News writing

A guide to help potential contributors develop their skills.

If you are considering contributing to Exeter Observer please see our contributors guide.

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News reports

News reports are the foundation on which all other journalism is based.

They should deliver the minimum elements necessary to tell a story succinctly.

Their anatomy is straightforward, with a limited range of possible story structures.

Basic news reports consist of four elements:

  1. Headline: usually written by editors, not journalists, often constrained by typography or optimised for search engines.

  2. Standfirst: sells the story, piquing interest by satisfying a need for particular content, highlights the most interesting point(s) in a story.

  3. Lead:

    • the most important element in a story, will determine whether it gets a second look in the few moments it takes to assess its relevance
    • usually delivered in a single opening paragraph, but a second, or occasionally third, may be needed to get the message across
    • quickly explains what the story is about without being cluttered with unimportant details
    • should (usually) answer six questions: who, what, why, when, where and how (not necessarily in that order)
    • hint: these answers will be form the basis of the following body.
  4. Body:

    • usually follows (inverted) pyramid structure in which importance determines the position of elements
    • relevant direct and indirect quotations (usually attributed) should be included to give story real-world context and substance but not to tell the whole story
    • background information inc. facts/statistics should be employed judiciously, not just because it is to hand
    • accuracy and clarity are essential (news reports are not opinion pieces)
    • style conventions must be obeyed (see style)
    • no assumptions about prior reader knowledge should be made and any necessary explanations should be kept simple.

Additional elements may include infoboxes, tweets, pullquotes and accompanying visual collateral inc. photos, video and infographics.

News briefs

Should summarise everything needed to put a story together and offer a rationale for its publication:

HookWhat has happened (or is/will be happening) that makes the story newsworthy? (See news values)Determine this first
ValueWhat makes the story important to readers?Explain why the hook is interesting
Public interestWhy is publishing the story in the public interest?Explain why the hook matters
AngleSummarises approach to storyHelps editors understand the story
Core story componentsWho, what, when, where, why and how?Set out each in turn
LeadWhere story starts, captures essence of story, usually addresses who, what, when, where, why and howSingle sentence succinctly expressing core story components, not necessarily in the same order
Key questions to answerWhat does the reader need to know to understand the story?Maximum 2 questions
Background issues to explainWhat additional information what does the reader need to place the story in context?Maximum 2 issues
Required researchWhich pieces of information are needed to tell the story effectively?Maximum 2 pieces
Sources for researchWhere will the required information come from? (See research resources)Maximum 2 sources
Sources for quotesDirect/indirect? Attributable/non-attributable? (See sources & interviews)Maximum 2 sources
HeadlineCould just be working title ...Write this last with standfirst
StandfirstHighlights interesting points, complements headline, might refer to points below leadWrite this last with headline
Required collateralMight be photos, infographics, video, infoboxes, tweets etc. (See multimedia collateral & copyright)Minimum 2 pieces to illustrate story, no stock images: original material only
Collateral valueHow does the required collateral illustrate the story?At least one piece must complement the headline and standfirst

If you’re submitting a news brief for consideration, please look at our submission guide first.

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