Sunday, October 9, 2011

Good Journalistic Advice from the Howard 100 News Team

For those with satellite radio subscriptions who listen to the Howard Stern Show, the Howard 100 News team actually gives a solid piece of journalistic advice, albeit in a humorous fashion. The tag line they use in one of their promos is "If you mother says she loves you, check her sources."

While I take it on faith that my mother loves me, after all she is giving first hand testimony to that fact, when it comes to news-worthy leads, I check everything. Recently, for example, It was suggested that I write a news story about October 5th being the most popular birthday in the USA by the News Director of the Yahoo! Contributor Network. He generally provides me with pretty solid leads, sometimes offering me contact info. for specific news-worthy leads and suggesting article topics that he'd like to pitch to the Yahoo! News front page folks.

Sometimes they pan out and sometimes they don't (and sometimes they require extraordinary effort on my part: "If you can find someone who was present at 'X' event 60 years ago, we'd like to publish an interview with them."). That's great, I am thankful and lucky to have such a good relationship with the person who decides whether to pay me for an article. I pursue the leads offered to the best of my ability whether I think they are likely to be profitable to me or not, often investing many hours in research before I really know whether there is a story there or not.

The October 5th birthday story was no different. I accepted the challenge and went to work, assuming that the premise was true. Indeed, at first it seemed that every web reference agreed. October 5th is the most popular date for birthdays in the USA because it coincides with a New Year's Eve conception, they said. Hmmm. I was born on October 2nd, which is certainly within the big part of the bell curve for those babies conceived on the same date as those born on October 5th. So I asked my mother, "Is it likely that I was conceived on New Year's Eve?"

"Yes," she replied that she was almost certain of that.

I noticed, however, that one source was cited by most of the websites and news stations which were reporting October 5th as the most popular birthday. Those that didn't cite a specific source had specific language or numbers that were too similar to those cited by that same, singular source to be coincidental.

Furthermore, the data upon which that original source based its claim was unavailable. It would have been easy to cite the same source used by such news outlets as NBC4-TV out of Washington, D.C., and all the others, but one source without the backing evidence just doesn't pass my standard of reliability even though that was the storyline requested by the News Director. So I asked myself, who might have actual birth record data and statistics? The government, for one. So I did a search restricted to .gov  sites and came up with the CDC data contained in my report which was inconclusive but tended to cast further doubt on the October 5th meme.

Looking further, I found a 2006 study by a Harvard professor who listed all 366 days of the year (including leap year's February 29th) in order of popularity, based on a study of many years of birth records. His data was more in line with the CDC data and was quite different than the source used by almost every website that talked about the most popular birthday in the U.S. I could have, and should have, gone one step further and called the Harvard professor who did the study and asked to see his data for a solid answer to the question, but by this time, my deadline was fast approaching and it didn't seem possible to make the contact and review the details of the study in time to publish the story at all.

With three sources in hand, but without the raw data to confirm their findings, I cannot say definitively upon which date the most popular birthday falls. I can say, however, that the October 5th date is pretty doubtful, and that's the story I went with. You can read it in its entirety at Yahoo! News by clicking the link below.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Libel revisited

First, let me say for the record, that I am not a lawyer or legal expert, and this is not intended as legal advice, but as an example of and commentary on best (and worst) practices.

I wrote about jumping to conclusions when reporting about the actions of specific persons or companies. I said that you can report what someone else said about the person as long as you say that that person said it and don't do anything to validate the statement. I didn't mention, and I should have, an important exception to that rule. If you know or have reason to believe that the statement is false, but print it anyway without acknowledging that you know or suspect it to be false, then you can still be held responsible for any damage to a person's reputation (or business) resulting from the publication of those statements.

Here's a case where the NY Post is being sued for just such an action. In this case, the NY Post cited unnamed sources "close to the defense" who made very damaging statements about the woman who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault. The NY Post apparently accepted the word of people with every reason to lie in order to discredit the woman. If they did additional research to verify the claims, there was no  mention of that in their report.

Without any attempt to verify or qualify the statements, it could be argued that the NY Post is validating their credibility. In fact, as CNN points out in the linked story above, the NY Post article specifically said the woman was "doing double duty as a prostitute, collecting cash on the side from male guests, The Post has learned." That statement in particular shows that the NY Post believes the accusations and strongly implies that they have investigated to back them up. It adds validity to the allegations backed by the reputation of the NY Post.

Anyone can go out and find someone to make stuff up about someone else for the sake of getting a sensational headline. That doesn't absolve a reporter or a publisher of their responsiblity if there's good reason to doubt the veracity of the statements. In this case, the allegations made involved a number of third parties, who presumably could have been tracked down and questioned by the NY Post, but apparently weren't.

A paper can be wrong, but they need to show that they undertook reasonable precautions to make sure what they were printing was true. If you actually go a step farther and treat third party allegations as facts that you have verified, you'd better make very sure that you did verify them. Perhaps, the NY Post did that in this case and will be vindicated, who knows. Better reporting could have prevented the situation in the first place.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

When to use your prior articles as primary source material

I've covered the difference between primary and secondary sources in previous posts and told you that you should always strive to use a primary source rather than someone else's reporting of that source material. Obviously, an original interview that you conduct is a primary source. Don't overlook that fact if you later write on a similar topic. You can cite the expert you interviewed with a link back to that interview as a primary source for future articles.

This is an exception to the rule. Ordinarily, I think linking back to one of your articles as a source of factual information for a news report is not a good idea if the information you're citing was originally drawn from another source. In other words, many articles (especially news articles) are themselves secondary or even tertiary sources.

If your previous article said, "The FBI, on their website, are asking for the public's aid in locating Whitey Bolger." That's a secondary source with the FBI website being the primary source. If you wrote "ABC News reported that the FBI Director asked for the public's help..." Your article becomes a tertiary source, ABC News is the secondary source for the primary source which was the FBI Director himself. These kinds of chain references where the reader who wishes to check your source has to go through several links to get to the source are damaging to the writer's credibility, in my opinion, and should be avoided.

However, articles in which you personally conducted the interview and are bearing witness to what the relevent source said to you, are fair primary source references. There is no extra link in the chain for the reader to chase down because you've done the original investigation and reporting and these articles can credibly be used as primary source references for future articles.

Note that this is for news source references. If you include links to other articles you've written as additional background material, further reading, related topics, or also of interest pieces, that's a separate thing altogether and I don't take issue with that at all.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

PR firms, time commitments, and maximizing returns

Recently, I received a message from the PR firm that handles Ford Motor Company and who helped arrange a previous interview for me with Ford's Vice President of Manufacturing informing me that they also work with Coca-Cola. They wanted to know if I'd be interested in covering Northeast Coca-Cola's involvement in the NRRA's 30th Annual Recycling Conference and Expo in Manchester, NH. They would be featuring the plant-based PET bottle now being used for Dasani water.

While I didn't think this had the broad appeal to warrant use in my highest paying beat which is simply "newsworthy interviews," I did think it was relevant to both my New England Regional News and my Environmental Issues beats with the Yahoo! Contributor Network, and for my Manchester Green Living Examiner title.

