Think Like an Editor blog by Steve Davis and Emilie Davis, Newhouse School, Syracuse University. Editing for print and digital, new media journalism.

How to fix 3 problems with story pace

By · Wednesday, February 20th, 2019 · No Comments »

not teaching,
still THINKING …

Let’s face it. We all like a quick read. Sometimes we rely on a mere tweet for information. Or we are in too much of a hurry to read beyond the headline.

But it is also true that long-form journalism still exists and thrives, and it still has an audience.

Maintaining that audience, however, means taking special care to keep readers interested word by word and graph by graph. We must be smart about every nuance that can affect readers’ attention. An important one is story pace. A plodding pace will cause readers to be easily distracted, and they won’t stay with a story.

Here are some tips on how to adjust the pace of a story by addressing common reader reactions, one problem at a time.

FEELING IMPATIENT

Certain information can interrupt the pace and leave the reader wanting to move on with the rest of the story.

Warning signs. Too much background high in the story before the reader knows what the story is about; too much chronology — or too much of anything — all at once; too much information before hearing what someone has to say in a quote.

The fix. These are easy things to fix. If a chronology is a major part of the story, the main points of the chronology could be summarized up high. Or, consider taking out that information and using it separately — as a sidebar or as a data visual, such as a timeline. These same approaches could be used with a lengthy or technical explanation.

Outcome. Readers will be satisfied with the summary or attracted to the sidebar. And what remains in the story would move at a quicker pace.

REREADING MATERIAL

Confusion will force a reader to reread. Or stop.

Warning signs. Wrong order of elements, such as a nut graph too low in the story; long and complex sentences; lack of specifics to substantiate information.

The fix. Review the story structure. Identify where key elements appear in the story. Assess the placement. You might need to: move one paragraph or reorder a string of them, especially in the opening paragraphs; switch the order of a quote and its attribution so a reader knows at the outset who is speaking; or move up the nut graph so readers know sooner why this story is important. Assess sentences. You might need to: rewrite long sentences into two; minimize clauses and instead focus on writing straightforward statements; or rewrite sentences that make too many points in one statement. Look at substantiation. Watch for: a story that never returns to information featured in the lead; adjectives that aren’t followed by specifics; or quotes or statements that aren’t supported with fact.

Outcome. The story will follow a logical flow from the lead paragraph to the last paragraph. Every element in the story will be clear enough to keep moving the reader forward.

SCANNING INFORMATION

Everything that causes readers to be impatient or to reread also will cause them to scan; these problems are closely related. Readers also will scan because they are looking for something the story isn’t delivering.

Warning signs. Detail featured in a headline appears too low in a story; reaction from an obvious source isn’t in a prominent place; background isn’t clearly stated up high.  Be in touch with your own feelings of impatience or confusion. Identify these areas in a story. If you find yourself scrolling and scanning, you are looking for something further in the story. What is it? Does it need to be higher?

The fix. One way to fix this problem is to present information as bullets in a story instead of as paragraphs. Adjust long titles and identifiers before a quote. They can cause readers to scan important information — such as who is speaking and that person’s role in the story — just to get to what the person is saying.

Outcome. The story will at least briefly explain background before it delivers reaction. It will not overwhelm readers with a lot of detail before it explains why this story is important now.

This post is an encore about an issue that is as important and relevant today as in May 2014, when it was originally published.

(These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)

5 things to know about people’s quotes

By · Wednesday, February 13th, 2019 · No Comments »

not teaching,
still THINKING …

People’s voices — their own words — bring life to a story, but beware of trouble spots with quotes and know how to respond. Here are five issues to watch for when dealing with quotes:

  1. Facts and assertion of fact. When someone states a fact in a quote, be confident it is right. Is this really the first time something has happened? Did that state senator really vote against the bill last year? Have there really been four fatal accidents on this curve? The idea is not to check everything in every quote, but to be aware that a lot of people say a lot of things that are not accurate. Ask questions because the errors that can lurk in quotes range from simple facts to major misstatements.
  2. Sources quoting other sources. Sometimes people will represent the opinions of others as fact or something they know. But they don’t. When a source quotes another source, don’t let the quote run unchallenged.
  3. Criticism and attacks. The targeted person of an outright criticism or attack by another person should get a chance to respond. But, really, we need to ask: Should we publish this at all? Do not default to the “each side gets a say” approach. That is a legitimate response at times, but it also can be a way to avoid the real issue. If the initial quote is not worthy of publication, don’t publish it. No decision can be more difficult than withholding these “great quotes,” but sometimes not publishing is simply the right thing to do.
  4. Not available for comment. What does this mean? It means different things at different times. It could be that a journalist tried to reach someone once, 10 minutes before deadline. Or it could mean the journalist tried six times over an entire day and also left messages. What did those messages say? Were they detailed? We need to be transparent.
  5. Quotes that aren’t quotes. Did someone speak this quote? Write it in an email? There’s a difference, and we need to be clear about how the quotes were obtained. Personal interviews will yield unscripted responses with an opportunity for a journalist to ask follow questions. Email interviews allow a source to write and rewrite. And how can we know who actually wrote the email response — the source or a surrogate?

People’s quotes humanize our work. We just must be sure that problems do not escape us in our quest for ample quotes and in our enthusiasm for good ones.

(These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)

No tips here — and that’s the story

By · Wednesday, February 6th, 2019 · No Comments »

not teaching,
still THINKING …

Perfection. One definition: “extreme degree of excellence.”

That’s what consumers expected from their Hershey’s Kisses, whose tips have been missing since December. It’s a human interest story generated by a disappointed baker, and we can learn a lot from it.

Every day in Hershey, Pennsylvania, 70 million Kisses are made.

