Newswriting Readability

Four quick fixes any newspaper can use to improve writing

Community newspapers are always looking for ways to improve the reader’s experience.

We’ve improved design and photography and even experimented with larger point sizes and more readable fonts (And somewhere, Ed Henninger is smiling). But nothing improves the reader experience more than readable writing.

Some editors just glaze over when they start thinking about making writing more readable. Just too challenging a task, they assume.

But maybe not.

Let’s say you were getting your house ready for sale. Now in an ideal world you’d bring in Chip and Joanna Gaines and give them $30,000 to work with. Chip would knock out some walls and Joanna would line your den with shiplap. You wouldn’t even recognize the place.

But if you don’t have $30k, you can still make significant changes that’ll help your house sell. Throw out junk or put it in storage. Plant new flowers. Wash down the siding. Paint a few rooms. Steam clean the carpets. For less than $1,000 you can make a real difference in the curb appeal of your home.

And the same goes for your newspaper. Yeah, you really would like to bring in Roy Peter Clark for a week of in-house coaching or send everyone back to take some journalism courses (at TCU, of course). But get real. Nobody in today’s newspaper world has the money for the writing equivalent of a Chip-and-Joanna makeover.

The good news is that there are somethings you can do to improve writing, no matter what your resources or the expertise of your reporters. Now bear in mind, we would all like to do so much more, but here’s a place to begin, something that any newspaper can do, beginning today.

Quick fix #1: Many Texas newspapers are using choke-a-horse paragraphs. Long paragraphs are forbidding to readers. They think the story will be hard-reading before they ever start.

Paragraphs are one of the areas where size really does matter. And smaller is always better. And remember: You were taught in high school that paragraphs are a unit of thought – but in newspapers, they are a unit of typography.

There’s nothing wrong with one-sentence grafs. And can you occasionally throw in a one-word graf in features?


Depending on your line length, most newspaper grafs should not go over about four lines. And when you’re quoting someone, always start a new, full sentence of quote at the beginning of a new graf.

The best rule is that if you’re uncertain about whether to start a new graf, just do it. Your local English teacher may complain, but your readers will love it.

Quick fix #2: Leads should get to the point. If you are talking to a writer working on a story, tell him or her that he has 30 seconds to tell you what the story is about. Whatever that writer says, should be in the lead.

Often, when we are coaching writers, we look immediately to the words on the screen. Stop trying to work with, edit or improve words. Instead, work with ideas. And frame the 30-second query in different ways:

“Joe Bob, let’s assume somebody read that story you’re working on, and somebody else said, ‘Hey, what’s that about?’ What would he say?” The answer to that question should probably be in the lead.

Sometimes, when we are coaching writers at the university, and they are having a hard time with the story, we’ll just turn off the screen and say, “Stop writing and tell me what the story is about.”

Even veteran reporters begin writing without ever figuring out what the story is about and what the reader needs to know first. That gives you stories that bury the lead. Oh sure, it may be in there someplace, but today’s readers are less and less likely to wade into the swamp to find it.

Quick fix #3: Start sentences with subjects, not clauses or prepositional phrases. After all, that’s the way we talk. Let’s say you see somebody running down the street in your neighborhood, calling out the name of her dog. You ask what’s up. Would she say this: “Having distracted myself with helping my son with his homework and neglecting to shut the gate to the back yard, I missed Fido, called out to him, and discovered that he had escaped out that open gate.”

Or would she more likely say, “My dog got out!”

So why do we back into leads? See quick fix #2 – because we haven’t taken the time to figure out what the story is about. And we end up with something like this:

Although city attorney Billy Bob Beasley and city personnel director Hilda Rae Smith said they could not comment on an incident earlier this week in which a Jonesville police officer was said to have stolen drugs from the police property room, Chief Joe Fred Gonzalez said Monday that the officer was being suspended.

Why not get to the point?

A Jonesville police officer accused of stealing drugs from the department’s property room was suspended Monday by Chief Joe Fred Gonzalez.

Quick fix #4: Start your sentences with subjects. And follow them with a verb. Here’s a New York Times story that backs into the lead and makes it hard to connect the subject and verb:

Asked at a confirmation hearing two weeks ago if he was working with President Trump on a secret plan to replace the Affordable Care Act, Rep. Tom Price, Mr. Trump’s nominee for secretary of health and human services, smiled broadly and answered: “It’s true that he said that, yes.”

There are 49 words in that lead. The subject of the sentence (Rep. Tom Price) is 26 words in, and you don’t get to the compound verbs until 39 and 42 words in, respectively.