I saw several article angles that I could write up and the PR firm offered to set-up interviews with both the event's executive organizer and the general manager of Northeast Coca-Cola. I was particularly interested in learning about the PlantBottle technology which uses plants to make 30 percent of the plastic in the bottles used for Dasani Water. However, whenever dealing with a company representative, a writer has to be sure they are not just receiving one side of the story, and has to do a a little extra fact-checking to keep them honest. So, instead of the usual Q&A format, I incorporated a "fact check" paragraph after a couple of the answers I received clarifying or correcting information fed to me by the Coke reps. (Read the PlantBottle technology article here.)

Another interesting side note of this is that I actually went to the conference with a press pass provided by the event organizers and had the opportunity to not only interview the organizer and the Coke people directly at the show, but I walked the floor and picked up several serendipitous interviews with other vendors presenting at the expo. I'll be using these in future articles. I also noted that on the day I attended area schools were invited to attend the show, and awards were being given out to the top recycling schools, student, and staff. That seemed like a good local interest story, as well, so I wrote that up using a couple of relevant quotes from my much longer interview with the event's organizer and a list of award recipient's they provided to me under embargo terms (just until after the actual presentation so the winners would not read of their victories before they were announced). (Read the school awards announcement article here.)

In the end, this call from a PR firm will probably yield me six or more articles, maybe more, although not all of them will go up immediately as some are time independent. I spent about two hours driving to and from the event (recording mileage total as a business expense for tax purposes), about two and a half hours at the conference, and about 2-3 hours researching the NRRA and the Brazilian sugarcane industry, plus writing time.

For one article, even under the Interviews beat at Y!CN, it would have been hard to justify that amount of time investment, but for 6 most of which will go to Y!CN beats with good guaranteed upfront payments in addition to page view royalties, the math works better. The key here was keeping my eyes open for additional story opportunities. I also wanted to get some journalistic practice in covering live events and trolling crowds for interviews, so that figured into my equation as well.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Why use original interviews as source material?

As a journalist, non-fiction writer in a niche topic, or a generalist, your work can benefit greatly by interviewing others and using their knowledge and quotes in your articles. By asking questions and listening to the answers, you as a writer are acquiring original source information that is absolutely unique no matter how many other writers are working on the same topic. By going directly to the source, your article benefits from increased credibility.

A thousand people can write about the latest study linking the excessive eating of ice cream and unprecendented gains in longevity by using the original published research paper as a primary source. All one thousand of those writers will have access to the same facts, the same researcher comments, and will all see that original source material worded exactly the same way. Many of their reports, even those found at major outlets like Reuters, AP, and Yahoo! will be very, very similar in content and tone. By talking to the lead researcher directly, however, you can follow any angle of questioning that you think is interesting. You'll get original quotes that are different from those that appear in every other published report on the subject and you'll almost certainly get facts and insights to which no other writer has access.

In other words, you'll be able to turn out a better article than anyone who relied only on material that is presented in identical fashion to everyone. That's not to say good, or even great articles can't be written without original interview material. They are every day. It is ultimately a question of the writer's imagination, creativity, skill with words, discipline and experience that dictate the quality of any article. Starting out with higher quality, more unique source material such as an original interview, however, gives the artist a bigger pallette from which to fill the empty canvas.

As if that weren't enough of a reward, you may find yourself earning higher upfront payments for these highly original articles as well.

For some, finding the right people to interview can be difficult, though. On one of my other blogs (Interviews with Experts), I am launching into a series of posts about identifying, contacting  and securing interviews with original sources from many different walks of life from the everyday person, to the knowedgeable expert, to the celebrity.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Reporting on 'hints and allegations'

Ideally, every news reporter would adopt a Joe Friday approach, "All we know are the facts, ma'am." There's a place for commentary and opinion, but news reporting isn't that place. A well-written news article should present the facts and let the reader form their own opinions. Unfortunately, in my opinion, that doesn't happen much anymore.

Separating fact from opinion in news reports

There are certain instances where a writer must be especially careful about blurring facts and opinions, whether the opinions belong to her or to someone else. Generally, those instances involve cases where what is said could be damaging to someone's (or some company's) reputation. We can write about allegations, accusations, convictions and indictments as facts, but not the underlying actions unless we were personally witness to them and would be willing to testify to them under oath in a court of law. For example, "When I arrived on the scene, the fight was still in progress and Joe Smith was alternately shoving and being shoved by Sam Jones." I saw it, I would attest to it under oath, I can write it.
However, if, when I arrived, Joe and Sam were in handcuffs, all five people I asked said they saw the two shoving each other and described the altercation in detail, a police officer told me they were being arrested for disorderly conduct, public drunkenness and assault, and I heard Jones yell out, "Ness time I'll do more 'n jess shove you ta th' groun'," just before he vomitted onto the side of the police cruiser. I can not write a factual news article stating that Smith and Jones were shoving each other, that they were drunk, or anything about their specific actions (other than saying that Jones yelled out whatever I heard him yell).
I can write something like the following:

On Friday evening at approximately 11:45 p.m., the Rutland City Police arrested Joe Smith and Sam Jones outside of Notorious Nightclub on Main Street. The arresting officer, Detective Joe Friday, said the pair were being arrested for disorderly conduct, public drunkeness and assault.

Mike Jones, who said he was the brother of one of the accused, said "Sam wasn't doing nothing. Joe just walked up and hit him over the head with a beer bottle. Sam just turned around and pushed him away, you know, acting in self-defense." Four other bystanders, however, claimed to have seen Jones spit in Smith's face immediately prior to the altercation.

Bartenders could not say how many drinks were served to the pair prior to the trouble in the parking lot. Officers at the scene would not comment on the results of a breathalyzer test administered to Smith and Jones. 

John Baptiste, who was behind the bar at the time said that Jones had been asked to leave the premises on several previous occasions, but could not say why.

In this example, I am not reporting as fact anything I didn't see. Instead I am reporting that an officer told me this, four bystanders (whose names and phone numbers I jotted down for my file) told me that, and Mike Jones told me something else. In this case, I could testify that these people told me those things, but I can't say for certain whether any of what they said is actually true or not. I did not personally, in my article, accuse anyone of anything or make assumptions about anyne's guilt or innocence.

It would be entirely wrong to write: On Friday evening at approximately 11:45 p.m., Joe Smith and Sam Jones were carted away in handcuffs after brawling in the parking lot of Notorious Nightclub on Main Street. Jones, a known trouble-maker, started the fight by spitting in Smith's face. Smith retaliated by hitting the larger man in the head with a beer bottle, but was shoved to the ground and could have been in for much worse if police had not arrived to break up the fight. While the majority of onlookers provided consistent descriptions of the fight, Jones' brother Mike seemed to leave out key pieces of the story to protect his big brother. Both men were drunk when they left the club and even the bartenders lost track of how much alcohol the men had been served that evening. Notorious Nightclub lives up to its name as events like those of last night seem to happen on a regular basis there. Perhaps, if the hired help were trained well enough to recognize when someone has had enough to drink, they could keep their patrons out of jail.

In the latter example, I have personally accused two men, Smith and Jones, of specific criminal actions. I have make actionable statements against the management and staff of Notorious Nightclub, accused Mike Jones of lying, and personally accused Smith and Jones of being drunk. Both I and my publisher could be sued over each of these statements, since they are all based on hearsay or unsubstantiated assumptions and damaging to someone's reputation. I don't know if the two men were drunk, if Mike Jones was lying, or if the four other bystanders were cousins of Smith and were lying on his behalf. Any of them might have been mistaken. I have one bartender's assertion that Jones had been removed from Notorious on previous occasions, but have personally interpreted that by calling Jones a known trouble-maker, another potentially actionable allegation on my part. While I might be able to successfully defend against civil suits against some of these claims, if the results of the breathalyzer tests were admitted and showed the men over the legal limit, for example, my allegation of them being drunk might get dismissed, but some are indefensible - was Mike Jones lying or simply mistaken?

