Journalism S-100 Story excerpts, Beat reporting, Objects, jobs and questions that lead to stories July 18
What’s new and what’s news
About the journals, atmosphere stories, profiles
Tips on improving writing
Language in the news
Atmosphere story excerpts: What works and why (a mini workshop)
The old man’s socks puddled in the brim of his black patent-leather dress shoes in the same way that the loose skin of his thin neck gathered under his Adam’s apple. His dress shoes hadn’t been used for their original purpose for several years, but they were still in good shape. He was wearing green cotton shorts and a transparent men’s undershirt that revealed the concave of a chest that still had strength left in it. His wife was in a pale pink nightgown, worn soft by years of snuggling and matching pale pink house shoes. He took her hand as they left the steady sidewalk and ventured into the bumpy grass of the tree-trimmed Brighton, Massachusetts dog park.
The old man left his wife safely under the single oak in the middle of the park and started his journey over the slight incline of the grass to the edge of the park where trees and shrubs served as the park’s fence. He rustled about in the thick of the unkempt bushes and shrubs and dug out an old brown-leather suitcase and set it aside. His wife watched blankly as he went back into the bushes a second time. After some more slow rustling, the man emerged once again- this time with a dirty-white lawn chair with a plastic woven seat. He carried both items back to his wife in the middle of the park; the slight decline to the grass on his return hurried him back to her, and he began setting up.
… He first opened the chair and spent some time carefully arranging the legs so that none would sit unevenly on a tree root. He gave the chair a final shake to check the soundness of the structure and then his wife sat down. Next, he turned to the suitcase. He laid it on its side and reached down as if to open it and start packing, but instead, he too took a seat. They sat in the silence of the morning for hours, he on his suitcase and she on her chair. Conversations percolated all around them as the crowds came in swarms with the waking of the day.
The quaint Irish pub squats in a small corner off Somerville Avenue near Union Square, between an empty parking lot and the anonymous façade of a small business. Tir na nóg is not an ambitious pub, like its plastic paddy counterparts in Boston’s Quincy Market. The friendly lilt of Irish accents flow through the crowd crammed in the 20-foot wide nave of the pub or around bar tables. The nave is book-ended by a brick wall on one side, and shelves upon shelves of liquor behind the bar on the other.
The crowd is mostly men, mostly Irish—a few of which are distinguishable by the European football jerseys they wear. The air, like the pub, is close but cozy, and fills with the smell of grilling hamburgers and deep fried food. Despite the punk and rock music playing from the speakers, each hamburger emits an audible sizzle when tossed on the hot iron griddle in the corner of the bar.
… The classic drink is nursed from the tap and funneled into a pint glass, like sap from a maple tree. Once the pint is three-quarters full, the bartender leaves it to settle for three or four minutes. When the glass is topped off, it is finished off with a smooth, creamy head. Just poured, the Guinness rushes both up and down, settling from brown into black.
The doors to the Southwest Regional Cancer Clinic are massive, probably solid walnut.
They open and close easily, silently, activated by an automatic opening device buried in the ridged, taupe-hued doormat outside the main entrance.
They suggest a lawyer’s office or a mortuary.
The hushed quiet of the doors contrasts jarringly with the bustle inside the center. Nurses, lab technicians, clerks, counselors, oncologists, and others whose tasks are unimagined stream through the cavernous lobby. They disappear through swinging doors leading to the treatment areas of the center, feet striking polished tile, occasionally landing quietly on the corner of a rug.
The sounds emitted by the staff are crisp, upbeat, efficient, energetic. The conversation of the waiting patients provides contrast.
When the center opens at its usual time of 7 a.m. one Friday, early in July, six people arrive early and wait. The doors glide open. The day begins. Politely, yet clumsily, the six pause, waiting for someone else to be the first patient of the day. Finally, they stream in.
No one rushes into the Southwest Regional Cancer Center.
JAMAICA PLAIN, Mass –Shirtless Man rode his bike here tonight, despite the rain. He is wearing a worn pair of khaki shorts and a backpack that is covered by a garbage bag. He dismounts the bike and walks into the farm stand, which, like his backpack, is covered by its own waterproof tent. “Your name?” Farm Stand Attendant asks, clipboard in hand.
Shirtless Man explains that he is here to pick up the vegetables that he and his housemates divide equally.
There are others milling about under the little red tent, gathering their shares of produce.
“People are coming in this [rain]?” Shirtless Man asks Farm Stand Attendant, “I thought I was going to get extra credit for this.”
It is unclear what kind of extra credit might be offered from this farm stand where members of the CSA – Community Supported Agriculture – are gathering to pick up their share of produce. The Red Fire Farm of Northampton, Mass., which grows all of the CSA’s vegetables, has netted a wide load this week. Clearly, there are enough ripe vegetables to go around to allow everyone a little extra.