One of the best exercises for writers is to take a story and highlight the subjects in one color and the verbs in another. Then ask: Do the subjects come close to the beginning of sentences? Are the verbs right after the subjects?

These four quick fixes are only the beginning, but some newspapers can get a significant boost in reader-friendliness if they put them into effect.

(This blogpost grades out at the fifth grade reading level. It has an average of less than 8 percent complex words and under 14 words a sentence.)

Circulation Community Journalism

The readers we have vs. the readers we want: a circulation dilemma

One of the dilemmas faced by any medium is the extent to which journalists give readers what they want – no matter what that is.

So do we cater to the needs of the readers we have, or do we try to include content that reaches the readers we want?  And if we do that, what if the readers we want never see the content we included to reach them?

Obviously, there are no easy answers.  And newspapers aren’t alone in wrestling with this.  There are movies that win awards and movies that draw huge box office – and often those are two different kinds of movies.  The questions that must be answered:  Do we give our audience what it wants or what we think it needs?  And do we cater to our current audience or the one we’re trying to reach?

We had a note this week from Rick Craig of the Hood County News.  We applaud the News for trying to find some answers in light of a recent readership study.  Here’s what Rick wrote:

We recently completed a readership survey. We polled current subscribers and past subscribers that did not renew their subscription to our twice-weekly community newspaper. One thing that came from the survey is that our readers (both past and present) do not care much for sports, school district news or news about school activities. This is understandable since more than 73 percent of those responding to the survey are age 55-plus.

 This leads to the question that I am sure is being asked in many newspapers: Do we continue or increase the school news and sports in our paper to attract the parents of those participating in these events? Or do we cut back on those areas and focus on the areas that have a greater impact on our current readers?

 If we cut back on the news for parents with school-age children, are we giving up on acquiring younger readers to replace our older one?

Rick asked that we share the questions they are wrestling with at the News, and solicit input from other Texas newspapers.  You may not have done the survey, but as our readership ages, we all probably have similar issues.

Have you made significant adjustments to your content to appeal to a certain demographic?

And perhaps most important, what are you doing to reach younger readers?

Ethics media criticism

Fake news: Nothing new in the history of journalism

Fake news is nothing new.  When people talk about it on the internet and social media, they treat it like it’s society’s newest trend.  But that’s far from the truth. Fake news is as old as … wait for it … the story of the birth of Jesus.

But let’s start with the definition of fake news:  It’s reporting stuff that never happened and treating it as true.

Like saying Hillary Clinton ran a child trafficking ring out of a pizza parlor in Washington.

And while the internet spreads fake news faster than ever before, it’s nothing new – fake news goes all the way back to the beginning of American journalism.

Some early news stories were probably fake just because there was no way to verify them.  Newspapers did the best they could, but if someone told the editor that the royal governor was stealing from the treasury, there was no way that could be checked out.

In 1782, no less a journalistic icon than Ben Franklin published a fake news story that Native Americans seeking an alliance with Britain had sent the king a “bag of scalps.” It never happened.

In 1835, the New York Sun ran a series that purported to report on an astronomer who had built a telescope powerful enough to observe life on the moon.  Not a story, mind you – a whole series of articles that described the moon inhabitants and their civilization in great detail.  And the end, the paper told its readers that they had just been kidding.

That’s only the tip of the fake news iceberg.  The stories about the new phenomenon of fake news are – you guessed it – fake news.  It’s been around as long as there has been news.

This week we celebrate the best news mankind has ever heard.  The news was so significant that God entrusted it to angels – the word “angel” is a Greek word for messenger.  According to scripture, God often entrusted news to “messengers” — you could say that angels were God’s journalists.

But as soon as the Good News about the birth of Christ was written down, the fake news started showing up.  And today, much of what we believe a bout the nativity story is fake news.

For instance:

•Jesus wasn’t born on Christmas. The early church set the day of Christ’s birth in December as a way to help replace a pagan festival that was held on Dec. 25.

•The angels did not sing to the shepherds. An angel spoke to the shepherds, then a lot of angels began praising God, but we have added the “singing” part.

•The wise men probably did not visit Jesus right after his birth in Bethlehem. They look cool in nativity scenes, but they really came a year or so later. And we’re not even sure there were three of them — we only infer that from the number of gifts.

But despite all the fake news about the good news we celebrate at Christmas, that good news is not diminished by the fake news and legends that have grown up around the birth of Christ.

