meant that readers had to wait to read a long text before they got the gist of the news. It was felt that since newspapers where meant to be read in a hurry, chronology was not the best way to prsent reader with news. Chronology may be the novelist and the historian’s stock in trade, but not the journalist who had to announce the news as quickly as possible.
This is the history of the Inverted Pyramid.
Two. Editorial Responses to Switching Reader Needs
As time went by, public request for news began to switch. Readers wished more informative discourses on issues that interested them and affected them. They dreamed analytical lumps on economics, business and politics. They desired reviews of plays, music and film. They desired to read about the practices of travellers as depicted in travelogues. They dreamed to know what principles their newspapers stood for, what values they held. They wished their papers to satirise issues, people, developments, situations. They wished their newspapers to entertain them with humorous lumps. They dreamed their papers to help them reflect and philosophise on reality.
All these needs meant that newspapers had to go beyond the mere reportage of events. So eventually, newspapers began to broaden their content and to incorporate writing styles that met people’s informational needs.
This is why when you pick up a newspaper anywhere in the world today, you will notice that, in addition to the straight news reports cast in the Inverted Pyramid, there are a multiplicity of editorial products, each of which aspire towards a different end. These editorial products are loosely called feature articles to distinguish them from straight news reports. However, there are different kinds of feature articles which have different editorial functions. These include:
• THE EDITORIAL: which is basically an editorial argument in which the newspaper voices its opinion on a matter of public interest, justifying why it has taken the stand it has. The editorial is the paper’s reaction to the news and is written in the very first person plural (“we”) to demonstrate that it is the collective opinion of the editorial staff and an extension of the papers’s own ideology.
• THE PROFILE: a descriptive and psychological insight into people in the news. It gives readers an chance to know who they are, and “hear” them speak in their own voice.
• THE NEWS FEATURE: an article which examines issues that the news raises issues which cannot be analysed and discussed within the format of a news story. Ideally, news features are meant to make the news better understood. Whereas a news story will response the questions posed by the 5Ws and 1 H, the news feature goes beyond to demonstrate what it all means, what the significance behind events and developments are.
• THE SITUATIONER: an article type whose main mandate is to describe a situation in which certain events have taken place as a supplement to reports about events and developments. For example, there has been a lot said about Zambia’s involvement in arms smuggling to UNITA. The Angolan government has publicly denounced Zambia and warned that it would act in the interests of its own security. The Zambian government, for its part, says it has launched investigations to establish whether there is any truth in the accusations that it is helping UNITA. Against the backdrop of all these events, it would be necessary for a newspaper, in the interests of Zambian people who do not want a war on their mitts, to appraise the public of the state of affairs as at now inbetween the two countries.
• THE BACKGROUNDER: this type of feature article goes back in time to provide the historical context behind the news. Like the situationer, it is published as a side bar, as a supplement to make present developments understood in the context of past realities.
An example. Chinsali has always been considered a hotbed of opposition politics. Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe came from Chinsali. More recently, another product of Chinsali Dr. Nevers Mumba has emerged on the scene with his own brand of political opposition. Talking to people from Chinsali, you get the distinct impression that they have an axe to grind with the government of the day. Where did it all commence from? The response could lie with Alice Mulenga Lenshina and how the UNIP government treated the Lumpa uprising which claimed thousands of lives, many of whom originated from Chinsali. It’s been years since all this happened, but have the wounds healed? It would be interesting to find out.
• BY LINED COLUMNS: where the paper relies either on its starlet writers or on guest columnists to write opinion driven articles or very personalised lumps to break the monotony of the paper’s own reportage or point of view. Bylined columns could be satirical or specialised in a technical way, dealing with issues such as medicine, the law, etc.
• TRAVELOGUES: features of this kind provide a sociological examine of other cultures and peoples as experienced through travel. Essentially humaninterest inclined, travelogues concentrate on the unusual, interesting or memorable aspects of a people’s culture, and on the cultural shocks that the writer gets while attempting to adapt to a fresh environment as well as a fresh way of life.
