As you move out into the journalistic world, you will hear it said of some reporters, producers and editors that they have "good news judgment." But what is that?
How can the New York Post or Fox News trumpet stories that The New York Times or other network newscasts will not even mention? It's because each newspaper and station adopts its own news values. These may be spelled out in a statement of principles, but more often, these values are unwritten but still clearly understood. Or should be.
Those staffers deemed to have "good news judgment" typically have a keen understanding of the kinds of stories their station considers important. Those preferences are shaped by several considerations:
• Demographics and culture - What is the age breakdown of the community? Racial composition? Principal industries? Core problems? Stories that might find a rapt audience in a town with many retirees might fall flat in a college town.
• Competition - What sorts of stories do competing stations like to chase? How do newspapers serving the community treat the news? Where do radio stations in the city get their news? Does the television station have an alliance with a radio station or newspaper in the area? What about web sites that contain news of our town?
Monitoring all these news outlets is important. As people try to cram more and more work, chores and other activities into their day, the biggest obstacle for viewers, listeners and readers becomes time. We want to make sure people find our broadcast worthy of their time investment.
• Station values - Often these are set by the general manager and news director and thus can, and do, change when new ones come along.
The savvy reporter is a good student of all these factors, not as a tactic to cozy up to the bosses but because it makes sense not just to know your community thoroughly but also to know how your station covers it. Many journalists end up frustrated - or fired - because they failed to learn what is important to their news director.
As they make their way up the journalism ladder, producers and reporters tend to move around a good deal, especially in the early years of their careers. Most arrive in a new town knowing little beyond the locations of some neighborhoods where they might want to consider living. But with internet access to online versions of newspapers just a few clicks away, it's easier than ever to become familiar with the issues before you even arrive for day one of work at a new job. Smart journalists, ones who are committed to public service, make sure they do that.
The smart reporter understands the news director's values, priorities and style and learns to craft proposals that meet with those preferences. That's not to say you must devote yourself to pleasing the boss but rather to make sure your efforts fit into the big picture.
So how do you decide what is news?
The late David Brinkley once said, "News is what I say it is."
That sounds a bit pompous perhaps, but I think what Brinkley meant was that no absolute rules determine what makes a news story. What may seem like a terrific story idea to a reporter may be dismissed as drivel by the news director.
A well-thought-out news proposal is the foundation for a story that is well reported, which then is the framework for a story that is well written. It is those stories that have the greatest impact on viewers.
A news story typically has most if not all the following elements:
• Timeliness - An event that happened this morning has a much better chance of making today's newscast than something that happened yesterday or last week - unless we can update the story.
• Proximity - Did the event happen in our town? Our county? The truck that caught fire while loading at a factory on Main Street is much more important to our viewers than if the same incident happened at a town 50 miles away.
• Significance - What are the implications of the event we are reporting? What will happen? If the answer to those questions is "not much," then perhaps we have a story with much flash but little power.
• Prominence - Is the central figure in our story widely known? If the mayor is arrested for drunken driving, that's a big story. If a worker at a local factory is arrested on the same charge, it's unlikely to even make the newscast.
• Conflict - Are two groups at odds over a proposal? Not every news story must have disagreement at its core, but a good percentage of news originates from disputes of one kind or another.
• Drama - Many of the most memorable news stories contain a strong element of drama. The lawyer in a high-stakes case calls a surprise witness. A president fights to keep from being removed from office. A teacher tries to talk a student into turning in a gun.
• Interest - A story can be lacking many of the above elements, but if viewers find it intriguing, that's often enough. Conversely, if we fail to make significant events interesting, then shame on us as journalists.
The best news stories have many, if not all the above elements. Do a checklist with your story proposal to see how it rates.
Hard news/soft news
Hard news refers to the events, accidents, announcements and developments that occurred today, and may still be under way. The challenge is to transform these happenings into stories with a beginning, middle and end - something more than a recitation of facts spiked with voices and a solemn stand-up.
The end of a breaking news event typically marks-the beginning of the story.
The lead is the conclusion - we say how much damage the storm caused, what the city council decided, and where the lightening struck and who was hurt.
Soft news, or features, are the stories that add flavor to the newscast but typically are not spun off daily developments. But they can be the most memorable to viewers.
If a train derails in town and one of the tanker cars explodes, that's hard news we have to tell today. But how a three-legged dog helps a woman in a wheelchair with her chores is a story we can tell tomorrow or next week.
News story parameters
Once you have honed in on a story idea, though, some work remains before you start reporting. You must consider several factors before you begin reporting:
• Range - What's the scope of your story? Will it require reporting from Bakersfield, Baltimore and Beirut, or just some B-roll from a local park and bites from people who play there?
• Dimensions - What is the time frame for our story? Will we need archive tape?
• Approach - Is the best way to tell our story by a profile, a round up, an update, a scene-setter or something else?
• Tone - Is this a dispute, a tragedy, a comic incident? Setting the right mood is important.
• Theme - Perhaps the most important element. What's our story about? Why are we asking for the viewers' attention? Somewhere fairly high up in most news stories is a sentence that tells our audience: "Here's why I am telling you this."
Watch for Jeff's new book: Reporting and Writing on Journalism's New Frontier available soon.
A graduate of the University of Hawaii, Jeff Rowe is the co-founder of the News Academy at Fullerton College. Rowe also is co-author of Emerging Issues in Contemporary Journalism.
Jeff is a frequent contributor to School Video News