And no less a philosopher than John Stuart Mill reminded us that truth is dynamic – so we should not ban false utterances because truth only becomes stronger when it grapples with a lie.  How do you know, Mill asked, whether what you believe is true, unless you have to defend it against non-truth?

Fake news is reprehensible, and digital media certainly give it more reach and power than ever before. So it’s important that newspapers report the truth and expose the lies.

The journalism “family tree” is a lot like your own.  There are saints and sinners, martyrs and scoundrels. But after more than two centuries that include lies and hoaxes and fake news, journalism has never been freer.  Or more responsible.

And that’s something we can all celebrate on a holiday dedicated to the original “good news.”

political coverage

How to bring the presidential election home to your readers

Tip O’Neill famously observed that all politics is local.

A good community newspaper believes that and acts upon it. Some races are obviously local – the ballot choices for mayor, city council, county commission and state representative are populated by people you know, people who shop alongside you, people you see at Rotary and church.

The local issues are what people talk about at the coffee shop even when an election isn’t going on.

Presidential politics are different.  Your mayor doesn’t have to make a decision on how many Syrian refugees to allow in the country or whether or not to bomb ISIS strongholds located near population centers.  So sometimes community newspapers leave presidential politics to the networks and the metro newspapers.

Too bad.

Admit it – not even the local issues have generated as much conversation as the Trump-Clinton race this year. And if all politics is local, even the national issues have their roots in your community.  And the race depends on how the parties can turn out the vote on the local level.

So we need to be covering Trump-Clinton – in our town and county.  How do you cover a race where neither candidate comes within hundreds of miles of your coverage area? It’s actually easier than you may think.

  • ●Cover the people in your town who are supporting the major candidates. Call party leaders and elected officeholders from both parties. Find out what party leadership thinks of both Trump and Clinton and how they assess the depth of local support. These are the most unpopular candidates in many years – how has that affected support, volunteering, giving?
  • ●Check on campaign contributions from your city and county. Use sites like and to find donations by ZIP code.
  • ●Localize the issues. Pick something like taxation or immigration and ask people what they think of the candidates’ positions. Look at how those positions might affect your readers and your community.
  • ●Follow the campaign locally. Where do people go for yard signs and buttons? What campaign efforts are being made on behalf of the candidates? What are people saying on social media? You can also use to find local political groups other than the two major parties.
  • ●Do a little simple research on presidential voting trends in your county. Tell your readers which party carried the county, as far back as you want to go. Talk to local election experts on what factors have accounted for any voting swings. Also, what are the voter registration trends in your county?
  • ●Much has been made of the black vote, the Hispanic vote, the youth vote, the women’s vote. Talk to local leaders about which direction those are likely to go in your community.
  • ●Talk with local religious leaders about what is probably the dilemma they are experiencing between voting for a candidate with obvious moral lapses or one who has probably lied to Congress.
  • ●Check out the get-out-the-vote efforts in your community. What are the plans to remind people to vote and get them to the polls?
  • ●And what else can you do to cover the national campaign from your own doorstep? TCCJ blogger Al Cross gives you lots of ideas here.

Finally, if you’d like to see an example of localizing a presidential campaign story, check out this story from Kathy Cruz of the Hood County News in Granbury.  Kathy got local reaction to last week’s story about the latest Donald Trump revelations:

The dilemma created by a tape in which Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks in lewd terms about women hasn’t just further split the Republican Party – it has unleashed a vitriolic debate about sexual assault and the treatment of women.

That split has touched Hood County, where every county elected official is Republican, as are most voters.

Of the officials reached by the Hood County News on Monday, all – with the exception of County Attorney Lori Kaspar – said they still intend to vote for Trump.

Kaspar, who noted that she never intended to vote for Trump to begin with, referred to defense by others of Trump’s actions as “willful ignorance.”

“He said he (committed sexual assault),” Kaspar said, referring to the 2005 “Access Hollywood” recording leaked to The Washington Post. “I take him at his word.”

Sheriff Roger Deeds agreed that the described behavior constitutes sexual assault but said that he will vote for Trump anyway.

District Attorney Rob Christian, who, like Kaspar, prosecutes sexual assault cases, said the same.

“I will support the Republican nominee,” he said, adding: “I don’t in any way condone many of the things he has said.”

Trump said during Sunday night’s presidential debate that it was merely “locker room talk” and that he never sexually assaulted women.

However, he did not deny the behavior in a brief statement issued late Friday after news of the tape broke, or in a videotaped statement released hours later.

Deeds, County Judge Darrell Cockerham and Precinct 4 Commissioner Steve Berry noted that there has apparently been no outcry by women against Trump.