• REVIEWS OF THE ARTS: fresh productions in the world of the arts (i.e film, theatre, music, novels etc.) require appraisal, and this is where reviewing comes in. Through the review, the journalist informs the public about these works of art. However, he/she relies on the featurised writing to achieve this end.
John Hollowell explains how journalists and novelists alike responded to the social switches of the 1960s in America with a diversity of experiments in nonfiction in a book entitled Fact & Fiction: The Fresh Journalism and the Non Fiction Novel. 1977. According to him, reporters who wrote for major newspapers and magazines, and novelists who created book length non fiction as alternatives to fiction, brought about two major switches in American journalism. Firstly, they asserted the validity of the writer’s own voice in the reporting of events.
Secondly, they created a narative form written with dramatic scenes with fully recorded dialogue that substituted the usual formats and formulae of the news article.
In other words, writing that reflects the influence of fiction in organisation and narrative drive but which still remain factual reports of the events, situations and personalities they describe.
As far as I know, the influence of fiction was derived from public reaction to the written word. Research has shown that whereas people read novels over and over again for their content, style and technology, they do not transfer the same literary enthusiasm to newspapers. In fact, yesterday’s newspaper has very little appeal for many readers. And so, journalism had to remake itself to be more reader friendly.
I think it is very significant for editors and newspaper editors to be mindful of these realities. They have to understand the psychology of readers in order to serve them a product they appreciate. Unluckily, many editors insulate themselves against these realities, but claim to do doing what they do “in the public interest”. As far as I am worried, falling newspaper circulation is not a result of the poor economic climate. It is a vote of no confidence by the newspaper reading public which is the same public that subscribe to the most widely bought publications in Zambia today: Drum, Thandi, You, Readers’ Digest, Cosmopolitan, International Express, all of which cost a lot more than the local papers. The duty government has smacked on imported publications may not necessarily stop people from buying them. Nor will it cause the local press to be appreciated more.
Three. Reporting and Writing for Newspapers: Some Ideas
In what is the very first part of a two part series of lectures entitled CREATIVE NEWSPAPER WRITING I will concentrate mainly on the news story and how to improve writing it. I will revisit:
• basic news leads (and alternatives to the summary lead)
• structure of a news story
• quotations and attributions
I will look at the Wine glass structure of news writing, which is a modification of the Inverted Pyramid. In the 2nd part of this lecture series, I will deal with more stylised forms of writing.
Newspapers serve a mass audience and the members of that audience wield different. capabilities, different levels of understanding and different interests. To convey information to this mass audience, journalists must present it in as elementary a manner as posible.
This is one of the very first rules we all learn in journalism school, much to our frustration, especially since many of us are attracted to journalism because we were good at English in school and our English teachers felt we could carve a career for ourselves in journalism impressing the public with our expressive abilities and the big words we know!
In Africa especially, where there is no distinction inbetween the Quality press (like The Times of London and The Observer) which caters for elitist, high brow, intellectual readers and the Popular press, which is more suited for plebeian tastes, newspapers have to be all things to all people. So, newspapers likes The Times of Zambia and The Post are an editorial compromise, cutting across different intellectual levels.
Consequently, newswriting style is simplistic. The best way to keep writing elementary is to avoid long, unacquainted words. “About” makes better sense than “approximately”. “Build” is a lot simpler than “construct”, just as “call” is a lot more precise than “summon”. The list of simpler alternatives is endless.
Long words are not the only obstacles to elementary and concise writing. Technical language and jargon clutter newspaper language. Most jargon is wordy and abstract. The Zambian press is total of examples taken from a form of expression I choose to describe as “NGO speak”. Phrases like “co operating playmates”, “stake holders”, “enabling environment”. What do they mean in less abstract terms? That is what journalists have to ask themselves.