Every day around the world, millions of stories are conceived, reported, edited and published. We rely on the perfection of journalists and the feedback of our audience. We use — and respond to — social media responsibly. When we make mistakes, we correct them as quickly as possible.

And that’s the story.

(These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)

7 ways to decide what’s news

By · Wednesday, January 30th, 2019 · Comments Off on 7 ways to decide what’s news

not teaching,
still THINKING …

We probably could all agree that we often are on information overload. Journalists know this, and one of their roles is to develop a sense of news judgment.

News judgment determines whether:

Here’s a simple guide on how journalists can decide what’s important. Anyone — not only journalists — can use these tips to judge for themselves what’s news.

  1. Be methodical. Ask yourself what is the news, why the news is important and what is the best way to report it. Did the news just happen? Will the news affect people in some way?
  2. Be aware. Consider what people want to know. What questions might people still have that your story could address? Strive to provide not only the freshest details but also story angles that address what people might be confused about, what they need to know, or “what else” has not been reported.
  3. Be a listener. Take into consideration the opinions of colleagues. Each person looks at a story coming from a different background, having different values, possessing different ideas of what constitutes news. What is news to one person might be something another person knew last week. Or what seems minor news to one person might be something of major significance to another person.
  4. Be flexible. It is acceptable to change your mind after you make a news judgment. A breaking story might overtake another one. A colleague who joins the conversation might make a convincing point you had not heard previously. New details might develop that you decide should replace existing information in the story.
  5. Be a broad thinker. Think of your entire audience — the elderly, the young, the retired, the working class, the affluent, and people of all religions, races, genders. While no one story can appeal to all people, your decisions should be made after thoughtful consideration of everyone.
  6. Be a futurist. Think about the impact of the story today, tomorrow and beyond. Let the effect of the news guide your decisions as much as the news itself.
  7. Be a risk-taker. If you are inclined to make safe decisions about what’s news, be open to taking a risk. That does not mean being reckless. But be willing to make a decision that reflects a new approach. Sometimes the risk backfires. Other times the risk is a welcome change. With each risk, learn from the experience.

If we have confidence in our abilities to determine what’s news, we won’t be on information overload — we’ll be informed over and over.

(These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)

Marital affair? Take special care

By · Wednesday, January 23rd, 2019 · Comments Off on Marital affair? Take special care

not teaching,
still THINKING …

Transparency. Journalists strive for it. The audience craves it. We all need it.

Residents called for it recently at a school board meeting about an issue that has been in the news: “West Genesee residents ‘outraged, embarrassed’; want transparency over superintendent”

What’s the story?

These lead paragraphs from that story, published Jan. 16 on syracuse.com explain:

CAMILLUS, NY – More than 100 residents jammed the West Genesee Board of Education meeting Wednesday night, many saying they want the board to be more transparent with the community about an investigation into Superintendent Chris Brown.


The school board’s lawyers are investigating allegations made on social media that Brown was in a relationship with an employee he supervises. Brown’s wife, Rachel Gough Brown, posted on social media in early January that Chris Brown told her he wanted a divorce and that he was in love with the female employee. She later took the social media posts down.

The superintendent, who took personal time off, told syracuse.com that he “did not have a romantic or sexual relationship with any employee in the district. He has said the woman was a good friend who he confided in. He has said he and his wife are divorcing.”

News continued to break.

This story involves multiple layers, including: ethics, public vs private figures, social media, what/how/when to report details, welfare of students, and consideration of stakeholders — residents, faculty, staff and students.

By its nature — and human nature — it’s a story that drew a lot of interest and a lot of questions. Some were addressed in the Jan. 16 story about the residents.

One parent asked at the board meeting: “Where is the communication?”

Another speaker at the meeting said teachers are fearful to speak out.

One resident summed up what ultimately will define this story: “The trust is broken, and that doesn’t get fixed.”

At the time it was announced that the superintendent was leaving, the story included an outstanding question: Did the district’s law firm finish its investigation and, if so, what did it find?

The teachers association statement focused on hope for the future.

For journalists, the future will always hold stories with multiple layers and the need for a principled approach to covering them.

Here’s a gentle reminder about the basics, which journalists surely followed in the reporting of the West Genesee story:

Lastly, as an aside, any journalist wants to cover the news, not be a part of the story. So while covering the personal and professional lives of others, remember that your own actions — personal and professional — have consequences for you, your careers and your colleagues.

(These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)

Show, don’t tell — keep us interested

By · Wednesday, January 16th, 2019 · 1 Comment »

not teaching,
still THINKING …

Comedians might “tell” jokes, but they do so with such a “show” of explicit details and colorful anecdotes that listeners can visualize what they are hearing. And that is how comedians get their laughs.

Journalists, too, use the same approach. They include anecdotes, examples and details in their storytelling because these are the elements that keep readers interested. These elements also keep a story from becoming just a recitation of statements and quotes.

Here’s a quick example of how easily it can be done.

Consider this story about a college student who came upon a quacking mother duck who was upset because her ducklings had fallen through a sewer grate. Firefighters used two “massive” crowbars to pry off the grate, but the firefighters were “too big” to fit down the opening. The student volunteered to go down, and he rescued all nine ducklings.

It’s a cute story. It could be even better.

The answers to these questions would elicit even more colorful detail to an already good story.

This example brings up another important point about the all-important anecdotes, examples and details. They naturally come out when a reporter does three key things:

Anecdotes are short stories that help readers to visualize information.

Examples and details add information, description and support; they answer questions that readers raise as they are reading.

Storytellers were using these colorful essentials to bring vivid images to their work long before this became such a visual world. Now it’s your turn to keep us interested.

(These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)