Kaspar, however, said that it is not unusual for victims to feel so shamed and powerless – particularly if their abuser is someone in authority – that they never report the abuse, or report it years after it occurred.

The HCN was not able to reach every local elected official due to time constraints and county offices being closed Monday.

Messages seeking comment were left for some who didn’t respond to those messages by press time. They include state Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury).

Officials reached by the HCN denounced Trump’s behavior, but cited loyalty to the Republican Party and its principles as their reasons for continuing to support him.

Some, such as Berry, expressed a desire for Republicans to control who gets appointed to the Supreme Court.

All said that, while Trump may be flawed, he is a better choice than Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

Both Clinton and Trump have high unfavorable ratings.

Mike Lang, who is unopposed on the Nov. 8 ballot to take over the District 60 state representative seat, emailed a statement to the HCN Tuesday morning.

He said “anyone with principle understands what Donald Trump said was wrong.

“However, once again my local newspaper has engaged in the typical liberal media bias that is rampant throughout our Country.

“I say that because in light of Secretary Clinton’s countless scandals, I have never been asked about my opinion and why I would or would not vote for her.”

Precinct 2 Commissioner Butch Barton said that his support for Trump is based on “ideological differences.”

He said that he is “still on board” with Trump, but that “I do have to swallow hard when it comes to the individual.”

District Clerk Tonna Hitt said that she did not follow the weekend’s news coverage closely due to dealing with a family matter. However, she knows she is still firmly in the Trump camp.

“Definitely, yeah, I’m sticking with him,” she said. “I can’t stand Hillary Clinton. There’s just no way I would ever consider voting for her.”

Hitt is not the only female elected official to stand behind the Republican nominee, despite fears within the party that more tapes may be coming.

Tax Assessor-Collector Teresa McCoy still intends to vote for Trump, too.

McCoy noted, however, that, like Hitt, she had not closely followed the news over the weekend.

“I’m very disturbed by it and need to do some additional research,” she said. “I’m really sad that our choices are what they are.”

Cockerham echoes those sentiments.

“We are the laughing stock of the world because of those two people,” he said, referring to Trump and Clinton.

“Are those the people you want to influence the morals of our children?”

 The story above was re-printed by permission of the Hood County News.

Social media

Social media is not a ‘private playground’ for journalists; newspapers need social media policies

Social media give journalists an audience bigger than they ever dreamed of. You work for a paper with a circulation of 4,000? On social media, your audience can number in the hundreds of thousands … or more.

Then why do so many journalists treat social media like a private space in which they can say what they want?

We look forward to linking to our stories on Facebook or tweeting about them on Twitter, knowing that this can significantly increase our audience. But journalists who posted on social media to reach more readers often run personal opinion up the social media flagpole as if they thought only their close friends would see it.

And things we would never write about for our audience of 4,000 seem fair game to write about for a potential audience many times that large.

Go figure.

This week a Newsweek political reporter tweeted “I believe Trump was institutionalized in a mental hospital for a nervous breakdown in 1990, which is why he won’t release medical records.” He had no evidence. And note the first two words: “I believe….”

Journalism has always been about what we know to be factual, what we have multiple sources to confirm. But for some reason, some people throw our time-honored standards out the window when they log on to Facebook or Twitter.

The reason this reporter (no novice, by the way – he has worked for the New York Times and Vanity Fair) wrote that as a tweet instead of a breaking news story is that an editor would have said, “Where are your sources for this? We can’t run speculation as news!”

But there are no editors on Twitter. Write it, keep it to 140 characters, and hit the “Tweet” button.

This is becoming all-too-common in journalism. Reporters have expressed opinions about their stories and their sources and have shared personal information about themselves which can call their fairness into question. And they have engaged in nasty social media wars with readers and news sources.

So is this an example of technology outpacing media ethics and standards? Not exactly. Most media have policies on this type of activity (and if your paper doesn’t, you need to work on one immediately). For instance:

  • ●The New York Times standards editor wrote this to Times employees in 2012: “We should always treat Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms as public activities. . . . Civility applies whether an exchange takes place in person, by telephone, by letter or online.”
  • ●Reuters’ policy states: “If we want to tweet or post about a school play, a film or a favorite recipe, we are free to do so. When dealing with matters of public importance and actual or potential subjects of coverage, however, Reuters journalists should be mindful of the impact their publicly expressed opinions can have on their work and on Reuters.”
  • ●NPR sums up the reason for such policies: “Everything you say or do in a social media environment is effectively a public statement from an NPR journalist.”