Journalists also have to ask themselves what other forms of expression they could use besides cliches those over used expressions and stock phrases many people use without thinking. Five
Expressions and stock phrases such as:
benefit of doubt caught crimson passed dead and buried faced an uphill battle foreseeable future ground to a halt lodge a complaint reaction the call of Nature pile of strength express frustration bliss in disguise from strength to strength speedy recovery Good newspaper writing is in the active voice as opposed to the passive voice.
“The SADC Goes of State issued a statement affirming their support for Laurent Kabila’s government” makes better editorial sense than
“A statement was issued by the SADC Goes of State affirming their support for Laurent Kabila’s government”
because it spells out who did what (Active voice) instead of what was done by whom(passive voice).
Newswriting style is precise, particularly in the choice of words. Some reporters might find it hard to believe, but “lady” is not a synonym for “woman” and therefore should not be used interchangeably. “Woman” which means “adult female” is very different in meaning from “lady” which is “a woman of good manners and behaviour or of high position”. In conversation, people use “lady” as a polite reference to a “woman”, but in so far as precise newsriting is worried, this must be avoided, because it raises subjective questions about what constitutes god manners and behaviour. Whereas a word like “kid” may be used as a synonym for “child” in informal conversation, it should not be used in newspaper writing. A “kid”, according to the Oxford Dictionary is a “youthful goat”. 6
Another example: Very often, people use euphemisms i.e. “vague expressions used in place of harsher, more offensive words of phrases”. But euphemisms, by their very nature are indirect and fairly inaccurate. For example, a man hires the services of a commercial lovemaking worker. I deny to believe that the two “make love”. They “have hook-up” is more accurate, even tho’ some people might think it sounds too direct. “Pants” and “underwear” are more precise than “unmentionables”.
There is a rule in newswriting about the avoidance of adjectives in the interests of objectivity. It is a rule, I believe, must be adhered to because it helps journalists stick to the facts and to avoid colouring these with opinion. “The goalkeeper saved the penalty brilliantly” wrote on reporter. I am not sure what constitutes “brilliance”. It could be that the shot was aim was powerless or was poorly taken. Whatever the situation, the ball did not inject the net. That is the truth value, or the fact, if you like. When journalists write about “beautiful boys” and “beautiful women”, they are making value judgments about things they are not qualified to do, because the quality of beauty and handsomeness are relative. It is for these reasons that the rules of newswriting require journalists to stick to the facts and leave their opinions out.
The most significant part of any news story is the lead or the intro because that is where the reader ought to be confronted with the news. Traditionally, the lead summarises the entire story so that readers can determine at a glance whether they want to read it or not. In this way, readers do not have to waste any time or effort ploughing through something that does not interest them.
Fred Fedler writes in his book, Reporting For The Print Media (1989):
Before reporters can write an effective lead, they must very first learn to recognise whafis news. Leads that fail to emphasize the news. cannot be used, regardless of how well they are written. After determining which facts are most newsworthy, a reporter must then summarise those facts in acute, clear sentences.
To determine which questions are most significant for a story you have been asked to write, consider the following points:
(i.) what is the most significant information what is the story’s main point?
(ii) what happened or what act was taken?
(iii) which fact are most likely to affect or interest readers?
(iv) which facts are most unusual?
On the basis of these questions, consider the news value of this lead from the lead story that appeared in the Times of Zambia on Wednesday, February Ten, 1999 headlined “Zambians Assured:
The truth will soon be established over the much talked about sale of arms to Angola’s UNITA rebels, chief Government spokesman, Newstead Zimba has said.
As far as I am worried, if the Government has not yet established the truth about the sale of arms to UNITA, then there is no news worth reporting. Thus the “assurance” referred to in the headline is misleading and grossly inaccurate. The above lead is a good example of a bad lead.
It is just as bad as this lead which appeared in the same paper on the same day.
