How does a story become a story?

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These large laminated tags are usually press credentials that make clear who’s allowed into an event and allowed to get close to the action.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

For those of you who still care about the quality of journalism, a few insights from a career journalist who has been a reporter for three major daily papers and who freelances (i.e. sells individual stories I come up with) often for The New York Times.

 

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The NYC food bank — which I visited in 2015 while working on a story about it

Where do story ideas originate?

Some of the many ways:

A press release from a company, individual or organization. It’s unlikely that only one release is the entire story, unless for the trade/industry press. Journalists, staff and freelance are pelted daily with hundreds of press releases from people who want us to write (favorably!) about them.

A tip from someone inside an agency or organization who wants this information made (more) public and possibly deeply investigated for misdeeds or wrongdoings.

A conversation with someone in an industry or field about interesting or new developments.

A cultural trend we hear, see or notice out in the world on our own.

An upcoming event, for which we write or produce a “curtain-raiser”, a story than runs in advance of the event.

An anniversary of a major event, five, ten, 20 or more years later. What, if anything, has changed since then?

Breaking news: natural disasters, shootings, weather stories, terrorism, crashes. etc.

— We all really want a “scoop” — a powerful story no one else has

 

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The New York Times newsroom

 

How do we know if it actually is a story?

Fact-check. We make calls, send emails and texts, check in with sources we know are smart and trustworthy to confirm or deny the basic facts of the story.

Firsthand reporting. Always the ideal to have a reporter/photographer/video crew on-site.

Talk to firsthand witnesses, but that’s also tricky because they may be lying. It’s happened, which is deeply embarrassing.

 

 

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The Charlie Hebdo march in Paris

What happens next?

 

— Every reporter, in every medium, has a boss! That person (or people) have the final say as to whether this story will even ever appear or get the time and energy needed to report, research, revise and edit it that they think it deserves; five minutes on-air (a lot!) or 500 words in the paper or on-line or 5,000 words in a glossy magazine.

— The reporter/producer (teams, generally in broadcast) work together to decide how to proceed and in what  depth and at what speed. Breaking news is insanely competitive so there’s a mad rush to get the story first or exclusively.

— If the story needs a lot of reporting and interviewing (documents, on-site reporting, speaking to sources) the reporter needs to decide who to speak to, when, why and in what order. If the story is controversial or potentially damaging, many people will refuse to discuss it, which means digging for more sources and/or persuading some to speak without using their names or affiliations to protect them.

— If the story is happening very far away from the newsroom, the decision will be made to send a staff correspondent (costly) or possibly use a local freelancer, called a stringer, exclusively or in addition to the staffer’s reporting.

— On truly major stories, there can be as many as a dozen reporters sending in various elements they have gathered and a writer in the newsroom (originally called rewrite) will craft it all together into one cohesive narrative, with credits for each contributor added at the bottom.

 

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My favorite reporting trip! I flew to rural Nicaragua on assignment for WaterAid in this really small plane, so small they weighed US and our baggage!

Pre-Publication/Broadcast

 

— For anyone who loves to insist it’s all “fake news”, I can assure you much of it is not. Every major news/publishing outlet has a lawyer either on staff or someone they turn to regularly to make sure the story is safe to publish.

— If the magazine or outlet has the staff and budget, and many do not, they hire and pay fact-checkers to do exactly what the name implies; check every fact to make sure it is accurate, after the reporter is finished.

— Graphics, design, podcast, video and photo editors decide the best ways to present visuals to accompany the story: a drawing? a graph? a map? a photo essay or slideshow gallery?

— For anything going into print, careful space measurements allow for design and page placement of all elements: copy, visuals and the all-essential advertisements that help pay for all of this! For digital, visuals count as well, plus SEO.

My best advice for consuming any form of media/reporting is to choose multiple sources, not only one set of political or national views. I read The New York Times and Financial Times (UK) daily, listen to NPR and occasionally the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. I also see news from many other sources, like Canada’s CBC, through Twitter.

 

Is there something you’d like to better understand about journalism? Ask away!