Let's assume several weeks go by. Jones died from a subdural hematoma the next day, Smith is going on trial for murder. I can say that Smith has been arraigned for murder, he is being tried for murder, he has been accused of murder by the prosecutor, but I cannot call him a murderer, or say that he killed Jones. I can say that the coroner stated that the autopsy revealed the cause of death was a blow to the head consistent with being struck by a beer bottle, as Smith was alleged to have done two days prior to the Jones' death.

If Smith is convicted of murder, I still cannot call him a murderer with absolute impunity. I can say he has been convicted of murder, found guilty of murder, or is serving a life sentence for murder, but if the conviction were overturned later, my calling him a murderer outright would be proven to be incorrect.

In short, a factual news article can report allegations or statements made by others who are cited in the text, but should never make claims, accusations, or assumptions about events to which the writer was not personally a witness.

Although personal allegations against individuals are the most common instances where this comes into play, it also applies in other areas. I can't say for sure, for example whether cell phones cause brain tumors or not. I can say that 17 independent studies have found no evidence that cell phones cause brain tumors or that Mike Jones, brother of Sam Jones who was  originally thought to have died of a subdural hematoma after being struck with a beer bottle, now claims that his brother's death was caused by a tumor triggered by his cellphone. "He never had no tumor before he got a cell phone," Jones shouted from the courthouse steps over the protests of his attorney.

The writer should let the reader know the source of every bit of information in the article that isn't widely known public knowledge. I don't need to provide a source for information like, "the President of the United States was born in Hawaii." If I wrote, however, "Hawaii remains the President's favorite vaction spot," I'd need to cite a source such as "he told Bill O'Reilly on The O'Reilly Show last night."

Monday, May 23, 2011

Related blog post: Interviews

I just wanted to drop a quick note here that I have another blog called "Interviews with Experts." It is mainly dedicated to collecting all the interviews I have done with experts on various topics, but it also includes posts which discuss issues that have come up in the course of conducting interviews and my experiences around the interviews themselves. Since interviews are a key news data gathering tool, I am mentioning it here for those that are interested, but I'm generally not going to cross-post every entry from there to here.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Establishing credibility part III: Quality control

Establishing credibility as I mentioned in previous posts is an important part of earning news writing opportunities, developing a following, and establishing your reputation as a writer and journalist. If readers don't have confidence in what you are writing, they won't come back. If editors don't have confidence in what you're saying they won't reward you with opportunities like recurring news beats or targeted requests.

Writing interesting articles that are well-sourced and informative is, obviously, the most important part of establishing credibility, but even those articles can be ruined by a lack of quality control. In every manufacturing plant in the United States, someone, or a group of someones, is assigned to check the finished product and make sure that it is coming off the end of the line the way it should. They may use Statistical Process Control or some other quality control methods, but they are checking. Your finished news article should be checked as well.

No matter how articulate your phrasing, or how well-reasoned your analysis may be, misspellings and poor grammar can sabotage your credibility. A great article that has several misspellings and grammatical errors is like a major league pitcher throwing a no-hitter, but walking in the winning run. It's a great effort, but a losing effort.

Proof-reading is a must for every writer. It isn't necessary to have someone else do it. The writer can do it themselves if they can slow down and concentrate on what they typed on the page rather than what they thought they wrote. For me, at least, it's natural to read at a fast clip, especially material with which I may be familiar. To proof-read effectively, however, it's often best to read much more slowly and deliberately that we would normally.

The first proof-reading pass may be for content. Did you say what you wanted to say? Are your arguments laid out in the best logical order? Are statements of fact properly sourced? You may find that the article says exactly what you want it to say in the manner in which you want to say it, or you may make a few changes. Either way, it is then time for a second, more detailed proof-reading.

The second pass should be very slow and deliberate, focusing on the individual words, letters and punctuation rather than the content. Even after you've run a spelling and grammar checker (which we should all do), there may still be errors. Run-on sentences, incorrect words, and other errors will  generally not show up with the checkers built into your word-processing software. If you are using a web site's editor, even fewer errors will be caught mechanically.

As you read through your work and discover errors, either before or after publishing it, make a mental note of each one. Most of us have habits that we repeat over and over again. Whether these are typing pattern errors that our fingers make without any help from our brains, or mental habits that we fall into even though we know the difference between its and it's, we often repeat mistakes from article to article.

By identifying our error patterns, we can train ourselves to pay extra attention every time we use a word or phrase that tends to cause us problems. It'll make your proof-reading easier and eventually it will help you eliminate your most common errors because they'll look like red flags every time you use the problem word or phrase.

There is no worse feeling for me, at least, than publishing an article with content of which I am proud, and then finding one or more silly errors that I didn't catch because I was in too much of a hurry to share my brilliant creation with the virtual world. Unfortunately, this happens far too frequently.

Shameless, but honest promotion:
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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Interviews: PR versus News

As journalists, we benefit when an expert agrees to discuss some newsworthy topic with us. Whether it is a complete interview, some expert commentary, or filling in some background information to help our readers better understand some difficult subject, the addition of credible, original, third-party quotes almost always makes for a better article. What we have to also realize, is that, these experts, also have a purpose in giving us the interview.

Sometimes that purpose is simply to gain name recognition or to keep the name of their organization in the public eye. Sometimes, though, especially with people representing commercial operations, the sole purpose for granting an interview is to paint their company in a positive light for a free commercial. That's certainly their right. As journalists, though, we are not in the business of writing commercials for publication on news channels.

When the interview is giving a company a direct opportunity to refute some allegation against the company, then these PR statements can be of direct use as the official company response to some accusation or situation which casts them in a negative light. When we are asking for their expertise on a matter either not related or only peripherally related to the company in question, however, such scripted responses are of marginal use.

It is our job to cut through the company line to find real information that is of value to readers. For example, I recently had the opportunity to interview the Vice President of North American Manufacturing from the Ford Motor Company for a news article about the state of American manufacturing. He was certainly qualified to speak on the subject as the head of manufacturing for a major American company, however, his goal in agreeing to the interview was to promote the Ford Motor Company.

In arranging the interview, I was very up-front about the nature of the article for which the interview would be used. I wanted to examine the health of manufacturing in America, including the outsourcing of American jobs, the general direction of the economy, and issues relating to those topics.  The first sign that I was not going to get a truly candid interview, was that the VP, James Tetreault, had another Ford "spokesperson" on the line as well. This person was more of a PR expert along to make sure that Tetreault did not say anything of which Ford would not approve. Indeed, this person did jump in a couple of times to answer for Tetreault when I challenged his initial response.

I had initially intended the interview to be published as a Q&A piece with my questions and the relevant pieces of the interviewee's answers (edited for clarity and brevity) printed directly with a brief introduction, similar to this Q&A news article. Because of the high level of PR content, some of which was, at best, borderline in terms of being "factually accurate statements," I had to rethink my approach.

