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!

Paid for coverage? No! How journalism happens

GLOBE

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s becoming sillier and sadder by the day.

Having a U.S. President who shrieks “Fake news!” isn’t helping, that’s for sure.

This recent poll makes clear what a mess we’re in when it comes to mistrust, misunderstanding and hostility toward journalists.

 

Sixty percent think that we are paid by our sources all the time or often.

 

EXCUSE ME?

 

I would laugh at this stupidity, but find this level of ignorance stunning and deeply depressing.

A friend who works in digital media — which I admit I read very little of — says it’s because there’s such an overlap of commercial messaging and editorial and the lines aren’t clear to readers and publishers don’t make it clear enough.

Let’s get this straight — and, I beg each one of you, tweet this blog post. Email it. Share it with everyone you know, at any age.

We are not paid by our sources!

If a journalist is discovered to be doing this, they’re a cheat and a fraud and will get fired and shamed and shunned by anyone who still understands what we are supposed to be doing.

When I write about X company or Y product or Z person, I do so because they’re deemed sufficiently interesting by the editor who agreed to pay me to write about them, not because the damn company or person paid me to perform a public relations function.

Web writing pay rates are a sick joke, so an “argument” gets made that writers don’t make enough money which leaves them open to suborning.

Not the ethical ones!

There has been some serious malfeasance, and here’s a powerful piece by Jon Christian from 2018 exposing it:

 

Welcome to the dubious new world of payola journalism, where publicists like Prokopi have carved out a niche arranging undisclosed payments to financially strapped reporters and bloggers in exchange for friendly media coverage of clients. If you want to understand the vulnerable state of the news industry, don’t just consider the thinning newsrooms of national publications — look at the writers who are being paid to plug brands on sites like Forbes and the Huffington Post.

 

Yet this week I got a phone call, at home in New York, from some stranger who said — no joke — I want you to place a story for me in The New York Times; I’ve been freelancing for the Times for decades.

I lost my shit.

“Do you have any idea how journalism works?!” I asked him. “What makes you think this is even possible? I don’t work there. I’m not the publisher nor an editor.”

Cowed, he said: “I do now.”

A Twitter pal sent me this terrific blog post she wrote; if you want to seriously understand what we do and why, it’s a great read.

Here’s a bit of it:

The last story I wrote for S&P Global Market Intelligence was about the suicide crisis in the northern Ontario town of Attawapiskat, and whether an unfair deal with a diamond miner may have contributed to this outbreak.

I chose to do the story because the Attawapiskat suicide crisis was major news, with every news outlet covering it. Missing from almost all that coverage? The role of a diamond mining company operating near the town, and whether that company had reneged on its agreements to provide jobs, opportunities and development for indigenous residents of the isolated town.

Before I spoke to anyone, I first had to dig in and do reams of research. I investigated what the indigenous population had said in the past about their dealings with the mining firm, as well as any documents the firm made available on the nature of its agreement with the local community. I looked into what mining associations and Aboriginal groups said about the town and the mining industry,  and read many reports from Canadian think tanks about Aboriginal-resource company relations and how it had changed over the last 20 years.
Armed with that information, I then hit the phones.

I called everyone – the mining company, the local governance association, a Canada-wide group representing Aboriginals in their dealings with the natural resource industry, firms which advised Aboriginal groups on how to negotiate effectively with resource firms, and law firms specialising in representing Aboriginal claims to resource companies (and the diamond mining company, which wasn’t talking). Each interview took a few hours to set up, involved at least 1 hour on the phone. Following this, after each interview, I double-checked my notes, doing what I could to ensure I transcribed the quote correctly, and followed up with the source if my notes were unclear at any point.

So now that I’d done research and interviews, you’d think I would be done. But I wasn’t.

 

Want to better understand anything about journalism?

 

Please ask! I’ve been doing it for decades.