Earlier this month, the standards editor of the New York Times summarized why this is such an important issue: “While you may think of your Facebook page or other social-media platforms as a private area completely separate from your Times role, in fact everything we post online is to some degree public — and everything we do in public is likely to be associated with The Times.”

Social media are a place where we can let our hair down – share personal information, show photos of the great meal we just had, post our cute dog/cat/baby photos, sound off about the poor customer service we just received on our last flight, and talk about our pet peeves. Unless, of course, you’re a journalist. And that’s where our public trust has to be taken into account.

All Americans, for instance, have the right to put a political bumper sticker – or lots of them – on their cars. But as journalists, we know we must limit that free speech right in the interests of our audience, so that people don’t perceive us as biased. We know that we could keep our bumper allegiances out of our stories, but our readers may view what we write with suspicion. And the same thing goes for expressions of opinion on social media.

AP’s social media policy addresses that issue: “Sometimes AP staffers ask if they’re free to comment in social media on matters like sports and entertainment. The answer is yes, but there are some important things to keep in mind: First, trash-talking about anyone (including a team, company or celebrity) reflects badly on staffers and the AP. Assume your tweet will be seen by the target of your comment. The person or organization you’re deriding may be one that an AP colleague is trying to develop as a source.”

If you’re looking for some help in beginning to establish your paper’s social media policy, a good place to begin is with the American Society of News Editors’ 10 Best Practices for Social Media. Along with some of the links in this blogpost, that should give you some good background for writing your own newspaper policy on social media for employees.

Perhaps you’ve never encountered a problem with an employee’s social media posts. Count yourself lucky. Many people have an unfortunate predisposition to think of their posts as a private playground instead of the world’s most public stage. So don’t wait until your newspaper is facing a social media firestorm to implement a policy.

Business of News Circulation Cool tool

Newsletters are hot, and they can be a great tool for community newspapers

Newsletters are one of the oldest forms of communication in journalism. They even pre-date newspapers, with the first newsletter coming out in 1538.  The first American newspaper to publish a second edition started its life as the Boston News-letter.

They have increased and decreased in popularity over the years, but everything that’s old is indeed new again.

Newsletters are hot.

And why should an old medium be experiencing such a resurgence in a digital age?  Perhaps because we’re inundated with news and information from every side. Newsletters can help make sense of all that because they digest what’s important and let us choose whether or not to read it. And they give us an email foot-in-the-door of busy readers.

In its current incarnation, a newspaper newsletter is like the menu screen on Netflix.  When you go to Netflix, you see movies categorized by genre and popularity.  Then you see thumbnail pictures and just a sentence of explanation telling what the movie is about.  You can surf through to something else, or, if you’re interested, click on that thumbnail to get the movie itself.

There’s no single type of newsletter used in newspapers.  The popular Washington Post newsletters give you a headline, a photo, and a teaser.  You can then click to go to the article on the Post website.  Actually, there’s not just one – the Post offers newsletters on news, opinions, the federal government, home and garden, education, lifestyle, business and tech, sports, science – there is even a newsletter called The Optimist with stories to inspire you. And there’s more that we didn’t list.

They’re right there in your inbox, waiting for you to scan them in the viewing pane, click on what you’re interested in, and head off to the WaPo site – even if all you had planned to do was to read your email.

And as you’d expect, The New York Times offers the same service.

Both papers sell ads in their newsletters, so the newsletters themselves are a revenue source.

Some community papers in Texas have effective daily newsletters:  For example, see the Texas Gatehouse newspapers, the Hood County News, the Wise County Messenger, Community Impact newspapers and the Fredericksburg Standard Radio Post.

Why are newsletters so popular for newspapers that already have print and online editions, websites and social media feeds? Because they meet readers where readers are sure to go every day:  their email in-box.  You don’t have to pick up a newspaper or go to a homepage.  All you do is check your email and there is the newsletter, viewable in your preview pane.  See something you are interested in?  Click, and it takes you to the paper’s website.

Publishers want to know, How can I monetize an email newsletter? Of course, this is another product you can sell ads for, and potentially a really attractive ad vehicle for businesses because it appears in the in-box of a wide variety of readers. But also, in an era when we’re all competing for attention and we want to establish ourselves as a go-to news source, newsletters are an in-your-face announcement every day or several times a week that our newspaper is the indispensable source of news for this county.

Once you get your template set up, newsletters don’t take that long to produce daily – after all, you’re just linking to the news you’ve already written.  And you can even use the same lead you have on the story, then link to the rest on your website.