The alleged serial killer was yesterday paraded before five witnesses at Woodlards Police Station but the matter ended inconclusively as more witnesses have to be called in today.
The real kernel of news is contained in the 2nd paragraph, which reads:
Witnesses brought in from Leopards Hill where the more latest killing of former deputy speaker, Leonard Kombe and his wifey took place, and from Kafue and Makeni, were not able to persuade the police on the suspect’s identity.
In other words, the five suspects brought in to identify the alleged serial killer failed to do so. That is what the lead should have said. The 2nd paragraph should have stated that the police have determined to bring in more witnesses to help them identify the suspect.
From the examples I have cited, you realise that some of the weaknesses in news writing in the press have to do with the inability of journalists to identify what the news is and to state it precisely. This is why it is significant for journalists to establish the most significant information before they commit it to paper.
A lead must express something tangible.
Here is are some examples I have constructed:
Kenneth Kaunda was arrested yesterday and charged with misprision of treason.
Angola has threatened to announce war on Zambia for allegedly supplying the rebel UNITA movement with arms.
ALTERNATIVE LEAD TYPES
Not all leads consist of one sentence. In fact, there is the numerous paragraph lead borrowed from the world of fiction that is used to infuse drama into stories that is considered too dramatic to be reported as a summary.
Just before midnight, GanizaniPhiri said goodnight to his friends and staggered home down the road from Chris’ Corner bar in Chilenje.
He wrote three letters when he got home one to his father, one to his best friend and one to his fiancee. The message in the letters was the same: goodbye.
And then he put a gun to his head and shot himself. The reason for his suicide is not known.
In terms of number, you could say this lead has three paragraphs. In terms of effect, this lead is called a Suspended Interest lead because it delays the announcement of the news.
Another lead type that journalists could consider using in the interests of diversity and influence is the Quotation lead which, as the name suggests, relies on a punchy and precise direct quote.
“This is the work of my political enemies,” Lusaka Province Deputy Minister, Sonny Mulenga said yesterday after bailiffs, acting on behalf of Zambia National Commercial Bank which he owes over K210 million, evicted him from his Roma home and seized two truckloads of household goods.
I think The Post should have played up the quote from Sonny Mulengd in the report it carried on Ten February, 1999 because it is not everyday a politician blames his enemies when a bank he owes money calls in his debt: The unusual quality of the quote would have made the story.
The use of Question leads also helps bring out the main point of a story and infuse multitude into newspaper writing. Question leads work best when they are precise and deal with a controversial issue.
At what age should children begin learning about hook-up? That was the question a one day workshop co hosted by the Ministries of Education and Health of Manchinchi Bay Lodge in Siavonga sought to address yesterday. Not all editors appreciate such editorial liberties. Some will argue that news stories should not ask questions, but should provide answers to them. But you will notice from the question that a straightforward response will not be effortless to find, and that is what makes the point of the story. The direct address lead Tho’ these seem towork better with features, there are occasions when a journalist can use them in straight newswriting. For example: If you are a commercial farmer, then the 7999 budget introduced by Finance Minister, Edith Nawakwi to Parliament yesterday should cheer you up. The budget has liquidated duty on agricultural machinery and inputs with instant effect to revitalise the farming sector and make it a viable industry. All in all, a good lead must be effortless to understand. It must take the story to the reader in clear and precise terms. I hope the examples given do just that. STRUCTURE OF A NEWS STORY With the Inverted Pyramid, the lead summarises the news. The paragraphs that go after provide extra details. For example, two guys are arrested and charged with theft by servant. The subsequent paragraphs should establish: their names and identity, what they stole and the value of what was stolen, the circumstances surrounding the theft, how they were caught, the specific charges against them, when they are likely to emerge in court. io
As the story unfolds, certain details are repeated in an effort to consolidate the facts. However, at the editing stage, it is these repeated details that get chopped off in situations when space is scarce.
