A Writer’s Guide… to being a Reporter

Welcome to the new series!  This is the Writer’s Guide series which will be published every Sunday.  These articles are resource posts from other writers who share their knowledge and experience at different occupations or skills.

The idea behind this is to create a resource library of information that other writers may find useful when creating characters with these skills/occupations.

A Writer's guide to being a reporter. Image: Newspapers in a stand

Being a Reporter

by M.S. Miller

The newsroom is probably one of the most unique workplaces anywhere. Its the one place where the employees have no idea from one day to the next what they will be doing.

You will be writing something, but many times you have no clue what it will be about. Then an assignment comes in and the reporter is suddenly thrust into a situation of having to learn all that he or she can about the subject, then writing down the interesting and important parts with little to no margin for error.

Most depictions of reporters are terribly antiquated, right down to the press card sticking out of the fedora.

Modern reporters deal with different challenges than reporters shown in the movies and on television, and seldom carry the haughty and jaded personalities that are so common in entertainment.

The reality, as with many things in life, is far more nuanced. It is a struggle in an ultra-competitive field, where the writers who adapt quickly to the trade (and not necessarily the most-talented writers) are the ones who succeed.

How to Become a Newspaper Reporter

There are a few different approaches people take for becoming a newspaper reporter. One way is to study journalism at a university, then try to snag a job as a writer.

The nature of the business is such that very few newly-graduated students will get a shot at a large or prestigious publication, most have to work their way through the ranks.

A first job at a smaller paper offers a new reporter some valuable experience since those writers are often assigned more than one beat, and get to write a range of different-styled articles.

The other main way people get jobs at a newspaper is to start off as a freelance writer. This can be a rather long and difficult road into the business.

Editors value good freelance writers as a means to add more to their publication without having to add a full staff writer (and the associated benefits that go along with that).

At best, the freelance writer has a better shot at an open position than someone without experience, but it doesn’t always guarantee a job.

The most keen freelance writers are good at recognizing what kinds of stories are missing from a publication so that they can write articles that fill that gap.

Neither way offers a quick, clean path to a top-notch publication. The field is very competitive; only the very best are ever considered for high-profile positions.

And should you find yourself among the chosen who do get to write for a publication, you have to develop into a great writer quickly, because there are plenty of starving writers looking over your shoulder, waiting for an opportunity to break into the field.

The Nuances of Conducting an Interview

One of the most important aspects of being a successful reporter is having keen interview skills. Your sources are the subject matter experts, they know all of the information you need for your story, your job is to get it out of them.

There isn’t a classroom on Earth that teaches reporters how to conduct an interview, because each interview is different. Your source may be raw with emotion.

They could be shy, secretive or just not ready to talk. Interviewing is as much about making that initial read of your source, to set yourself up as someone they can confide in.

In an ideal world, the reporter is able to research the subject enough to understand what to ask and who the experts are. It helps to do a little research on the person being interviewed.

Knowing things about their hometown or university can go a long way toward getting the person to open up and give you complete and honest answers.

A reporter should prepare for any interview by asking themselves what their readers need or want to know. For example, if it is some kind of accident, how did it happen or who was at fault?

One trap that often gets reporters in trouble (both with editors and the public) is that the reporter has written the story in their head before the interview, then guides the interview to the desired outcome through leading questions.

Good reporters will tell you that the biggest key to being a good reporter is being a good interviewer. You can have great ideas for human interest stories, but if you stink at interviewing, no amount of writing talent is going to save your story.

Developing Sources

Reporters typically come into contact with the same people on a regular basis for certain types of stories. A reporter assigned to cover courts might talk to a police chief nearly every day.

It’s important for a reporter to have a good relationship with these sources because this is where “scoops” come from.

There is a level of mutual trust that reporters and regular sources have to build, and as such reporters can spend years working on building a relationship with a source.

These relationships can sometimes blur the line between professional and personal, many reporters and sources will end up saying the other is their “friend”.

Most reporters would tell you that the reality of working at a newspaper is that you have to bend some ethical rules for the sake of a good source. The source is providing good information on a regular basis, and the reporter has to do something in return.

This type of “quid pro quo” is common in the business (more common than any reporter would ever admit), but reporters need to be careful to maintain an impartial image and have to be willing to draw the line when a source asks for something.

Learning where to find information is a very valued and important skill that has to be learned on the job.