As for the distribution, there are lots of mail management programs out there.  This site overviews what’s available.  If you’re looking for someplace to start with no initial investment, we recommend MailChimp.

Interested in looking into the world of newsletters?  Start out by finding a few (you can find links to some Texas community papers’ newsletters above).  Then subscribe.  They’re all free.  You’ll get newsletters in your inbox and just look them over to get a feel for what these papers are doing.  After a couple of weeks, you’ll have a vision for how you can reach new readers with newsletters and you can get yours started.

You can thank us later.



Stop backing in to leads: how to make your writing more reader-friendly

Reporters on deadline often forget two essential truths of journalism:

  1. 1. We’re not just writing to pass along our information – we’re writing to be read. So we need to package our story for maximum readability. In other words, think about the reader.
  2. 2. Readers don’t have much time, and often they don’t have a commitment to read the story. If you write about the city library, the librarians and regular library patrons will read it. Will anyone else?

So what can we do to make our newswriting more reader-friendly? One of the key strategies is to begin sentences with a subject.

Huh? Don’t all sentences begin with a subject? Actually, no. They have a subject, but they don’t necessarily begin with it. We call this problem “backing in” – beginning with long phrases or dependent clauses that readers have to wade through before they get to the point of the sentence.

We don’t talk that way. Let’s say you’re in an unfamiliar building and ask someone where the parking garage is. His answer:

“Having worked here many years myself and having given many people directions because they did not see the sign posted next to the elevator, I can tell you that you need to turn to the left at the next hall and take the stairs down to the first floor.”

You’d probably laugh out loud. Nobody talks that way.

But reporters write that way, even in The New York Times. Look at this lead on today’s front page of the Times:

Punctuating a string of Obama-era moves to shore up labor rights and expand protections for workers, the National Labor Relations Board ruled Tuesday that students who work as teaching and research assistants at private universities have a federally backed right to unionize.

The subject of that sentence, the National Labor Relations Board, is 19 words in.

When you write, begin by asking what the story is about. What happened that caused you to write the story? Then start there.

Why was this written? Because the NLRB ruled that grad students can unionize.

The Washington Post started with the “actor,” the NLRB, as the subject:

The National Labor Relations Board ruled Tuesday that graduate students who work as teaching and research assistants at private universities are school employees, clearing the way for them to join or form unions that administrators must recognize.

Writing is more readable when you introduce the subject as close to the beginning of the sentence as possible. But then you can ask, is the subject something readers can relate to? What kind of mental picture does the National Labor Relations Board conjure up? Unless you a Beltway bureaucrat, probably nothing.

But there is a word picture in this story – the graduate students. So why not start there, like the Los Angeles Times did:

Graduate students who assist in teaching and research at private universities are employees and have a right to union representation, the National Labor Relations Board ruled Tuesday.

Just this week, veteran AP journalist John Lumpkin sent us a blogpost by Pulitzer journalist-turned-novelist Bruce DeSilva that addresses this issue.

Consider the first sentence of the King James Version of the Bible: “In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth.”
Nice sentence. It’s simple, clear, and tells a big story in very few words. But if the typical journalist had written it, it would have come out something like this:
“In a series of surprise moves intended to bring all of creation into existence out of what leading scientists call the ‘singularity,’ before energy, matter or even time existed, God yesterday said ‘Let there be light,’ according to reliable sources close to the project.”
If a journalist had written the Bible, I doubt anyone would have read it.

What’s the difference between the prose of Moses and that of the journalist? Moses summarized creation in 10 words. The subject, God, is four words in, followed by a strong verb – created.

The subject of the fictional journalist’s lead is 29 words in. And it’s preceded by: two prepositional phrases, a participle phrase, then three more prepositional phrases, then a noun clause used as the object of a preposition, then an adverb clause. Then: the subject.

So are you backing in to your sentences, and especially your leads? You find out by doing something you probably haven’t done since the ninth grade. Read your story and underline the subjects and verbs. Then look at these writing issues:

  1. 1. Are your subjects reasonably close to the beginning of the sentence?
  2. 2. Do your verbs come quickly after the subject, so that readers aren’t likely to forget what the subject is by the time they get to the verb?
  3. 3. Have you chosen strong action verbs?
  4. 4. Are your leads relatively short? Readership begins dropping off past 30 words, and you should almost never write one that’s longer than 35 words. The Times lead above is 43 words; the Washington Post lead is 37; the LA Times lead is 27.

