How to write a news story
and other useful stuff for your A/S British Newspaper Coursework

So you decide you're going to produce a newspaper for the A/S coursework and you have Microsoft Publisher and a scanner and a digital camera and all that good stuff. Easy? Not.

First things first. You have to decide what sort of stuff is going into your publication. You probably want some celebrity stories and a few special features, but if you're going for front pages then you'll have to think about 'hard news'. Cover stories (front page stuff) are always 'hard news'. There are four types, listed in order of reader appeal and the best ones combine all four, plus one or more of the 'vital ingredients' list below:

Vital Ingredients:
Shock, horror, tragedy, sleaze, scandal, gory details, eye-witnesses, sex, violence. One or more combined and all of them if you want a great tabloid story.

Hard News: (in the order of importance for selling lots of copies)

Death - any kind will do. Murder, accidental, in a fire, in a flood, it doesn't matter. Single deaths or thousands killed in earthquakes - violent, tragic, sudden, or gory - death is big news. Celebrity deaths are also great copy. The bigger the celebrity, the better the story. (How many newspapers were sold when poor old Princess D. passed away?) Little children 
(I know it's not nice, but you must have realised that this is not a 'nice' aspect of media studies by now?), dear little old innocent ladies
; brave people dying while being brave; you report it - it sells the paper! 
the vital ingredients, as well - sleazy, scandalous, shocking deaths of celebrities in mysterious circumstances - shocking, violent deaths of innocent young people - tragic accidents resulting in death - horrific murders - unexplained ones, it's hard news and the readers lap it up.

Politics - don't be surprised at this one. Readers like to read about how our leaders are doing, especially if they're not doing very well. Combine the story with one or more of the 'vital ingredients' and the paper sells. (You can put anything Royal into politics, not just the government of the day) Have a look at recent stuff in the papers about Mr Blair, or any of the other political leaders and see how many stories there are. You might not read them yourself, but millions of other people do. Dead politicians, are, of course, big news, especially if there is some sleaze, scandal or shock connected to their demise!

Reports and Statistics - again, don't be surprised by this one.  People like to know about facts and figures and they like to know 'what's going on', so any hard news story that tells people about current events, is a report. If, of course, it has some interesting (shocking, horrific) facts and figures, to back up the report, then it gets even more interesting. Combine that with death and politics and you can see how it all works. 

Human Interest - the puppy up the tree (belonging to the poor old lady who gets crushed to death when the tree falls on her) is a human interest story. So is the "I was abducted by aliens" story and the "My son rescued the whole family from certain death with a piece of knotted string" story. In fact anything about anybody is news. Combine that with (you guessed) a death, or a narrow escape from death, a politician and statistics about why alien abduction is bad for you and you've got the jackpot!

Writing it down (some things to remember)

The average attention span of a reader is THREE SECONDS. Think about the man in the van standing at the traffic lights (on red) eating his pasty, waiting to drive off. The paper is open on the passenger seat beside him. He glances down and reads the opening line of your story. You have THREE SECONDS to attract his attention and communicate the WHOLE essence of your story to him. You think I'm joking? I'm not. That's how long it takes a reader to 'get' the story and decide whether or not they want to read some more. Most people don't read any more - some read a bit more until they get bored and the sad ones read everything because they haven't got anything more urgent to do. Broadsheet newspaper readers are not, on the whole, three second people. They will probably take five or more seconds to scan the opening paragraph. Also they will probably not be driving a white van and eating a pasty.
Notice the caps and the emboldened text there? They 'grab' the eye, don't they? That's one of the ways you have of attracting the reader's attention. 

Rule number one: the first word of your story is always in BOLD CAPS.

Rule number two: the first word of your story must be INTERESTING. A big celebrity's name is interesting (but it has to be a VERY big name, like MADONNA, or KYLIE, or Beckham or The Queen). You can do it with places, too, especially if you're writing for a local paper, because people like to see the name of their town in print "NEWCASTLE supporters were.......". The same goes for 'issues' FOX HUNTING protesters.......', 'CLONED baby born....... and abstract nouns, especially emotive ones, like "FEAR gripped...........'

Rule number three: Get at least one very emotive word into the first paragraph. "NEWCASTLE supporters were furious last night, when...............'. Don't overdo this and whatever you do - DON'T lead with the emotive word. We don't talk about Furious Newcastle Supporters, for example, because it implies that all Newcastle supporters are furious all the time. (They're not - honestly!) The same goes for "ANGRY parents......" or "TERRIFIED children..." Turn the adjectival phrase into a statement "PARENTS were angry......" or "CHILDREN in Manchester schools will........."

Rule number four:  Keep your first paragraph simple. Remember we're really talking about a sentence here - not a 'paragraph' as we understand it in English Grammar. Here's a good tip for that. Imagine you saw a man knocked down and killed at the traffic lights (let's say the guy in the van drove into him while he was reading his paper instead of looking where he was going). Imagine what you would say if you raced off up the street at full tilt and ran in to the pub to tell all your mates what you'd just seen. You wouldn't say "An elderly gentleman dressed in a beige overcoat was crossing the road when the lights went green and a large white van, driven by a man reading a newspaper and eating a pasty knocked him over, causing multiple injuries which unfortunately resulted in the elderly man's demise' would you? (NO you WOULDN'T, not even if you read the Guardian!) You'd rush in and say "A man just got killed at the traffic lights!"
That's the principle with reporting news. You say what happened. You say it simply. You say it quickly. You put one emotive word into the first sentence. "A PENSIONER was killed in a horrific hit and run accident this morning...........". Van-man reads it and decides if it's worth reading on. He might - he might not, but your job is to 'hook' him into doing so if you can.

RULE number five - The FUNNEL TECHNIQUE - This is the way a story is structured. Imagine a funnel as a way of making something go where you want it to go. The way to 'funnel' a story is to start with the simple, basic concentrated fact at the 'top' (the start) with your first sentence encapsulating the whole story. Each successive paragraph 'widens' the story out a bit, so that by the time you get to the end, you've covered all the material in order of importance (most important to less important).
This means you have to think really hard about exactly WHAT is the most important thing you're reporting. The first paragraph (sentence) has to summarise the whole story, but it also has to be the most important aspect of the story, too. After that you report the next most important fact, then the next and the next. (No less than FOUR facts.) 
After four 'facts' (four paragraphs/sentences) you bring in the QUOTATIONS. Remember that you might need more than four opening paragraphs if the story is a dense one.

Rule number six: Good hard news always has quotations. There are rules about using quotes, too - as follows:

Don't use too many quotations - three will do usually and they should be in order of importance and credibility. Ideally you need the first one from an 'expert' or an 'authority', followed by less important witnesses.

Rule number seven - the gag

Be very careful with gags, or jokes. You might want to write a story about a cat stuck up a tree and say its rescue is a 'purr-fect' ending, but the editor will probably sack you at the end of the week.
Puns are only acceptable if they're clever and you only use them on non-sensitive stories, NEVER on really tragic issues. If you can think of a satirical gag, use it, but only one and try to get it somewhere in the first couple of sentences.
Headlines are usually done by the sub-editor, but you will have to do that job as well, if you're working alone, so gags and puns are good for headlines. Celebrity stories are a rich source of gags - look for links to the celebrity's life or work - use a discography or filmography for a pop-star or a media star and play around with song or film titles or allusions (intertextuality).
A good example of a headline gag about Catherine Zeta Jones after the court case about the wedding photographs:


OK it's not the best pun in the world, but you get the picture (get the picture? Get it?...........) More to follow - watch this space.

© V Pope Feb 2003