I wrote the article on the topic I originally intended, but included a couple of other credible third-party sources to refute one point made by Tetreault, and to buttress the independence of the article. However, I wrote the article in a more narrative form, using direct quotes from Tetreault, but not in a strict Q&A format. Much of the interview content turned out to be unusable for my purposes.

It is not always necessary to portray the interviewee or their company in a positive light. For example, if you happened to get an interview with the former BP CEO on the golf course shortly after the BP gulf oil well disaster, as a journalist, "You have to go beyond his statements that everything is under control and it's just a little bit of oil leaking out right now. Nothing to worry about." However, portraying an interviewee negatively may have repercussions as well.

In the case of the Ford interview I conducted, I researched some basic facts before the interview. When the VP said Ford's success in the first part of the year was due more to Ford's product assortment than to a more broad based upturn in economic conditions, I was able to counter with the fact that Ford's competitors had at least equal, and in many cases better overall sales increases during the same period. I pointed this out to him directly in the interview and included it in the article.

The use of qualified third-party experts can add significant credibility to a news article, but if you act as a shill for the interviewee's company, it can have the opposite effect.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Establishing credibility part II: Commentary

Even commentary pieces must be built on a firm foundation of unassailable facts. To convince a reader that your opinion has merit, you must have a higher amount of stored credibility because you are risking drawing down on it with every subjective or opinionated statement you make. Your credibility is taxed in direct proportion to the degree of outlandishness that each such statement contains.

For example, each of the following statements puts more of a strain on the author's credibility because of the increasing deviation from mainstream opinion. 1) We should subject anyone coming into the United States from a country of special concern to a more thorough search when boarding an airplane. 2) We should apply a more thorough search to anyone who fits the physical and behavioral profile of previously identified members of a terrorist group. 3) We should subject anyone of Arabian descent to an extended search. 4) We should deny U.S. entry to all foreigners. 5) We should nuke 'em all.

Each of those statements requires the writer to make a much stronger case built on a foundation of facts strong enough to support the authors' opinion, until you get to a statement like the fifth one that is entirely unsupportable and transforms the commentary article into a rant regardless of how much credibility the author has banked with the rest of the article. Carl Sagan may have said it best when he said "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." That applies not only to scientific endeavors, but also to news commentary.

Readers understand that news commentary contains subjective statements based on the author's opinion. Good commentary leads a reader down a logical path. At first, the path should seem like familiar territory to the reader. They should feel as if they are walking on a firm grounding of familiar facts. The author can place plausible opinions in among the facts, like a will-o-wisp drawing the unwary reader deeper and deeper into the writer's forest of logic. The best commentary will take a reader to an unfamiliar destination, sympathizing with the commentary writer's opinion, without them ever realizing they left their old familiar path.

Establishing credibility Part I

I remember when the evening television news anchor was the most trusted man in America. When Walter Cronkite said "...and that's the way it is," we knew that that was indeed, the way it is. It wasn't his opinion. It wasn't his spin, or his interpretation of the a situation. It was the News with a capital N and that meant facts, just the facts, and nothing but the facts.

Cronkite had that trust because he had developed a reputation and his credibility was beyond reproach. Honestly, that's the way I prefer my news. Give me the facts, and let me decide what I feel about the situation on my own. I don't need a triumvirate of morning show hosts to shake their heads and pass judgment on the news as if their opinion is more valid than that of anyone else.

Unfortunately, though, as Walter might have said that's the way it is these days. Commentary, opinion and facts are all ingredients in today's news recipe. Some recipes may call for more of one ingredient than the others. The net result, however, is that hardly any of us would volunteer the name of a modern day news anchor as the most trusted person in America these days.

As news writers, however, it is our jobs to present the news in a credible fashion. If the reader doesn't believe what we write, then we are wasting their time with our words. Simply saying something that's true doesn't always automatically translate into believability. As professional writers it is our jobs to choose words carefully. We can choose words for their emotional connotations, and that's fine, as long as we are also careful to use words and write with a credible voice, using solid logic applied to verifiable facts.

If I write that the most popular car color is red, I need to support and qualify that statement. Without that support it is not a credible statement and it detracts from any point I want to make in whatever I'm writing. After all, if I am caught in an error one time, the reader can only assume that the rest of my article is questionable as well.

To support the fact that the most popular car color is red, for example, There are several ways to go. I can remove my credibility from the equation altogether by attributing the statement to someone else. If I say "Joe Smith, the owner of Joe Smith's Fine Used Cars in Hoboken, New Jersey, told me that the most popular car color is red," then the reader can make a judgement about the validity of the information based upon their opinion of Joe Smith's credibility and his qualifications to make such as judgement.

Whatever the reader decides about Joe Smith, I, as the author, cannot be judged on the relative merit of that statement unless, in the rest of my article I assign it some credibility that differs from the reader's assumption. If I say "therefore, my recommendation for car companies to save money is to only make red cars because it is the most popular color," then I have added my reputation and credibility on top of Joe Smith's by personally validating his statement. Now again, my credibility is on the line with the reader.

Every fact or statement in a news piece either builds on the writer's credibility because it is explicitly sourced, or it relies on the credibility capital the writer has already built with the reader. A news writer's credibility balance sheet cannot go into negative territory or readers (and editors) will decide that your article has no real worth to them.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Finding news topics and sources

There are many ways to find original sources for news stories. often, these sources will also provide breaking news tips that let you get information at the same time as it becomes available to newspaper and television news reporters.

If you have a particular news niche in which you write regularly, think about the organizations that generate news in that area. For example, if you like to write about the latest medical breakthroughs, epidemics, food poisoning outbreaks, and other health news, there are a variety of very authoritative original sources available to you as a reporter.

You can start with the Centers for Disease Control's Press Room page. This page provides in-depth and authoritative information on current outbreaks of things like salmonella, bird flu, measles, and other public health concerns. You can find symptoms, statistics, prevention, and loads of other relevant information. Perhaps, just as important for some publishers is the availability of high quality, public domain images for use by journalists. These images fall into the category of an online press kit and include pictures not only specific to individual news stories, but images suitable for general medical news use. Don't forget that each one must be properly credited. The image below is an example of a CDC microbiologist inoculating an embryonic chicken egg against the bird flu.

Another useful source for medical news stories is the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). By registering for media access, you can get a weekly email summary of available news releases, including many that are embargoed to the general public. Here you'll find the latest medical studies, research, and other breaking medical news. Whereas you might use CDC for background information or general statistics, the JAMA releases might be the focus of your news article.

For example, on this page there's a summary and link to a full article which might lend itself to this title: "Study lists controlling behaviors linked to domestic violence." That's hard news which is of interest to a large segment of the population and which has some evergreen potential depending upon your specific angle and title. This story could be written up in a variety of ways to match the preferences of your intended publisher. If you have first hand experience with domestic violence, can call and interview a staff member at a local women's shelter, or add a brief list of domestic violence resources in your area, the story can be very effectively personalized and/or localized. It can even be written as a non-news article with an angle like "Controlling behaviors linked to spousal abuse, what to watch for." (That's not a great title, but I wanted to communicate the angle for the purposes of this example.)

By adding statistics on domestic violence from the CDC and other sources, you can strengthen your story and make it more than a simple recap of the JAMA release. Furthermore, because this story was embargoed when first made available, you have time to get all that background information in order, write and proofread your article and still be among the very first to get the story online as soon as the embargo is lifted.