Today’s readers won’t wade through verbiage to find the news. So let’s make it easy for them.

By the way, the blogpost you just read tests out at the sixth grade reading level. It averages 13.10 words per sentence and an average 1.4 syllables per word as calculated by the Readability Test Tool – check it out because it’s a great newsroom resource. (The calculations do not include the long leads from the Times and DeSilva, which would have increased the score. If you’re curious, the NYT lead tested out at a grade level of 24.2 – a post-doctoral level. The DeSilva Genesis lead tested at about the same level)

Story ideas

Ideas for back-to-school stories

If the definition of news is something new that affects a lot of people, then the biggest news story you’ll have in August is probably back-to-school.

Maybe you’ve seen that as more of an advertising opportunity than a set of news stories – so let’s consider the possibilities. Remember that this is a significant rite of passage for any family with children or teens. And remember too that all parents care about issues related to their children’s school.

Your advertisers will appreciate stories that relate to school issues also, because people who read those stories will be more likely to see their back-to-school ads.

The most obvious stories deal with school openings and schedules and changes to faculty and facilities at schools. But there’s so much more. Here’s a not-in-any-particular order list of story ideas for back-to-school.

  • ●Everyone’s shopping for clothes. What are the latest trends in clothing and shoes? What’s hot now? And how about the latest big-seller in book bags and gadgets? And ask parents about costs for supplies and how they are coping. Also, what about the effects of the state’s sales tax holiday Aug. 5 through 7? Here’s some information you need to know and pass on about that weekend.
  • ●Ask about changes in school or district policies (tests and academics, dress codes, student conduct, even pick-up and drop-off traffic patterns. How will those affect parents?
  • ●Any additional programs, courses, curricula in high school? Or have some been dropped?
  • ●Talk to teachers about how parents can support children’s learning. Many parents don’t see the value of reading to their children, going over their homework, or even just making sure they bring their books and homework to school every day.
  • ●Involve parents in your coverage, especially on social media. Ask them to share first day of school photos or memories.
  • ●If you’re fairly close to a university that trains teachers, talk with some education faculty members about the pressures facing today’s teachers, and whether it is getting more difficult to recruit young people to teach in today’s high-stakes classrooms. Texas is estimated to be about 30,000 teachers short this fall – how does your district compare?
  • ●Summer learning loss is a phenomenon schools must deal with every fall. Kids’ scores across the boards drop after summer vacation. Talk to teachers about this problem and how they are addressing it.

A great resource for reporters is Education Writers Association. Membership is free to working journalists who cover education stories, and every week you get a great list of story ideas and resources.

Future of news

News consumption is changing, and newspapers have to change too

Imagine three baskets in your newsroom – and you have to put every story in one of the three baskets.

One is labeled what, another one so what, and the last is now what? The idea of the baskets, the brainchild of Washington Post reporter Chris Cillizza, comes from the reality that journalism has shifted away from being a “what happened” field.

Modern journalism was built on reporting what happened. We brought the news to America. People turned to newspapers to find out what was happening in their world. But that franchise has been eroding at the hands of first radio, then TV, then the Internet. For several decades now, our major metro newspapers have not been the primary medium people turned to for up-to-date information.

But community newspapers were different. Our job is not to cover the world or the nation or even the state. It’s to cover our city and county. And often, we were literally the only game in town – the only medium that had the reporters to go out and cover the news in print and photographs. People could read their news in the paper or in our online editions.

So whether it was a school board meeting or a football game or the county fair or a fatality accident just outside of town, we had complete and accurate information – and pictures. Sure, maybe people heard about the accident or talked about it at the coffee shop, but when the paper came out we satisfied their news hunger for complete information. They may have known who won the football game, but we gave them the quarterback’s completion stats, the number of tackles the star linebacker made, the post-game comments of the coach, and a rundown on next week’s opponent.

Radio and TV and the Web ate into the hard news franchise of the metros, but for community papers – not so much.

Until social media.

Facebook now has 1.6 billion users, more than 60 percent of whom are logged in for at least 20 minutes a day, according to the Economist. Contrast that with the Washington Post, which has the biggest Web traffic of any U.S. publisher. The Post received 73 million visits during the entire month of March, with readers spending an average of one to three minutes per visit.

No matter how small or isolated your community, people are spending lots of time on Facebook every day. When they hear about news, they share it – with pictures. It’s an axiom that a lie can spread halfway around the world while truth is putting on its boots. The modern media equivalent of that is that news can spread through your community while you are figuring out who should write the story.

