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.

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