Organizing your efforts

Inspired in part by “Writing and Reporting News: A Coaching Method”:

Preliminary interviews allow you to identify general topics that a news story might be about, but the secret to successful newsgathering is to discover what the story actually is.

Develop a focus statement  that, in fewer than 35 words, describes what new, different and interesting discovery you have made or hope to make with your reporting. This may become the so-called “nut graf” for your story, some form of which eventually will be within the first five paragraphs of whatever you write. Keep refining that statement as you go through the additional steps of your reporting.

To make sure your reporting is complete, answer each of these questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? And so what? Type  up your answers, right after the focus statement, so you can make sure all the elements will be present in your story and you can focus additional reporting on refining any answers that seem overly vague or uninteresting. Ultimately, each answer should be very specific, focus on unexpected things such as conflict and resolution, and contribute to a more nearly complete understanding by anticipating and explaining any issues likely to occur during a typical conversation that the focus statement might elicit.

Next, ask yourself what struck you as the most interesting aspect of your focus statement. How would you tell a friend about it? What’s the single most important idea? What would a typical reader want to know? How could you hook the reader into being interested in the story? This typically involves transforming the general topic and factual disclosure into something that resonates — a specific and engaging anecdote emblematic of the overall topic or a quick turn of a phrase to put the reader in the story by emphasizing its impact on him or her, often employing some “you” factor or other conversational technique. This will become your story lede and in many regards is what separates a news story from a Wikipedia article.

After that, begin developing supporting material. Typically, this will involve quotes or sound bites in which people you have interviewed tell key aspects of the story in their own words, with unique insights that using their own words instead of yours would provide into how they feel in regard to the topic at hand. Arrangement often follows a question-and-answer format, although you won’t actually ask a question in your writing. Present a general factual statement that leaves some issue in need of resolution, then resolve it in the next paragraph. Continue doing this until you work through all of the “five W plus” questions. Use this structure once again to identify areas in which you need additional reporting to be able to more fully respond to each issue.

Develop what’s called a question outline — things you need to know to build a more nearly complete story. Identify what elements you don’t have, where you likely can get them, then assess the realistic possibility of actually obtaining this information. If, in your assessment, you probably won’t be able to obtain what’s needed, you may need to go back and re-do your plan to focus on what realistically can be obtained. If that no longer supports your original focus statement, you may need to redraft that statement into something different that still is interesting, engaging and previously unknown.

When confronted with a brick wall, try viewing the story from different perspectives. Instead of attacking the issue head-on, look at why the issue may exist or what may result from the issue’s continuation. Look to causes or specific evidence that a problem or opportunity exists. Map the general idea into a topic tree that looks at the issue from other points of view. Perhaps, instead of the overall tree, you will be able to refocus on just one branch of the tree.