Embargoed means that the organization is releasing information only to authorized journalists so that they can write their story in advance and be ready to publish the instant the embargo is lifted. Be careful to always follow the terms of the embargo and do not submit your story for publication before the time and date stated in the embargo. These kinds of restricted access sources can put the online news writer on an equal footing with any news agency in the world in terms of being first to print.

Government agencies with many different areas of interest make information available to the public and reporters regularly. The Department of Health and Human Services covers a wide range of health issues. A partial list of the web sites on which they make information available is found here. Most government agencies will also allow members of the media to subscribe for email alerts for timely press releases. Often you can sign up very selectively by region or specific topic, depending upon the agency involved. Many have public domain photos available for journalistic use, too. Just be sure to check and follow the terms of use outlined at each site.

More general information sources like PR Newswire or Newswise have sections dedicated to medical topics and registered journalists can received daily email updates of breaking news from those sources as well. It is up to you as a working journalist to separate PR hype from objective news and to treat each accordingly. That's not to say you can't report on Best Pharmaceutical's high expectations for a new drug undergoing preliminary clinical trials, but examine in-depth their claims and make clear the source of the information. If possible, call up a third party expert and get an objective and knowledgeable opinion  on the specific claims.

Other sources might be the press pages of major research hospitals and medical schools. These are primary sources which often include contact information for the actual researcher who wrote and conducted the study who may be available for a telephone interview or to answer a few emailed questions. When you can get original quotes directly from a source, you are further separating your article from the pack and adding a higher layer of quality.

A reporter may or may not be an expert in the field about which they write. It certainly helps. For example, a doctor writing about breaking medical news can use their own expertise to dissect claims, talk about  risks, and provide other detailed analysis. On the other hand, a good journalist investigates the topics about which they write. They report facts and rely on qualified third party opinions to verify those facts or provide explanations, implications, and other pertinent expert analysis. In cases where the reporter is not an expert in the field, they rely on some other source to make sure they fully understand what they are writing about.

In general, if you don't understand a press release and can't find someone to explain it fully, you shouldn't write about it.  Some publishers require the writer to be an expert in certain fields before allowing them to publish on specific topics. Medical news is often one such category. To be a Yahoo! Contributor Network (Y!CN) Featured Contributor, for example, writers are expected to either be a qualified health professional or have some other quantifiable expertise on the topic and must undergo an exacting approval process before excepted in that category.

If you start using these types of sources for your online news articles, and especially if you use several of them for each story to provide richer background detail and demonstrate a thorough understanding of the issue at hand, you'll be among the top tier of news writers. Try it and then compare your articles to those of traditional, respected news outlets. You'll find yourself noticing the deficiencies in many standard news articles which are little more than restatements of publicly available press releases. You'll also start to notice when the reporter didn't understand the nature of the topic. The difference between and association and causation in medical studies, for example, is often misreported by mainstream reporters and can be another angle for your news comparison article.

By using multiple primary sources, online news writers can write with a level of quality that is competitive with, and in some cases, better than any other breaking news publication.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Writing better and earning more

The purpose of this post is two-fold, although I'll keep it short and to the point. I want to answer two simple questions.
  • How can I earn more with my writing?
  • How can I get better at writing?
The answer to both questions is: write.

Whether you're trying to earn a full time wage, help stay ahead of the bills, or just earn a few extra bucks each week, writing should be viewed just like any other job. It may be a job you love, but it is a job nevertheless. That means you have to show up for work regularly and get the job done. I strongly advocate setting up specific work hours each day (or each week) and sticking to them religiously.

During these work hours, you should be wholly focused on writing. I understand that you may also be taking care of young children and there's no pause button that lets you take a break from that during the day, but other than that, when you're at work, consider yourself "at work." Sit down at your keyboard and write. Whatever you earn with your writing will go up in proportionally to the amount of hours you spend writing (although it may not be a linear relationship).

Like any job, showing up and doing the work isn't a question of whether you feel like it at any particular time, but whether the clock tells you it's time to go to work. If you feel particularly inspired and want o work some overtime, that's fine, but skipping out early should not be an option unless you've already doubled your monetary goal for the month, then and only then, have you earned a vacation day.

For the second question, your writing will improve with practice. The more you write on a regular basis, the better you'll get over time. That improvement will take several forms. First, setting regular hours habituates you to writing. For most writers I know, the hardest part of any composition is the first sentence, and often the very first word. Regular writing hours doesn't give you the option of being uninspired. It's time to write, so you write. You can write whatever you want, but there must be measurable and consistent output.

Separate other "work" activities from actual writing. Not all your work time is actual writing. There's research, promotion, opportunity-seeking, skill development and probably a couple of other things that may vary for each individual. However, all too often, those activities tend to consume far too much of our writng time. Set specific limits for these activities that leave the bulk of your work time for just writing.

Secondly, the quality of your work will improve as you continue to write and publish. Practice, all by itself will make yo better, as will reading and comparing your work to that of others. If you're writing news, read traditional news reports (Reuters, AP, AFP, CNN, and/or all the others), but also read the news articles that get featured by your publisher whether it is Yahoo!, Examiner, or any other outlet. Make mental notes of what you liked about each of those reports, and work on improving in areas where you think any of them were better than yours.

That's not to say copy someone else's style. Develop your own style from an amalgamation of what you consider the best aspects of everything you read.  If you like the straightforward, fact-based style of Reuters, but also enjoy the friendly flavor of Yahoo!'s Shine and the compelling first-person story-telling of Reader's Digest, combine the three styles and see what happens.

Feedback from editors, category managers, private clients, or whomever you write for makes you better. They don't all give feedback, but when they do, pay attention. Don't be afraid to ask for examples or clarification from time to time if you're not clear about the feedback they provide. Don't be a pest, but do make sure you understand the feedback you receive.

If you feel you have made a major improvement or change in your writing, or are unsure of the quality of something you published, ask others in your writing peer group for feedback. Most good writers are happy to help.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Who says to avoid weasel words?

As news writers, we must be careful to distinguish between fact and opinion. When we offer our own opinion, it should be clearly identified as such. When we offer someone else's opinion, we must say whose opinion it is. That, of course, means that we have to know to whom the opinion belongs in the first place.
One of the most obvious and most widely used non-attributable attributions used in everyday speech is "they say." In a news article that means absolutely nothing. The sentence "they say that the economy is getting better," gives the reader no information at all unless you have clearly identified who the word "they" represents. For example, "I asked three professors of economics from the Harvard School of Business, and they say..." identifies the people whose opinion or expertise is being cited and is a perfectly acceptable phrasing, especially if the names of the individuals are included or at least available via a source link.

The word "they" is pretty nebulous and is an easy one to catch, but sometimes, we might sound like we're giving source information when we're not. "Four out of five dentists agree that for patients who chew gum, sugarless gum is better." That statement is somewhat misleading because it seems to give the source of some bit of information, but does it? Did the writer only ask five dentists? That might make it a statistically unreliable sample. Did the writer ask twenty-six dentists until he got four within a five dentist sample that agreed with the premise? Did the writer ask 2000 dentists and get agreement from 1600 of them? Unless the detail of the survey is given, the reader doesn't know how much weight or credibility lies behind the statement.