~Kendra Stanton Lee
The old security guard sat motionless behind the powder blue welcome desk. Under the harsh lights of the emergency room waiting area, columns of patient names reflected on his bookish eyeglasses. The smell of antiseptic wafted through the air.
Oblivious to passersby, the uniformed man ignored the automatic doors that whirred open to admit distressed patients, exhausted ambulance drivers, and physicians in surgical garb, all of whom passed the desk without signing in.
Walking up Massachusetts Avenue from Tremont Street, the crowd thickens and the excitement grows. It’s dark now. Past ten o’clock. Almost time.
Black parents herd their children northward toward the Charles River, past the guys hanging out in front of New York Pizza, outside Wally’s jazz club, and on front stoops of brownstones near the Mass. Ave. T station. Around Symphony Road college students, mostly white, start merging into the flow.
In the last few blocks before the bridge convenience stores, pizza joints and even Indian restaurants vie to provide the most-wanted items: slices to go, sodas, bottled water.
A police car idles at Beacon Street, nearly engulfed by the tide of humanity surging toward the bridge. Some people take seats on the curbs there, too cool or too claustrophobic to keep pushing further.
But for those who persist through the crush at the start of the bridge, a reward waits. In the center, where Boston meets Cambridge over the Charles River, space opens up. There’s room to move, suddenly—and an unrivaled line of sight for the big event.
It’s the Fourth of July, and the Boston fireworks extravaganza is minutes away.
On the bridge, the late arrivers roam about in the dark looking for the best spot or trying to connect with friends. Everyone carries a cell phone.
“The blimp,” cries a baseball-capped 20-something into his phone. “We’re by the blimp!”
A woman slows down. “There goes my plan to meet at the 200-smoot mark,” she says, surveying the crowd in dismay.
Clusters of college kids sit in circles on the pavement. They snap pictures—the blimp, the skyline, each other—with cell phone cameras.
Couples of varying ages, skin colors and languages hold hands and gaze out at the river. A dad with heavily tattooed arms and a Red Sox tank top carries a sleeping dark-haired child.
A glow stick vendor argues with a customer who thinks the price is too high.
“These have batteries! They won’t stop glowing! The necklaces will fade—these won’t!” insists the vendor.
The air hangs dank and hot. Thunderstorms loomed all day, and a few drops did fall—just enough to dampen the air, the ground, and the early birds who’d laid out their blankets on the Esplanade grass at dawn.
A clammy breeze picks up, carrying whiffs of incense and pot smoke alongside the faintly ripe odor of the river below.
At 10:30, radios become audible. Tinny strains of the 1812 Overture waft through. The chatter quickens. The sitters rise to their feet.
The first fireworks explode high in the sky.
Shouts come from everywhere: “Ooooh!” “Yippee!” “YEAH!”
A small boy in white-and-blue pajamas announces, “The fireworks are coming into the sky!” He clings tightly to his father’s chest.
Geographical: The place where business is conducted:
A specific city hall, courthouse police department
Topical: an area of focus: business, education, social services,
The flavors of beats often blend, especially at small to mid-sized
news organizations or across broad issues and breaking news.
For almost every beat:
Learn the system.
Learn the language and terms.
Get to know the people.
Read everything you can: laws, other news coverage, reports.
Look for who has the most to gain, the most to lose, with each decision or action.
The Notrain-nogain Web site, www.notrain-nogain.org, administered by editing/writing coaches and trainers, offers several tips for beat reporters that transcend any one beat and are useful across journalism and nonfiction genres.
Remember needs, interests and curiosity.
The need focuses on essential information, like knowing what roads are closed, how to order event tickets, when taxes will rise, what services are closed on holidays. Need also refers to analysis to explain how and why something will affect readers, their families, their work, their pocketbooks, their rights, their property.
Interests focus on the readers’ wants, desires, attention. These vary, but reporters should be aware of them when reporting on events, issues, people and on-going problems and activities. What has sparked discussion and letters in the past? Who is being served? Who is being ignored? What do people talk about?
Curiosity is our friend, the water-cooler factor. Stories with drama, conflict and emotion appeal to readers across a wide spectrum. Many of you noted that in your news analyses. Beat stories with human faces, that show who the news affects and how, draw more readers than beat stories that focus on process and policy.
John Sweeney, a trainer at the News Journal in Wilmington, Del., urges reporters to “know what your readers know.” This is important for any journalist, regardless of the medium. If you are writing about something with which your readers are unfamiliar, you must give them context and explanations. Don’t use words they don’t know.
John Sweeney advocates asking the following questions of every beat story, especially those dealing with governments, agencies, business and social issues:
1. What is the news?
2. What is new about it?
3. Why is it news?
4. Who is it news to?
5. Will they know it is news?
6. What will it take to get them to read it?
More questions from Notrain-nogain on considering readers when writing:
What kind of person is likely to be intensely interested in the topic?
