"Hooked by the Truth"
LARGEMOUTH Journalism workshops are taught by
Douglas McGill, a former New York Times reporter and
News bureau chief in London and Hong Kong.
The workshops teach basic-to-advanced reporting skills as a tune-up
journalists, and as a primer for citizens and part-time journalists
striving to meet professional standards
in their blogs, community news sites and
forms of Internet journalism.
A general workshop description plus an outline subject to
customization is here. LARGEMOUTH
is a collaborative project
of the The
McGill Report and the Twin
Cities Daily Planet
LARGEMOUTH Journalism Manual
What is journalism?
What is the goal of journalism?
Choosing your focus
The Importance of Reporting
A Writing Guide: The Four Boxes
Box #1: The Anecdotal Lead
Box #2: The Cosmic Paragraph
Box #3: The Motley Middle
Box #4: The Kicker
A general workshop outline is available here.
What is journalism?
the Internet became a part of everyday life in the middle 1990s,
it has played an increasingly large role
in the delivery of news about
the world to citizens. Instead of reading one or two daily newspapers
and watching a news show on TV, most people today get their news
from a far greater range of sources including many web sites that
in many forms. Web sites offering mainly opinion and commentary,
such as “blogs” written by one person, became and remain
popular. However, such blogs are often limited because they are not
the world, but
rather interpretations of previously reported events according
to the writers’ pre-established biases, prejudices, and political
beliefs. Today, many people are trying to create actual journalism -- fresh and original reporting -- on the Web.
is the goal of journalism?
Non-professional or part-time journalists offer different reasons for learning how
to write in a journalistic style for publication on the Web. But a common reason is a dissatisfaction
with how much of the news media has become alienated from the
concerns of ordinary people. Instead, the media seems to many to have
become an advertising-and-propaganda machine pushing commercial
products, or distributing crafted political messages designed to manipulate. Many part-time journalists today, whatever their background or profession, thus are seeking to recapture journalism as a truly democratic
practice that is thoroughly rooted in -- and thus directly serves --
the real lives and interests of citizens.
Choosing your focus
have a general idea already, most likely, but it’s a good
idea to review specifically what you want to write about. Maybe it’s
a public issue such as drinking water safety, the condition of local
roads, the scarcity of parks and playgrounds, etc. Possibly you are already
deeply engaged in social service of some kind such as children’s
rights, animal welfare, elderly issues, Native American rights, etc.
If that’s so you probably feel the news media doesn’t cover
this set of issues well, and you want to do it yourself. You may
be planning to cover an event of some kind such as a political speech,
meeting, a demonstration or rally. Or you may want to write an article
about a specific person, such as someone you admire, an elected official,
a person in the news, etc. Whatever your subject, try to describe
the focus of your article in just a sentence or two: “I want
to write an article about the sub-standard housing conditions for the
laborers who live in my community every summer.”
ask yourself: “Who do I want to read this article?” Be
as specific as possible: “The citizens of Mapleville. The city
council, the mayor, and every city officials. The management of the
Peppy Foods vegetable packing plant that employs the migrant workers – not
only at the Mapleville plant but also the top brass at the company’s
headquarters in Marion, NY. I also want every state senator and representative
to read this piece, and the migrants as well.”
collect as many e-mails as you can of the people you want to
read your story. Because once you’ve written it, you’ll
send it to them!
Importance of Reporting
key to good journalism is always good reporting – bringing
to readers ever-more-accurate descriptions of the world around
us. The basic
building block of such reportage is facts, i.e. verified observations.
this sense, journalism is fundamentally distinct not only from
writing but also from persuasive writing,
which is increasingly the dominant
mode of media communication today and includes political speeches,
talk shows, press releases, advertisements, special-section
(“Home,” “Style,” etc.), and most of
the writing on personal web logs or “blogs” on the
promise of real journalism therefore is that it gives readers
and viewers not a fantasy, a vacation, a pitch, or an argument,
but a factually-grounded
report. A report should make the reader feel that he knows more
about the world and how it works, and that he can therefore
use that information
to become a better citizen and person.
In this sense, a potential pitfall for beginning journalists
is precisely the pre-existing beliefs they have about the civic
and personal issues that matter to them most. They will have a natural
and precious desire to share their experience, their knowledge,
their passion for peace and justice and democracy with others.
the very strength of these beliefs can be a problem if the
journalist doesn’t remember that it’s
always her first job to report as opposed to argue or give
opinions. Reporting means observing
the world and listening to the views of others with an open mind,
and then reporting those observations and views as accurately
does not mean that a journalist – professional or part-timer – should
not have a point-of-view. To the contrary, a point-of-view is
necessary in order to shape the facts gathered in your reporting.