Journalists will often find themselves reading through court dockets or files, looking at old news reports and sifting through gossip to find some piece of information to get a good story.

A good editor will usually give a reporter some leeway in just going out to talk with sources to “see what’s new”. Some turn into stories, others do not, but maintaining steady contact with those in the know is important for any reporter.

Writing on a Deadline

Before there was a 24-hour news cycle on television, writing on deadline was a skill every reporter had to have. There was a push to be “first” with a story, and that often meant writing a complete story on a moment’s notice for that day’s edition.

Many reporters will never write under intense deadline pressure nowadays because the TV news is often able to present the story several times before the newspaper is out to print.

There is simply no way to be “first” most of the time, and reporters will focus on “better” instead. A reporter will search for some unique detail or a more complete version of the story rather than writing it quickly.

There are times, however, when a story has to be written with little or no notice and has to be written immediately. To accomplish this task, it is always important to focus on the essential parts of the story, conduct quick interviews and get down to writing.

Reporters have to set aside the notion that the story will be their best writing, and just write quickly.

Stories with no real set deadline are often the hardest to complete since there is a desire to keep collecting information to add more to the story instead of just getting written.

For that reason, editors generally set deadlines for every story, even if it is a week or a month, to make sure that the writer stays on task and gets through the work.

The Art of a Good Lead

News stories are made by the first sentence of the story, known in the industry as “the lead”. This is the hook that a reporter uses to pull people into reading the story (aside from the headline, more on that later).

A consistent rule in the business is that the lead is never more than one or two sentences and that it must encapsulate the most interesting aspect of the story.

Many a reporter will sit at their desk wracking their brain for the perfect lead to a story, because it is so important and because nothing will draw the ire of an editor faster than a bad lead.

A common beginner’s mistake is to start a story with a question in the lead, but it is a sure way to elicit a scowl from the editor. When a reporter finds a question that summarizes the story, the best path is to simply answer the question with your lead.

The point is to provide the answer in the story anyhow, so starting a story with a question doesn’t make a lot of sense.

The most important element of the story has to go into the lead, there is always an assumption that the reader may not read the entire story, so new stories are always organized from the most important and newsworthy information at the beginning of the story, with smaller details coming toward the end.

The industry represents this with an inverted triangle; all of the important news comes at the top, things you might want to know go at the bottom.

Headlines, the Hardest Writing There Is

Depending on the publication, reporters may need to supply a headline, though typically this job is handled by the editor. No other writing at a newspaper is more challenging than writing a headline since you have to summarize an entire story with just a few words.

Even the best-written story is doomed if the headline is not enough to catch the reader’s interest. If a writer pens a story about aliens visiting from outer space and the headline reads “A Visitor Stops By”, it’s probably not going to attract the kind of attention it deserves.

As is the case with many things in the news industry, learning headline writing usually comes on the fly with experience on the job, and few people are great at this kind of writing.

Reporters loathe writing them because it is so difficult to conjure the perfect combination of words that fit in the allotted space. They also bristle at terrible ones that are written by others, especially if the headline is misleading about the information in the news story.

When a reporter suffers verbal abuse about the quality of the news in the newspaper, it is mostly about the headline not matching the story, and most of the time that’s beyond the reporter’s control.

Taking Abuse

No journalist will survive long in the field without learning how to have thick skin when it comes to their writing.

Rarely a day goes by where someone doesn’t offer a negative opinion regarding the publication or your own work specifically. The underlying tone of the abuse is usually that the reporter isn’t good at their job or doesn’t know how to do it.

It can be maddening if a writer lets it get to them, but most eventually come to realize that the average complainer would get eaten alive being a reporter in a day or two.

Most of the time, a writer will just have to stand and take it. You cannot afford to come off as smug or arrogant. Nothing will wreck a career faster than being a pompous jerk to your readers.

Sources will button up if you don’t listen and empathize (within reason) with their grievances against you or the newspaper in general. In the era of social media, mouthing off to someone will almost certainly end up out in the public, granting you a poor reputation.

Reporters will gather to vent in the newsroom later most of the time, swapping stories of ignorant or rude people who feel compelled to offer their opinion about the publication.

There are other times when people simply don’t want you there. The story could be embarrassing, such as an arrest, or filled with raw emotion like grief, and a total stranger showing up to ask questions is the last thing those people want.

It is not uncommon to be physically threatened in some of these situations, nearly every reporter has a story or two about someone promising harm on them or worse, taking a swing at them.