Consider who counts on your newspaper for this kind of story.
What information do you need to provide to meet this person's needs?
What kind of person has a passing interest in the story?
What sort of information is likely to catch and hold this person's interest?
Who is the long-shot reader who doesn't usually read this kind of story?
Do you have some information that can draw this reader in?
Can you broaden the interest to attract this reader?
Tips on how to be a more enterprising beat reporter from writing coach and editor Bob Baker’s www.newsthinking.com (May 13, 2002 column)
Anticipate when your beat fits into upcoming news events.
Use your beat to illustrate a microcosm of a national issue.
Subcultures are fascinating story vehicles. Use your beat to find them.
Use the "news analysis" sensibility to exploit your expertise. How can you explain or illuminate the issue/subject for your readers?
Keep track of casual anecdotes. There might be a story there.
Use your beat to document changing demographics.
Note how new laws affect your beat.
Look for profile opportunities that connect the dots.
Tips on making beat stories relevant, from Omaha World-Herald editor and coach Steve Buttry
Write to and for readers, not editors.
Make your stories useful and relevant.
Explain in reader-sized terms
Explain impact. Find real people.
Put examples in context.
Use diverse examples.
Dig for numbers if they are needed.
Use literary elements when you can to strengthen your story:
Establish and develop characters.
Put the reader there.
Unfold the plot.
Identify the conflict.
Establish important themes.
Let the reader listen.
Use the senses.
More beats reporters cover at most newspapers
Emergency services: Police, fire, emergency responders, state patrol, other law enforcement, prisons and jails
Crime, accidents, fires
High reader interest in stories on this beat.
For this beat, accuracy is CRUCIAL. Make sure of all names, addresses and occupations.
Need to know the laws.
Need to know the arrest process, the types and degrees of crime.
You may or may not have access to criminal records.
State laws that seal records take precedent over open records laws. But most records are open and are public. But they may not be easy to obtain and reporters file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for them.
Juvenile records are the exception. These may be sealed. Family courts usually bar coverage. The exceptions are for major crimes, and even then, dealing with juvenile courts can be difficult.
Business, consumer reporting
Can be subdivided by field or industry and in some cases, by company.
This is a growing field.
This, too, can be subdivided, though the two most often are linked.
Another growing field.
Another commonly linked combination.
This has become an important beat that intersects with business and science. In some cases, this is divided by health specialty or geographic coverage area, or by institution.
This is a catch-all, hectic and sometimes heartbreaking beat. Here you find reporters covering agencies serving the public, especially the disadvantaged and disenfranchised. The elderly, the impoverished, the mentally ill, the abandoned are covered here. So, too, are nonprofit organizations and community service organizations.
Tribes, immigration, diversity
In regions with diverse populations, these beats keep reporters busy. Understanding laws, mores and customs is essential.
This is a satellite of the main newsroom and usually includes an editor and at least one reporter. Sometimes the editor and reporter are one and the same. They can be large enough to include a clerk, an advertising representative and photographer, as well.
Bureaus are geographic beats. Reporters cover everything within the bureau’s region. Such reporters most closely resemble general assignment reporters, but must have strong knowledge of the area and people they are covering. Deadlines often are less flexible in bureaus than in regular newsrooms.
We have bureaus covering countries and continents, and bureaus covering states and towns.
Questions, objects and oddball jobs
Sometimes stories arise from dares. I wrote an award-winning feature on favorite lunchtime fare at
Northwest elementary schools after our editorial writer mentioned how much his son loved cheese zombies. “What is a cheese zombie anyway?” Eskil asked. “What is it about them that makes them so popular? I double dare you to find out and write a story about them.”
How could I say no? He was talking about something associated with my beat -- children and cafeteria food -- and he expressed curiosity about it. I figured other people also must wonder about cheese zombies and their allure for children. Added incentive: it was a few weeks before Halloween and my favorite photograph had asked me to come up with an idea for a spooky story and photo essay. Cheese zombies. This could work.
Roy Peter Clark talks of the newsroom dare he turned into a story: write about the person who is listed last in the local telephone directory.
In fact, the final telephone number turned out to be a back line to the local post office, paid for by the employees. They made up the name so they could tell their children to look up the last name in the telephone book.
The Boston Globe recently ran a story about the person who maintains the tower clock in the Customs House.
Headlined “Clockworking,” the story introduced you to the person and to the job. The accompanying photos were excellent.
The Globe scored again with “The Scent of a Whale,” a science story about dogs trained to sniff out elusive North Atlantic right whales. Evidently whale feces stink. The story had serious “water cooler” appeal.
Here’s the lead:
“Bob and Fargo, both drug-sniffing school dropouts, can smell their floating quarry from a nautical mile away.”