can include opinions but is always much larger than that, including
everything about you that is relevant to the article you are
writing. So depending
on the article, the point-of-view you need to explain to your
readers may include the neighborhood, city, or state where
you live, the place
you grew up, your economic status, your race, your professional
affiliations, your gender, your hobbies, etc.
personal opinions, beliefs, and emotional feelings are often
so strongly felt that they seem to be co-equal,
or even larger than, your
point-of-view. But from the reader’s perspective, they
never are. From the reader’s perspective, your personal
opinions and feelings are only a small part of the much larger
perspective from which you write.
no matter how strong your opinions and feelings, your first priority
as a journalist is to subordinate them to point-of-view. Not
to erase them, which would be impossible and undesirable, but
simply to subordinate them to the much larger and more important
needs of the
reader and of the world. Reader want, expect, and deserve that.
every article you write, then, prepare yourself to go out into
the world to observe and listen carefully, with an open heart
Try to subordinate your own emotions and beliefs to what you see and
hear, then record your observations as accurately as you can.
A kind of humility
is needed. You and your readers both know that your point-of-view
shape everything you observe and report. So don’t pretend
you are being “objective,” everyone knows you can’t
be. Rather, divulge your point-of-view humbly – including
your opinions if they are relevant -- as part of your best attempt
to accurately record
what you observe as a journalist. That’s the best you can do.
some journalists, the biggest hurdle is simply approaching
other people for an interview. Saying “Hi, I’m
writing an article about autism for my online newsletter, can
I ask you a few questions?” It’s not a role many
of us have practice in.
advice is to grow out of your comfort zone step by step. If you initially
feel uncomfortable asking people
for interviews, don’t pick a senator
or a CEO or a senator for your first interview. Pick someone
who feels safer but also someone who, once they say yes and
give you the interview,
will definitely expand your confidence and lay the groundwork
for more ambitious interviews ahead. Ultimately – this
is part of the magic of journalism – there is literally
no one in society you could not approach in all sincerity
to ask for an interview.
speaking, journalists mine the raw data for their stories from three
sources -- pure observation, documents (writing, audio and video
tapes, web sites, etc.), and interviews. But of these, interviews
are the most fundamental. Listening to other people answer your questions
and tell their stories is the way you get your story.
are ten interview guidelines to keep in mind:
Prepare. Learn as much as you
can in the time allowed about the person you will interview, including
details, and the subject you are
writing about. Then draw up a list of the specific
questions you plan to ask, in the order you plan to ask them. Make
follow a kind of arc or plot, so that the interview
will have some form to it. You can organize questions along "plot
they are chronological, thematic, analytical, etc.
Be at your top form in interviews. In other words, an
interview is when you need to be most alert, most informed, and
most engaged. Proritize
accordingly. Prepare yourself physically and
mentally towards this goal. If things go well in your interviews,
everything will go well in your
stories - you will learn vital information, get
good quotes, create a good new source, and so on. By contrast,
if things go poorly in the interview
everything will go wrong - your story will be
inaccurate (which leads to endless more trouble), uninteresting,
you lose readers and make enemies.
Be forthright and direct. Interviews are all about building
trust with your sources, no matter how short or long the interviews
best way to build trust, besides preparing in the
two ways mentioned above, is to be forthright and direct in the
interview. People often
have a bad image of journalists. They think that
what they say will be taken out of context, skewed, even misquoted.
By being forthright and
direct, you reassure your sources otherwise and make
them understand that you will listen carefully, including to their
misgivings, and that
they are in control at all times.
Explain yourself. Immediately give your name and say who
you are writing for.
Ask if you can ask some questions. Next, explain the story
you are reporting. "I'm writing a story about the campus robbery last night." "I'm
doing a story about international transfer students to St. Thomas." "Would
you mind if I asked you a few questions?"
Eplain you want to understand their point of view. If
you say that you are writing a story about, say, the Mayor's
new policy about immunizing
people against Monkey Pox, you might tell your
understand that you have written an academic
paper arguing that Monkey Pox isn't
a serious enough health threat to justify mass
inoculations. It would be important to reflect that point of view
in my story,
could I ask you
Go in with a specific story idea but be prepared to change it. This
is critical. Having a fairly clear idea of what
your story is about is important to let your sources know you are
knowledgeable, focused, and
professional. At the same time, they won't talk
to you if they think you aren't really listening to understand
their point of view. You have
to be ready - indeed, eager - to listen to what
they have to say and to change your own viewpoint after you have
listened as deeply and thoroughly
as you can to them.
help me understand."
Listen for quotes, and listen for information. These are
the two things you are always going for in an interview.
Always know, in your
own mind, which of the two you are going for
primarily during an interview. Of course, you are always listening
for both, but
most of the time you
are leaning heavily toward one or the other.