As independent news writers, we need to work harder than someone who writes under the mantle of traditional news services like Reuters or the Associated Press to establish and maintain our credibility. So when a Reuters news writer uses the phrase "Economists say job growth between 250,000 and 300,000 is needed..." hardly anyone bats an eye or asks, "which economists? All of them? was it the economist cited in the previous paragraph and some unspecified others? Is it four out of five economists asked?" Strictly speaking, we, as readers, don't know whether that group of economists is employed by a biased entity, have any particular credentials, or even if they exist in any way more substantially than some guys in business suits overheard in a Starbucks near Wall Street.We need to be better than that. News writers should always give the reader the source of that information. If it is the consensus ascertained from a reputable poll or survey of economists, then we need to properly cite the polling organization and even the date of the poll, preferably with a link back to the actual data.

Here's an example of a vague source reference that is acceptable, because the specific information is given later on: "A government report says..." By itself that would not pass muster because it is unverifiable. There are too many government agencies and reports to allow the reader to judge the quality of the information provided. While I recommend providing the best information at the first use of the source's information, in this case the Associated Press writer does fill in the blank in the next paragraph when he says "The Department of Transportation's inspector general says in a report posted online Friday..."

That qualification gives the reader enough information to make a judgement about the information's credibility. Ideally, in the internet age, he would have included a link to the original report so the reader has access to the full set of information and the context from which the quotes were drawn. This wasn't possible when newspapers were the primary news outlet, but it is now and we should take advantage of linking to source material to enhance our news reports whenever possible, and not just when it is required in the citation guidelines of a particular news publisher.

In short, for any information which we attribute to the opinion or expertise any group of experts, we must say who those experts are and how we know the group believes it in order for our work to be credible. That applies whether the group is they, previous generations, veterans, Republicans, liberals, economists, or four out of five dentists.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Quick example: original sources, personalization

This is just a quick post to link to a real life example of things that I talked about earlier. This news story, published at Yahoo! News, reflects the use of original sources and using a personal perspective on a broader story. This article is about the weather, but I wrote it in first person using myself as an individual who is concerned about contaminated precipation being reported in my area, linking that to an upcoming storm, and then investigating those concerns to provide answers not only to myself but to the reader, as well. It also reflects my personality in what I think is my "authentic voice" for those of you who are writing for the various Yahoo! sites that list that as a desired component of featured articles.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Keywords and titles revisited

I've discussed my thoughts on keyword density and the importance of a news article's title, but I haven't discussed the two together, so here goes. I don't use any particular goal for keyword density, but if I am writing about a popular topic, I do pay attention to what the popular keywords being used by readers to find information about that topic are.

If I were writing about Donald Trump taking two tries to produce his actual birth certifcate, I'd look on Google and see that "Donald Trump birth certificate" is a popular choice for people searching for this topic. based on that, and because it is precisely related to the content I'm writing, I'd make sure that Donald Trump and Birth Certificate were in my title. At Yahoo!, Yahoo! Contributor Network, Examiner and many other sites, the first part of your title ends up in your article's URL which can help with search engine placement as well.

I would also make sure that the first paragraph of my article clearly tells the reader what the article is about, and I'd include those words early in the paragraph. There would likely be words in between "Donald Trump" and "Birth Certificate" because that's not a natural phrasing.

The first sentence might be something like "Real estate mogul, reality TV star and presidential candidate Donald Trump was able to produce an official birth certificate a day after mistakenly attempting to pass off a hospital issued document to reporters at a press event."

Thereafter, however, I would tend not to use the full name Donald Trump. Instead, I'd use Trump as in "Trump displayed the erroneous document while proclaiming the ease with which anyone can get their official birth certificate." I'd also use descriptors such as "The flamboyant Atlantic City casino owner has publicly considered presidential runs in previous election cycles as well."

Under the old keyword density paradigm, a writer might use Trump's full name every time they referred to him throughout the article. That would have an unnatural sound and seem awkward to readers. Furthermore, the term "birth certificate" would be used for every reference to the document. This repetition would detract from the writer's credibility.

When I read an article like that, even ones that I wrote, it sounds as though the writer's primary goal is search engine ranking and that conveying information is, at best, a secondary consideration. It certainly doesn't induce me to subscribe to that author's writings or to share the article with others.

With the tremendous influence of social media these days, by over-using keywords, you may be missing out the potential for your article to go viral and giving up more page views than you gain with top search engine placement. Don't ignore keywords and search engine placement, but don't let them ruin the reader's experience.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Title as a Promise to the Reader

Whether in fiction or non-fiction, the title is a promise
to the reader that must be compelling enough to make the
reader choose your book off the shelf or click your article
from a search engine results page.
Photo by Brad Sylvester.
Titles of web news articles serve many purposes. They help increase search engine rankings, entice potential readers to click on them, and a host of other functions. At it's most fundamental level, however, a title is a promise, it is a personal commitment from the author to the reader (and to search engine algorithms) about the content of the full article.

As with any time that one person makes a promise to another, the author's reputation depends on whether or not that promise is kept. At a higher level, the website's reputation or rank with search engines also depends on whether that promise is kept.

Let me explain. Let's use a fictional title: "Killer Hiding Out at Bronx Zoo." That's an eye-catching title that might cause someone who sees the title to click on it to read more. Why will they want to read more or to ask another way, what has the author promised them with that title?

By clicking on the title and reading the full article, the reader expects to learn who or what the killer is, why the killer is at the Bronx Zoo, whether the killer is still there, if there is any ongoing danger, and the reader expects to be entertained by it all.

Entertained? Really? Yes. If the author were promising only straight information without entertainment, the title would be less... let's say, mysterious and playful. It might read "Deadly Egyptian Cobra Missing from Bronx Zoo." By using the word killer, which normally implies a person in this context, the author is saying "let's have some fun."

The facts can be delivered very quickly and succinctly, almost police blotter style and that's exactly what CNN has done with the above-lined title. In about 100 words they have delivered the facts, exactly as promised in their title. They tell you where the cobra is, how deadly it is, whether the public is at risk, and what steps are being taken by zoo staff to locate the snake. Furthermore, the CNN report even explains why it's called an Egyptian Cobra as the inclusion of that information might be inferred by a typical reader from their title. The CNN article delivers on the promise of the title and upon CNN's reputation.

With our title "Killer Hiding at Bronx Zoo," we've made a different promise which includes entertainment on top of the facts. Our title reads more like a murder mystery, and so should our article. "Officials on Sunday released a statement advising the public that a dangerous prisoner has escaped and is still at large. The escapee remains highly dangerous despite the fact that it is unarmed, and indeed, unlegged as well."