In April 2006, The New York Times featured a story about new members of the police force.
The headline: “A New Crime Fighter, for $10 in Hay and Oats”
“In this high-tech, gadget-dependent, "CSI"-obsessed age of police work, one of the New York Police Department's most prized and pampered weapons in the war on lawlessness is a temperamental pack of hay-chomping lads named Zeus, Philly and Angus.”
“Now, after decades of consignment to Central Park patrols, ceremonial trots down Fifth Avenue and the occasional cameo at a raucous demonstration, these horses — and 85 of their brethren — have begun patrolling high-crime neighborhoods, making late-night shows of force through Times Square and taking the lead during search-and-rescue missions along thicket-filled riverbanks and wooded urban parkland.
“And there soon will be more of them: Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly is increasing the budget for the mounted troop, 75 horses and officers over the next three years, to eventually bring the total to 160, giving mounted patrols a larger role in battling crime.
"There's a reason we call them the 10-foot cop," Mr. Kelly said. "You can see them from blocks away, they're great at crowd control and they're probably the most photographed piece of equipment we have. I'm a huge fan.”
The story had a light tone, but provided serious information about a money-saving effort to boost law enforcement efficiency and public relations. There were great quotes, good detail and vignettes that gave it substance.
The story likely attracted readers who may not normally read about either horses or police.
"There's a reason we call them the 10-foot cop," Mr. Kelly said. "You can see them from blocks away, they're great at crowd control and they're probably the most photographed piece of equipment we have. I'm a huge fan.”
Money-saving boost to law enforcement efficiency and public relations. And a story likely to attract readers who may not normally read about either horses or police.
Sometimes a common phrase or question can be explored:
Ever wonder about all those “George Washington slept here signs?”
A New York Times reporter did. The resulting story was a fun feature exploring just where George slipped off to sleep.
“THERE is no doubt that George Washington slept in Connecticut, many times, mostly during the Revolutionary War. The doubts come over where exactly these 25 or so sleepovers took place.
“For many towns, historic houses and taverns, being able to claim a visit from Washington is a strong tourist draw. Sometimes those claims are true, sometimes they're not. Sometimes the signs should say "George Washington Probably Slept Here" because proof of the visit has been lost to history. And sometimes just a rumor of a visit draws tourists.”
Objects also can trigger stories. On a visit to a school library, I saw a card catalog file draw sitting on the bottom of a service cart. It provided the spark for a story. Here are the lead paragraphs.
A circle of computers on low wooden tables ringed with chairs is a magnet for students entering Green Park Elementary School's library. The youngsters good-naturedly jostle for a seat, then begin tapping commands and eyeing the screens.
“It's easy,” second-grader Russell Skorina said on a recent day. “You type in the word and press enter. Then it comes up and you can see it.”
A few keystrokes later, Russell was scanning a list of books by his favorite author, considering which he might check out and take home.
The ring of computers is the library's card catalog, giving students access to all titles and revealing the location and availability of each book, explained librarian Michelle Shaul.
The computerized system replaced wooden cabinets with rows of metal-handled drawers, each stuffed with index-style cards, their contents described by alphabetic labels tucked into little brackets. Every time the library received a new book, the librarian typed up a card and stuck it in the appropriate drawer.
Shaul keeps one such wooden drawer, still full of cards, on a shelf in the room.
“It's for instruction so they'll know what it is,” she said.
Another “object story” came from a reporter heard the tap, tap, tap of typewriter keys in a library.
In the library, Tom Gibbons hunches over a typewriter on a tiny desk sandwiched between a cinderblock partition and a shelf full of reads on computers and success in the workplace.
Methodically, he lines up an IRS tax form with the pivoting typeball on the library's red IBM Selectric II typewriter.
The subsequent clickety-clack resonates beyond the towering shelves lined with hardbacks on architecture, New York landmarks and treasures of the Louvre.
Once a year for the past five years, the Walla Walla baby boomer has made a special trip to the library to use this machine — one of the last known public typewriters in the city.
“I have a computer at home. One at work, too. But they don't do this,'' Gibbons says, pointing to the neatly typed forms. “This is the only place I know of to do this.'’
In the digital era of MP3s and TiVos, the typewriter shines in rare moments of relevance. For college applications, multi-part forms and other documents not available for printing online, the typewriter offers users a chance to fill out paperwork legibly.
Both the card catalog and the typewriter stories were huge hits with readers. Neither was an obvious story.
Both required research. I had to look up new and old library cataloging systems. Vicki had to research IBM Selectric typewriters and their availability in a world of computers, Blackberrys and PDAs. Both stories also required interviewing multiple sources and some observational reporting. But they were fun to write.
Share some stories about odd jobs, intriguing questions and objects you’ve read. Why did they attract your attention? What was their value? What did you learn?