The most important thing you can do as a reporter on a story is
to understand what
is trying to tell you. This is a matter of listening
for information. Sometimes you may say to him or her, "Feel free to go off the record
and please just explain to me what this is all about." A
person may well relax at that point and give
you the information you need. Another
time, when you feel you understand the basic
story well enough, you can tune your ear to quotes
more, and ask
questions that are designed more to elicit quotes than information."
Shut up and listen. The most powerful and important
practice in the world - not to mention journalism
-- is listening. Learn how to ask good questions and then be quiet
and let your source tell you what he or she wants.
A Writing Guide: The
The Four Boxes is a story structure that’s adaptable to almost
journalistic form – news story, feature piece, personality profile, issue
analysis, trend story, investigative piece, and many more. It answers the need
for every piece of journalism to be timely, relevant, useful, and aesthetically
pleasing enough to attract a reader’s attention and to spend some quality
Learning it is a bit like a musician the musical scales. It takes
only a little while to memorize, and a lifetime to master. But you
can start producing credible, useful and readable journalism very
quickly by simply following this paint-by-the-numbers method:
Box #1: The Anecdotal Lead
Box #2: The Cosmic Paragraph
Statistics, Quotes, Anecdotes
Bricks & Pillows
#1: The Anecdotal Lead
journalists call this the “anecdotal lead,” and
it is the most common way to begin a piece of journalism. It can
be used with many kinds of articles – profiles of individual
people, trend stories, feature stories, analytical pieces, news
events, and many other
types. Generally it’s only a paragraph long, or two at the
most. An anecdote is only a small story, a small event that in some
the larger story that you are writing about. It’s helping,
in trying to find the best anecdote to start your piece, to ask yourself: “If
I were at a dinner with friends and wanted to tell this story, instead
of writing it, what’s the story I would start by telling?”
example, in the case of the story about the migrant workers,
I might start by telling the story of Maria, a
migrant who lives in Mapleville: “One
morning, Maria phoned home during her coffee break and learned that
her six-year-old son was running a fever of 103 degrees. She rushed
boss for permission to drive her child to the hospital, but instead
was coldly told: ‘Don’t bother coming back if you leave,
because you won’t have a job waiting for you.’”
That little anecdote could be a good lead for an article about poor
working conditions and lack of human rights for Mexican migrants
working at the local vegetable canning plant in Mapleville.
Box #2: The Cosmic Paragraph
section is what professional journalists call the “nut” or
the “nut paragraph.” It is where the journalist explains
the wider significance of the small anecdote that started the story
for the whole community, state, nation, or whatever is the article’s
full context. It’s usually a paragraph long, or two at the
most. In addition to showing the lead anecdote’s larger significance,
the nut paragraph also often includes brief allusions to important
parts of the story ahead. For that reason, the nut paragraph is
called the “billboard paragraph,” because it gives
readers quick highlights of the article to come.
an investigative story about migrant workers at the local cannery,
the two-paragraph story “nut’ might
read something like this:
story is one of dozens of nearly identical tales told by seasonal
workers at the Peppy Foods plant in Mapleville, and
at the company’s sixteen other food-packing plants throughout
the Midwest. In interviews with more than three dozen workers,
emerged of a company that routinely exposes its seasonal workers
to hazardous working conditions even while it denies them access
to medical care,
affordable housing, and a minimum hourly wage.
the most egregious case of abuse, one Mexican worker, according
to county health records obtained yesterday, died after complaining
of headaches but was forced to continue working until he collapsed.
legislators say this case and dozens of others documented by
Migrant Rights International, a human rights group, are certain
a controversial “illegal immigration” bill that
is supported by Governor Tim Plenty and scheduled for a vote
#3: The Motley Middle
is the most free-form and varied part of journalistic articles.
Pick up a newspaper or news magazine and
peruse a few pieces to see how
many different ways writers develop their stories. Whatever their
form, however, the middle section of stories always must support
and allegations made in the “lead” and “nut graf” sections.
In addition, when you boil it down, the middle section of nearly all
journalistic stories are all built from three building blocks which are:
1) Anecdotes, 2) Quotes, and 3) Statistics. And the three most common
ways to organize the middle sections are roughly as follows:
Quote, Statistic -- Tell an anecdote (one paragraph),
give a quote (another paragraph), give just one or two carefully
(a one-sentence paragraph). Repeat, repeat, repeat,
all the way to the end.
2. Chronologies --
The most ancient and time-honored storytelling method, a
succession of paragraphs based on the logic and suspense
of the formula “and then … and then … and
3. Paraphrase-Quote – Let’s say you have three quotes
from a key interview that are colorful, each different from
the another, and
each of them making a key point. A good way to handle
this is, in a one- or two-sentence section ahead of each
quote, to paraphrase what your
source said in your own words. Follow this paragraph-long
paraphrase with a paragraph that contains the person’s
quote. You have just created a two-paragraph block of text,
the first being a paraphrase of
the source’s quote, and the second being the
quote itself. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
4. Bricks & Pillows – In this popular writer’s tip, “bricks” stand
for statistics, numbers, or a paragraph of dense logical reasoning or
dry-but-necessary description. “Pillows” meanwhile
stands for a colorful quotation, a funny or compelling
story, or something else
that emotionally fun or rewarding and not intellectually
taxing. The idea is to alternate -- a paragraph of brick,
then a paragraph of pillow.