To keep our particular promise, we'll deliver all the facts, but describe the situation in the terminology and style of a crime drama. We might ask members of the public to report any sightings to the Bronx Zoo, giving out real contact information. We'll use original sources like statements from the Bronx Zoo, but we'll also use other sources that help us differentiate ourselves from the traditional news outlets. We might use the social media pages of the Bronx Zoo for updates and public comments so we can include original content like "While some Bronx Zoo Facebook fans like Nikola Marijana Bankovic expressed fear and vowed "We'll be staying away from the zoo until the snake is located,' others viewed the situation more humorously, 'Cobras eat rats,' noted New York resident Julie Charles, 'maybe it's headed to 85 Wall [Street].'" We might include a pencil drawing of the cobra mimicking the work of a police department's forensic sketch artist, or a wanted poster. [Note: check the TOS of the specific social media site to see if using other people's statements is allowed. A really good case could be made posts made to the fan pages of public entities (like the Bronx Zoo) have no expectation of privacy and are de facto public statements, but I'm not a lawyer so check into what's allowed for yourself. Ask the help desk of the particular social media site if you have a question and save the response.]
We are not going to outcompete traditional outlets like CNN or Reuters with simple restatements of facts, and that's not what Yahoo! News wants us to do. They have access to wire services and their own in-house news crews for that. Instead, they are looking for Y!CN writers to offer unique viewpoints, deeper background information, and original presentations on popular news topics.
That's not to say that we should always take a humorous approach. Serious topics demand a serious tone, but whatever promise we make with our title, it should be different than the promises made by every other news service. By making and keeping promise with every single piece of content we write, we'll not only build our own reputation with readers while developing our own style and voice, but we'll also be preserving our search engine rankings and news feeds.

Monday, March 28, 2011

News Titles: Capitalization

When we went to school we learned to capitalize the first word, last word and every important word in a title. Important words were any noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, or adverb. Words not capitalize din a title unless they were the first or last word of the title were prepositions, articles, conjunctions, and the word "to" (as in "Man Tries to Bite Dog").

That applied whether it was the title of a paper we were writing, the title of a book to which we were referring, or the title of a newspaper article. Somewhere between then and now, the rules have changed.

Both, Yahoo! News, and several other online news publishers prefer titles to be capitalized as if they were an ordinary sentence. They say it is easier and quicker to read. A title which, under the old scheme, would have read "Man Bites 52 Dogs, Kobayashi Wins Oscar Mayer Contest" would now read "Man bites 52 dogs, Kobayashi wins Oscar Mayer contest" for either or Yahoo! News. For news articles intended for publication directly on the Yahoo! Contributor Network (Y!CN), however, the first version (all important words) would apply.

In the example above proper nouns, of course, still get capitalized. Oscar Mayer is the name of a company, and Kobayashi is the name of a famous hot dog eating champion, so they both get capitalized. The sentence style capitalization rules make the headline or title easier to read.

To complicate matters even more, the publishing tool on the Y!CN platform automatically converts titles to standard capitalization even if the article is for Yahoo! News. The Examiner publishing tool gives you free rein (or free reign, if you prefer - I don't) to capitalize the title however you wish, right or wrong.

The same capitalization rules apply to stand-alone sub-headings within a news article on these platforms. That is to say that if the above article included a subsection detailing eating contest opponents who have been defeated by Kobayashi, there might be a subheading called: "Eating Champion's Previous Victims" for the Yahoo! Contributor Network or "Eating champion's previous victims" for Examiner or Yahoo! News.

Friday, March 25, 2011

What keyword density should I use?

Originally Associated Content told us to use 2-5% keyword density (or even 3-6% at one point). There was even a general town hall conducted with that advice. They suggested using bolded subheadings to get more keyword reiterations in without making the article sound awkward. That worked, and I did it for a while, but it often made the article difficult to read.

Using synonyms and words that are highly related to the topic works pretty well, too, and doesn't lead to the same sort of awkward constructions. Personally, I don't measure keyword density at all anymore, and I don't target keyword density as a goal at all. I focus on writing something that I would want to read. To me, that means that there is real content in the article, and it doesn't make my head hurt to read it.

Nothing ticks me off more than clicking an article titled something like "Obama Birth Certificate Update" and finding an article that says little more than:
"The Obama birth certificate is in the news again.
One of the top ten Google trends this morning was the Obama birth certificate as controversy continues to swirl around this topic. When first elected, many Obama opponents mounted a public information campaign to try to convince people that Obama was not eligible to be president because he could not produce the long form of the Obama Birth Certificate..."
and so on, with absolutely no new information.

As a reader, I expect (or at least hope) to learn something new every time I read a news article. If I can't find something to give the reader in exchange for clicking my clever article title, then I don't write it. Even when I was chasing keywords, I tried to provide some useful content. This example of one of my early AC News articles (when I was using keyword density measures as requested by the AC news department) is still drawing good page views every month after more than two years: It is noticeably keyword heavy, but is still readable.

It scored well on Google search results when first published, but with all the keyword spam competition for the term since then it is nowhere near the top at present. So how are people still finding it? I can find incoming links from a number of quality medical information sites referencing my article. It is not drawing page views because of the keyword density, but because it provides solid, authoritatively sourced information.

In my opinion, the latter strategy will be more effective for news writers in driving both short and long term page views under the new model.

Writing a very high quality, short, targeted piece for the Yahoo! Contributor Network (Y!CN) is much more likely to get picked up by Yahoo! News. That is where we can score really big page views. I have seen a few articles there pick up about 300,000 page views in just a couple days, and many more articles that hit 75,000 to 100,000 or more from a number of Y!CN writers.

My most popular Yahoo! News article to date was not on Google Trends at all when I wrote it, although its main topic did appeared there later. (I'll discuss the sources I use for breaking news story ideas in another post on another day.) It was also linked and tweeted by The Drudge Report and a number of other popular sites, and given a featured position by Yahoo! News. It had more than 2900 Facebook shares, and hundreds of Tweets. That will likely NEVER happen with something like the Obama birth certificate article I described above.

I think the paradigm for attracting eyeballs to AC News (and now Y!CN) articles has shifted, and, in my opinion shifted for the better, with the popularity of social media platforms like Facebook, with the Yahoo! acquisition of Associated Content (AC), and again with Google's latest algorithm change. Consistent creation of really useful material (from a reader's viewpoint) results in more opportunities, especially under the Yahoo! regime. With the old keyword dense articles, I averaged something like 2500-3000/ article over my entire library when I was writing several such news articles each day. I made the top 100 writers for AC for the year 2008 with just six months of membership and a library of about 190 articles in total.

Having stopped chasing keywords and Google Trends and starting to concentrate on delivering consistently higher quality, I now have an assignment desk so full of recurring article requests for publication at Yahoo! News that each come with guaranteed upfront payments in excess of my average per article earnings for the old keyword heavy news articles. That's without a single page view, and without the various miscellaneous one-off requests that come through. For me, the math is pretty clear. In short, Yahoo! and Y!CN want higher quality news content with a much lesser (if any) focus on keyword density and, most importantly, they are willing to pay for it.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

What does localization mean?

Some web news publishers, like and some assignments at the Yahoo! Contributor Network ask news writers to contribute localized news stories. If news happens in your home town, that's easy, but if you happen to live in a little backwater town where the biggest news is that the only gas station in town ran out of premium gasoline for three hours on Thursday, then it can be a challenge for those unfamiliar with other ways to localize news content.

Localization simply means to make the story particularly meaningful to readers in your community. Depending upon the assignment or Examiner title you have, that may be your city, county, state or even multi-state region. There are a myriad of ways to accomplish this task for almost any major national or international news story.

A simple way to add a local angle to a national news story is to ask yourself a series of questions:

Could it happen here? Why or why not?

How does it affect my community? This one is terribly broad - thinking just about the tsunami in Japan, it could include such topics as: Will any radiation reach us here? Is imported Japanese food safe to eat? Has business at a local Japanese restaurant dropped? Will it take longer to get the new iPad (due to lack of Japanese made semiconductors)? Will the local Nissan dealer/factory face supply issues?