The question many modern experts on newspaper writing ask is: why repeat yourself when the shortage of space does not permit for such luxury?
It is as partly as a result of this situation, and partly as a result of the need to infuse context and background into newswriting to make news less eventoriented and more process oriented that the Wine glass structure of news presentation was designed.
The Wine glass is a modification of the Inverted Pyramid. Instead of repeated details at the end, the journalist works in context and background to make the story better understood and to be seen as part of a situation instead of as an isolated event.
For example, the Zambia Daily Mail of Ten February, 1999 reported that:
Zimbabwe was fold on Monday it would not be permitted to stage the 2000 African Nations’ Cup finals because it had not met certain required targets.
Confederation of African Football (CAF) Secretary General Mustapha Fahmy fold a news conference that other national federations had until March Ten to apply to host the continent’s thickest sporting event.
The story goes on to state that Zimbabwe’s application to host the games was rejected because it was not satisfactory. Fahmny listed problems with “timing and funding of work on stadiums and with facilities for television coverage of the event”. He added that there had been no commitment on the Zimbabwean government’s part to demolish and rebuild a fourth stadium in Mutare.
You will notice that for one thing, there is no cohesion inbetween the very first two paragraphs. The lead, which is cast in the passive voice, does not say who told Zimbabwe that it would not host the 2000 Africa Cup. The 2nd paragraph quotes CAF Secretary General, but it does not attribute that announcement to him. These faults aside, I want to showcase how the Wine glass structure could help bring detail and context to the story.
The questions that the story does not address: what does a country need to have to host the Cup, according to CAF? How many stadiums? What quality stadiums? Hotels? Communication inbetween and among venues? Facilities for televising all the games? Security? Sitting capacity of stadiums? Other amenities?
What did Burkina Faso and other past hosts have that Zimbabwe doesn’t have? How much did Burkina Faso spend on logistics to host the Cup? Will the countries that want to throw in their bids have enough time (from Ten March this year) to mobilise resources and be ready to host the Cup finals?
These details, which could have been incorporated in the tail end of the story, would tell the reader that hosting a continental football tournament is not as effortless as it sounds. This is how the Wine glass works.
DIRECT QUOTATIONS AND ATTRIBUTION
The use of quotes are an unpreventable part of a journalist’s craft. After all, journalists obtain much of their information from other people in the form of direct quotations, indirect quotations and partial quotations.
Direct quotations present a source’s exact words and are denoted by quotation marks. Indirect quotes, or paraphrases, on the other arm, do not use the source’s exact words, but the journalist’s summary of what was said. These are not placed in quotation marks. Partial quotations use key words and phrases from a source’s statement and quote these directly.
Use direct quotations when a source says something significant, controversial, interesting or unusual. Use them to illustrate point, not to tell the entire story. Excessive use of direct quotes can be monotonous. Journalists should learn how to vary their choice of quotes.
Indirect quotes work best when a source’s expression is not fluid. The paraphrase helps convey the source’s thoughts and meanings as opposed to the exact words which not be eloquently voiced. Sometimes, to quote directly would mean to accommodate the source’s ungrammatical expression. Through paraphrases, the journalist can, for example, omit obscenities from a source’s speech.
Pointers about attribution
Journalists should avoid attributing statements that report undisputed facts, such as
Lusaka City Council spokesman, Daniel M’soka has said that Lusaka is the capital of Zambia.
Attribution is also unncessary in stories that reporters themselves witness. It does not make sense for a reporter to go to cover a football match and attribute what he or she witnessed to someone else. However, when information is given to them by other people, they must attribute it to the speakers. What kind of information should journalists attribute?
(i) statements of opinion. For example, if a coach says that his team lost of Cup game, because the opposing team used witchcraft to win, attribute the opinion to the coach.
(ii) all direct and indirect quotations.