Newspaper reporters learn quickly how to read certain situations to avoid confrontation (unlike television reporters, who thrive on this type of thing).

It serves no real purpose for a news story most of the time to get involved in a verbal or physical altercation, but will almost certainly preclude you from collecting the information you need for your story.

At some point, a journalist has to come to accept that not everyone will like or appreciate their work and simply move on. Your job is to provide information to your readers, not make all of them happy.

If a reporter is deft at handling this type of criticism, it will greatly enhance your reputation as an impartial purveyor of information: you don’t play favorites to please one side over an another.

Being Impartial

Some writers will struggle greatly with this aspect of the job, but it is important to keep your own opinions off the page when writing a story.

A good reporter will come to understand that readers simply don’t care what your thoughts on the matter at hand are, they only care about getting a factual account of an event. But it often takes more than this to keep up your image as an unbiased writer.

Being impartial also means that reporters have to avoid situations that might be construed as being in favor of one side or another.

Accepting “free” things in return for a glowing story, or hanging out with a source after work hours can seem like favoritism to some readers.

The “line” for this kind of behavior is entirely subjective, however, so most reporters will be extremely cautious in order to protect their reputation.

This extends to the newsroom, as editors are not always able to separate their emotions from the story, and can insert words that editorialize the content. You have to be willing to stand up for your writing, even if it means having a confrontation with a supervisor, in order to maintain that unbiased reputation.

Editors will not always understand how damaging it can be to a reporter for a source to lose faith in them because of an editorialized comment inserted into a story.

Again, nearly every reporter has a tale about having to throw an editor under the bus with a source to save face when something goes awry in a story. It’s never pleasant, but trust is a paramount, personal relationship come second.

Be Handy with a Camera

Reporters have to be ready to take snapshots or video of an event if it is breaking news, you won’t always have the luxury of having a photographer there to help you out.

An editor will never expect you to be as good as a regular photographer, but you should take the time to become adequate at taking pictures or video.

With most readers lacking the time to sit and read for 10 or 15 minutes, a reporter should have some minimal skills at capturing the essence of the story visually.

Not having a photo isn’t going to reflect poorly on your writing, but a good photo can turn a passable story into the thing that everyone’s talking about. Simply taking a picture that’s in focus is a good first step, with practice a writer will learn how to “compose” the shot to add a great visual to go along with the prose.

Tools of the Trade

A pen and paper are a must for any reporter. Most will utilize recording devices to some extent, but almost all carry the old-fashioned tools of trade just in case.  For most news stories, you only get one chance to capture the information for your story.

You don’t have to look far for a reporter who can tell you a horror story about a failed recording device and the ensuing panic to rely on one’s memory to piece together a story.

A common practice is to turn the recorder and pocket it, then take notes to capture the important thoughts. (The exception to this is when multiple reporters are interviewing someone, odds are that someone will get a good recording, and there is a professional courtesy among reporters to help out a less-fortunate colleague, even a competitor.)

It also isn’t always practical to record every interview, because there are times when the reporter simply doesn’t have the time to transcribe the recording for a story.

When the editor needs the story in 15 minutes, there is no time to stop and start a recording to get quotes for the story. Knowing (or developing your own) shorthand is extremely useful, but not required for quick and accurate note-taking.

A good memory is a reporter’s best friend, whether it is for collecting information, or remembering names, faces and stories about your sources. It’s not a required tool to be a reporter, but it certainly helps.

Dress to Impress

The standard attire for a reporter is usually very professional: suits or dress clothes. For many, dressing well is simply a function of the job, since you don’t know whether you’re going to be in a situation where you need to look nice from one day to the next.

You’d find some reporters keep a change of clothes on hand on the off-chance that they’re forced to tromp through the woods to a crime scene. That’s not something you do in a shirt and tie and a pair of nice dress shoes.

While there is a possibility that a reporter might find themselves terribly over-dressed for an occasion, one would never want to be wearing a t-shirt and torn jeans when some dignitary comes to town unannounced.

Even if everything else about you is professional, looking like a slob on the job is not the image you want to convey to your sources and interview subjects.

And Then There’s the Actual Writing

There is no set approach to actually hammering out a news story. Sometimes the reporter has it written in his or her head en route to the newsroom and they breeze through the copy (the industry term for the text of a story). Other times, it is a fretful struggle to come up with a good lead.