So if your newspaper’s claim to fame is being first with the news, that ship has probably long since sailed. If you tell people only what they already know, they’ll think you are irrelevant. And nothing is so damning to a newspaper as the reputation that it contains “old news.”

Facebook is not a “detail” medium. Facebook readers get only the big picture, the major points of the news. But when we write that same story, what do we lead with? The big picture, the major points — so it’s the readers’ perspective that we’re telling them what they already know.

Of course, we still need to print the what-happened news, but there has to be more. As we move more of the breaking news to social media and our online edition (because you may be a weekly in print, but you have to be a daily online and in social media), that means we need to focus more on the other two boxes – so what and now what.

We don’t just tell readers what happened at City Council. We look for how those actions will impact citizens. What will that mean for their safety or their pocketbook or the economic future of the community? We do a rundown of the what-happened, but we focus on its impact on the community and on our readers.

So perhaps the school board has voted to reduce the teaching faculty in elementary schools as a cost-cutting measure. What will that mean to class sizes? How will it impact student learning and test scores? What do teachers think? A budget saving proposal might look good until your realize that your kid’s third-grade class will go from 25 to 34 kids – and the students with learning problems will be the most adversely affected.

Unfortunately, this kind of reporting takes more time. It’s a lot easier to take notes at a meeting and produce a story that reports votes and quotes from the participants.

The real issue here is staying relevant for our readers. And if it takes re-thinking our stories – classifying each as a what or so what or now what story, that will be time well-spent.

Note: This blogpost has focused on news coverage. To see how this same idea impacts sports coverage, see our earlier blogpost.



Community Journalism Future of news

“Do you think newspapers are endangered?” A community journalism perspective

So what if someone asks:  “Do you think animals are endangered?”

There’s literally no answer to that.  We know that mountain gorillas, elephants, rhinos and tigers are critically endangered and we may well see their extinction in our lifetime.

But other animals exist in abundance – rats, rabbits, dogs, deer and hundreds of others.

And that’s the problem with the question newspaper people are asked so often:  “Do you think newspapers are endangered?”

Here’s your answer for the next time someone asks: “Depends.”

And mostly, it depends on the size of the market.  Metropolitan dailies are in a world of hurt because their business model doesn’t work anymore. Large cities are media-saturated and there are countless places to get the news – and countless places for businesses to advertise.

Just over a decade ago metros made money from display advertising, classified advertising and circulation.  The big display accounts realized that there were many other ways to get their message out.  Classified died, killed by Craigslist and similar sites.  And circulation declined in the face of many other places to get the news.  Of course, as circulation declined, advertisers noted the dwindling audience for their commercial messages.

Depressing, huh?  But the metro newspaper is like the endangered animal – don’t assume that because lowland gorillas may die out that we’ll soon have no dogs or deer or rabbits. They exist in superabundance.

And people who would never lump all animals together find it easy to lump all newspapers together.  Lots of folk don’t realize that there are some 7,000 paid circulation weekly papers and around 1,300 daily papers with circulations less than 25,000 in the U.S.

So that’s around 8,300 community newspapers with a circulation of more than 45 million readers. Counting the pass-along rate (the number of people who actually read the paper, as opposed to the number who purchase it), readership of community newspapers in the U.S. exceeds 150 million a week.

Or take Texas.  Our largest newspaper is the Dallas Morning News, with more than 400,000 circulation.  But the No. 10 paper in circulation, the Lubbock Avalanche Journal, has just over 27,000 circulation.  So obviously, most newspapers in Texas and in the U.S. are community papers.

Community newspapers still dominate in smaller communities.  Rather than just being one voice among many as with their metro brethren, they are often the only game in town.  You want to know what happened at City Council?  Why school taxes are going up? How the local teams are doing? Who was involved in that big wreck on Center Street?  Why the old warehouse burned down? What’s for lunch tomorrow at your kid’s elementary school?  Check out the community paper – because you won’t find it anywhere else.

One rural publisher, in a speech to a journalism conference, put it this way:  “To our readers, we are not the newspaper, we are their newspaper. Down the block at Rogers Mini Stop, we sell more than a hundred papers every week. If our press run is late we get frantic calls from the Rogers family. They have a store full of irate customers who want their papers now…. We all know the traditional reasons — the little stories that never would be considered ‘news’ anyplace else. Our readers really care about those things.”

So when someone asks why newspapers are dying, explain that they are talking about a small – if highly visible – part of newspaper journalism.  Most papers are community papers, not metros.

And we’re doing quite well, thank you.