(iii) statements about controversial issues. Reminisce the controversy stirred by Valentine Kayope’s statement that the judiciary has been compromised by UNIP because most of the judges come from the Eastern Province.
If journalists fail to attribute such statements, news stories or feature articles will seem to present their opinions rather than the opinions of their sources. Attribution also helps readers determine the credibility of statements reported by the press. Readers may accept the statements made by some sources but distrust others. For example, should readers consider ZIMT’s Alfred Zulu a credible source to talk about landmines when he obviously lacks the technical skill need to do so? He may comment about landmines in his individual capacity, but somehow The Post seems to believe he is a walking encyclopaedia and a specialist on every subject.
The placement and frequency of attribution
An attribution can be placed at the beginning or at the end of a sentence. However, it should never interrupt a thought. e.g.
“The President’s speech to Parliament ,” Ntondo Chindoloma said, “lacks substance and as such should not be taken gravely.”
A direct quotation should be attributed only once, regardiss of the number of sentences it contains. Even quotations that proceed over paragraphs should be attributed only once.
After attributing information to a source, journaliss should identify that source as fully as possible. Normally, journalists provide the source’s name, occupation or position and rank and other identification relevant to the story. Other times, they attribute their stories to “well informed sources close to the President”, “reliable source at State House,” “a high ranking government official”.
The argument is that some sources do not want to be identified for fear of being persecuted for what they say. However, editors are very critical of stories, particularly sensitive ones, where the sources cannot be identified.
In December last year, during the Economic and Financial Reporting course ZAMCOM run, one participant undertook to write a story about the Presidential Fund and about the fact that not even the Ministry of Finance knew how much money was contained in it. He said only Cabinet Office knew those details. He attributed the story to a “senior Ministry of Finance official”. He did not not make the effort to go to Cabinet Office to seek clarification. Meantime, he thought he had written a good story. I threw it out because I believe that a story that makes such allegations must be attributed and multi sourced. He should have gone to the Secretary to the Treasury or the Permanent Secretary at Finance and the Secretary to the Cabinet to confirm what had been said.
This kind of practice has unluckily become a norm in the Zambian press.
One last point about attribution. Journalists should attribute information to people, not to places or institutions.
UTH has said that it does not have the resources to cope with outbreaks of epidemics in the city.
I do not think UTH as an institution can issue such a statement. Which is why it employs a spokesperson to make such statements on its behalf.
Four. Creative News Writing: Some Final Words
By and large, the mechanics of good writing take a long time to master and we all have to work hard at attempting to improve what we already know and to think out fresh ways of doing old things.
Beyond basic literacy abilities, I dont’ believe it is possible to instruct anyone how to write. That was something I kept emphasizing in the Ten or so years I spent at Evelyn Hone. You see, every class of journalism students I had kept insisting they had come to College to “learn how to write”. I kept disappointing them because I kept telling them that much as I could train my little children how to write the letters of the alphabet and improve their script, I could not train anyone how to write.
What I could do was to heighten their awareness and their appreciation of good writing, and draw their attention to the characteristics of bad writing. Writing comes from within. It comes from individual interaction with reality. Everyone reacts to reality in one way or another. Only thing is, journalists make a career out of it.
All I have attempted to do in this presentation is to get you to concentrate on some of the mechanics of good newspaper writing. Admittedly, the constraints of time will make it unlikely to consider everything. But I hope that with time, you will review your own ideas about writing in the light of what we have done here today and dedicate yourself to writing better and to avoiding some of the pitfalls journalists face in their expression.
1. Fedler, Fred. Reporting for the Print Media. 1989.
Two. Hollowell, John. Fact & Fiction: The Fresh Journalism and the NonFiction Novel. 1977.
Three. Ward, Hiley. Magazine and Feature Writing. 1993.
Four. Scanlan, Christopher ed. Best Newspaper Writing 1996: Winners: The American Society of Newspaper Editors Competition. The Poynter Institute for Media Studies. 1996. 16