Are any individuals in my community particularly affected? People with family in the affected area, exchange students from the area, local volunteers going to help, someone just returned a day before the event and avoided near disaster, someone who had been planning a future visit

Is there a local expert who can help my readers understand the issue? Professors at a local college with particular expertise about the event or local rescue workers/firemen/ police/ doctors talking about the nature of rescue efforts in the affected area, for example

Have local officials made any statements about the event? Are we prepared? Does this affect the future of nuclear power in our state? Are steps being taken to address potential safety issues? Did the local congressman express condolences?

Do I have any relevant personal experience related to this event? Has anything from your past given you special insight into the event? For example, "Running a small family farm in Biloxi, Miss., we have experienced any number of weather-related or other events that have hurt my yield, but the thought of our spinach, cows, or the very ground itself being contaminated with radiation from a nuclear plant dozens of miles away..."

Even localized sstories about national or global news events require good research on the original event. You should include early on in the article all the relevant facts about the event (from properly cited original sources as I mentioned yesterday) since this is the foundation upon which you'll build the local part of the story. In addition, you'll likely have research at the local level, finding and interviewing someone, local news broadcasts, or newspapers. Even off-line sources need to be cited.

The plus side of writing localized content is that it is much more likely to be a unique take on an event about which many, many articles have already been written. The down side is that it may not appeal to an audience as broad as a national news item without localization. This is not always the case, however. Sometimes, particularly compelling local stories can find a national audience.

In any case, always pay attention to the guidelines, ground rules, and other guidance provided by the publisher for whom the work is intended with regard to localization.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

What is news anyway?

Having spent many years in corporate America, I cringe every time I hear someone start a speech with "I looked up (insert word here) in the Webster Dictionary/ on Wikipedia/ in the Encyclopedia Britannica and it gives the definition as..." So please forgive me.

For most of us the first thing that comes to mind when we think of news is current events, and Wikipedia pretty much agrees with that definition. Current events are news, but there are other things that fall into the broader category of news as well. From a web publisher's perspective, at least, news also include general background information that can be linked from current events stories.

This might be, for example, something like a historic timeline of a location, an event, a certain technology, or anything else for which historic milestones can be listed. Without listing all the various types of background information that might apply, any information that provides a richer perspective on a newsworthy topic is generally considered news as well.

Additionally, news may include ongoing situations that you bring to light. For example, I wrote this piece about the effects of eco-tourism on the Galapagos Islands. Nothing in particular had happened to make that an especially newsworthy topic, but I was offered an upfront payment for the article by Associated Content's news department (and later won a $500 Content of the Year Award).

This brings up back to Wikipedia definitions. "Journalism," says Wikipedia, "is the practice of investigation and reporting of events, issues, and trends to a broad audience. Although there is much variation within journalism, the ideal is to inform the citizenry." Investigation is the part I'm trying to stress. As a journalist or news writer, you can uncover an issue and bring it to people's attention without it having appeared in the news or in the Google Trends lists. In other words, you can make something news.

Let's be completely honest, though, in most cases, (with some broad exceptions that I'll discuss at another time) a detailed investigative journalism piece takes many hours (or days) of effort and will not be cost-effective for a freelance online news writer.

For the most part we may be writing about some news event that is already unfolding. Someone else broke the story, or it is a widely noticed event reported upon by all the major news services. What most reputable web publishers do NOT want is for you to rewrite someone else's news report, or write an article that looks like you did, even if you properly attribute the original author(s) with a link back to the original sources.

When you write about something that is already being covered, you want to bring something new to the reader. Whenever possible use original sources rather than someone else's news report. For example, when reporting about an earthquake, don't say "The earthquake occurred of the coast of Japan and was a magnitude 8.9 according to a report by CBS News." Instead go to the US Geological Survey website and use their figures as your direct source. "The US Geological Survey reports that an earthquake of magnitude 8.9 occurred at 9:17 pm local time, 10.6 miles off the coast of Fukunato, Japan." This allows you access to the original data, eliminating the possibility that you repeat an error made by CBS, and giving you the option of using data that is different or more precise than that reported by any particular news agency. In the case of the earthquake or an event for which you have direct access to original sources, you can report the event itself. "The earthquake happened, here are the details."

In other cases, particularly with quotes made by newsmakers to reporters, you may have no choice but to cite another news source, if the quote is an important part of your angle. However, in these cases, you have to go beyond repeating what CBS or some other reporter said and add something new. For example, "In a Sixty Minutes interview last night, Newt Gingrich told Morely Safer that he is considering a run for President in 2012." The rest of your article should not be simply providing the details of the interview as you did with the earthquake. Instead, having listened to or read about the interview, ask yourself, what else did you want to know or what thoguhts occurred to you as you heard this news. Is Newt the first GOP candidate of ths election season to form an exploratory committee? Who else has made an announcement? Who else might make an announcement? Does Gingrich's history make him unelectable? Is he too liberal for Tea Party support based on his previous statements? What has he been doing since he left office? How do the statements he made in the Sixty Minutes interview differ from statements he's made previously over the years? What does your town's GOP Mayor think of a Gingrich run in 2012? You can make a timeline of major events of Gingrich's political career. The list of potential angles goes on and on. In short though, the Sixty Minutes quote referenced from CBS is your jumping off point, not the main point of your article.

In either case, you want to use several sources each offering unique information that is important to the original point you are making. Every source used should be fully cited (citation format will be a topic for another day). Every fact in your article should have a source. You can't say "Newt Gingrich has previosuly admitted cheating on his own wife even as he trumpeted the importance of family values during while seeking the impeachment of Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinski affair," without listing your source for that information. It will be clear to readers that you looked it up somewhere, so disclose that fact. Do NOT use Wikipedia as a news source. Instead find some other source like a report from ABC News
. If you are drawing upon your personal recollections, then say so. "I remember how surprised I was when, years later, I heard that Newt Gingrich admitted that he was having an affair while deeply involved in promoting his party as the defender of family values in the wake of the Clinton-Lewinsky incident."

Sometimes, the news report is the story. After the Glenn Beck rally in Washington, for example, it seemed as though every news outlet had a different view on the level of attendance. In that case, my angle on the story was reporting on the widely disparate estimates by other news services.

News publishers want original reporting, but many have fulltime reporters who go out into the field and report major events. Others pull in reports from agencies like Reuters, the Associated Press, or a host of others. They want us to provide auxiliary material that enriches those reports or unique perspectives that isn't being reported elsewhere. That doesn't mean that you need to visit Japan to report on the earthquake. It does mean that you need to figure out what would be interesting to readers that hasn't already been widely reported.

The above is applicable to what I call straight news reporting. Commentary falls into a different category and I'll address that at a later date.


A couple of friends suggested that I compile some of the advice I give freely about writing news for the web at a single, searchable location. I decided to try a blog dedicated to the subject. I will post regularly, every day or nearly so. Each post will contain specific, actionable advice on writing quality news articles for the web.

I believe, and my own experience shows me, that well-written, original news content can find both wide readership and a paying market on the web. I don't pretend to be the world's greatest news writer, but I am someone who gets paid what I consider a fair return for my efforts in that endeavor. Like anything, writing effectively for the web is a constant learning experience. I hope that you enjoy what you read here and that it helps you in achieving your goals, whatever they may be.