All of the really good news stories will set up and frame quotes with good context so that the spoken dialogue from a source projects good information.

It also serves the purpose of reinforcing that the story does not come from the thoughts and opinions of the reporter, but rather as a recitation of facts provided by those in the know.

It takes tons of practice to learn how to get good quotes during an interview then place them properly within a story.

Armed with a good lead and some sharp quotes from sources, the story can almost write itself. The reporter is usually tasked with writing the transitions between the different facts being presented so that the story has a logical progression from most important to least important.

Speed on a keyboard helps, but most of the time it’s more important to get things right. Reporters double-check quotes and the spelling of names and places, errors such as these can erode credibility and are not left for the editor to catch.

And don’t bother exercising your immense vocabulary muscles in your stories, they’re not welcome or appreciated.

If the average person has to put down your newspaper to grab a dictionary, you’re not doing your job correctly. Your editor probably clues you in, sometimes in a less-than-nice way.

To the Copy Desk

Editors like to call a reporter over when the story is being edited at the copy desk, which is just a fancy term for the editor’s seat in the newsroom.

Since most stories are sparsely-edited drafts that are written quickly, there are almost always questions from the editor. Some require follow-up visits or calls to a source, others can be answered on the spot.

A good editor will polish the story and correct typos and other errors, though some can overstep those bounds and rewrite large sections of the story.

The reporter should be prepared to watch the editor drop large swaths of text if space demands something shorter. This is why the inverted triangle of the news world exists so that editors can cut stories at the end without losing anything important.

You can’t be too attached to your writing, sometimes a great quote must be sacrificed to fit your story in the publication that day.

When the copy editing is done, the reporter will scramble back to their desk for their last chance to put any final touches on the story. You might not be privy to every edit made to your story, so it’s usually a good idea to make at least a sanity check on your story.

You don’t want your story printed without the first reference to a source, where you state their full name and title, because then your reader is stuck wondering who the heck Smith is instead of enjoying your writing.

Once the writing is shuffled off to the page layout people, requesting an edit is akin to poking an angry bear since news pages are designed to wring every last millimeter of open space from the page.

Interactions between reporters and the page designers seldom go well and are best avoided.

The News That’s Not Fit to Print

Every single newsroom in the world is filled with stories that never make it to the paper. There are sordid details in crime reports (which are sanitized for print) that are told in full detail among reporters.

Funny things happen that aren’t part of a story. Sources tell you things that you can’t print, either due to language or content or both. A reporter is almost always going to know more about the story than they’re able to get into the publication.

Other times, sources tell you things “off the record”. This is a near-sacred vow not to print the information, or at a minimum to find an alternative source that will put their name behind the information.

There are stacks of notepads at each reporter’s desk full of information that never reaches the public for various reasons.

Newspaper Terminology 101

  • Burying the lead – Writing what should have been the lead sentence in the story toward the middle.
  • If it bleeds, it leads – The tendency of news organizations to place stories about disasters and death at the top of the front page.
  • Above the fold – A story that appears on the top half of the front page.
  • Jump – When a story starts on one page and is continued on another.
  • Style – The commonly accepted way to write specific things. Newspapers almost universally use AP (Associated Press) style.
  • The wire – News that comes from an outside agency (such as the Associated Press) through a paid service. Not as common in more recent times.
  • The blotter – The section of the paper that covers minor police reports in the area.
  • Cut line – The text that goes beneath a photo describing what the picture is showing.
  • A beat – A topic with continuing news (such as the court system) that reporters are assigned to cover.

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About M. S. Miller

Michael MillerM.S. Miller is an explorer, discovering interesting aspects of the human condition through his writing. His years as a journalist covering crime left him with an innate curiosity about what drives human behavior. He hasn’t found many answers to life’s great questions yet, so he vows to keep writing until he does.

He maintains a curious and illogical devotion to the dying art of the short story and has several short pieces available for sale on Amazon.com. He is not a best-selling author yet but will settle for just being an author for the time being.

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6 thoughts on “A Writer’s Guide… to being a Reporter

    • Thanks Lorraine, glad you enjoyed it. We have some interesting articles coming up including ones on a circus performer and a nuclear submarine. 😀

  1. Pingback: A Writer’s Guide… to being a Reporter – by M.S. Miller… | Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

  2. I was a reporter in college and worked a little bit for a small newspaper in the mid ’90’s. It was interesting. To move up I would have had to relocate and that just wasn’t my thing at the time.

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