Repeat, repeat, repeat.
#4: The Kicker
A “kicker” is
journalism lingo for the last paragraph or two of a story.
It wraps up the story in an aesthetically and emotionally
best way to learn to write kickers is to read lots of stories
to see how other journalists do it. When you
write a kicker, you have gotten
to a point in writing the piece where you feel you’ve emptied
your notebook and your mind. You’ve reported what you needed
to report, and you’ve said what you needed to say. Now you
can stop, clear your mind of everything, and just tell a last little
Like the lead anecdote, this one should have some symbolic resonance
with the whole story. Play around until you find one. A survey of successful
kickers shows the following frequent characteristics in their writing:
Super quotes – The most common successful kicker is
memorable quote, especially one that creates a strong mental
picture that restates
the story’s main theme in a fresh way.
Author’s language (as opposed to a quote) that restates
the story’s main theme in a fresh way.
A question, in either a quote or the author’s language,
that applies one last turn of the story’s main theme
and opens it imaginatively to a new line of speculation
A phrase that lightly strikes or echoes a phrase or theme
from the story’s
5. Phrases that evoke or directly mention endings, beginnings, continuity
or finality, births, deaths, etc.
are sacrosanct in journalism.
four little squiggles -- “ ” – announce something
very important to readers. They say: “A
person is speaking here and these are the exact
words that the person said.”
marks do not say to the reader “These are close to the
exact words, with some words changed by the author for effect.” Rather
they say: “These words are exactly what the person
Because written speech is fundamentally different from spoken speech, the practice of quoting people in print lends itself to ethical complications, and journalists often debate the particulars of handling quotations. For example, some journalists try to capture the gist of what a person says in their handwritten notes, and transcibe that "gist" into full sentences in the final piece. In so doing, they necessarily add words they believe capture the meaning, if not the precise linguistic sequence, of what was actually said. Sometimes, these journalists will show these recreated quotes to their sources' for approval before publication, working together to arrive at an acceptable quote, if the source initially objects. It's hard to criticize a practice that obtains a source's unqualified approval, yet such a method also creates the possibility that the journalist, in "capturing the gist" of the sources' speech, actually creates more (or less) articulate speech in written form, than was ever actually said. Given such gray zones, great care must be taken to keep quotations as clear a reflection of original speech as possible.
More than in any other part of an article, a quotation is where a
person is most exposed and thus most vulnerable to readers. His or her reputation
is very much on the line with a quotation, because the quotation marks
say those words are the person’s actual statements and beliefs.
view is that changing ungrammatical to grammatical English, such
recent immigrants are still learning
the language are quoted, is
okay and usually serves both the person
quoted and readers. The same applies to deleting ums and ahs. I try not to change non-standard but still grammatical usage and syntax, though, because those add flavor and interest to the writing, and more accurately reflect the reality of the person speaking. One has to weigh, though, whether retaining such non-standard usage will subject the source to unfair or unwanted discrimiation or ridicule.
Always unacceptable is filling in a word where a source might
changing one word to another
to make the quoation pithier, or what you believe
is more accurate or relevant. In some cases, if you feel the source
unwittingly misspoke, and it’s critical
to the story to correct or clarify it, you need
to call the source back and directly say “You said X in your
interview with me. Did you mean to say that, or did you mean to
The other thing about quotes is to be consistent with punctuation. The
best thing is to look at professionally edited journalism to see how
it is done. In general, a few basic rules are followed:
1. When you start a quotation, start a new paragraph.
2. A one-sentence quotation usually works fine as a paragraph.
3. Place a comma after the first phrase, or after the first sentence
if it is a short sentence.
market went like a yo-yo today,” said Evelyn Smith,
a trader for Baring securities. “Everybody
“The market went like a yo-yo today. Everybody got whiplash,” said
Evelyn Smith, a trader for Baring Securities.
always stick with “said” after a quote. Using
other words such as “grumbled Evelyn Smith,” “laughed
Evelyn Smith,” etc., looks like gratuitous interpretation and overwriting,
which it is. Let the quote itself paint the picture and do all the talking.
5. Avoid lead-ins.
“Consumption is a treatable disease,” Kalman
said, “Consumption is a treatable
Associated Press Stylebook"
it 4 am, 4 a.m., 4 AM, 4 A.M., or 4 o’clock in
the morning? “The
president is on TV” or “The President
is on TV?” “Fly
fishing” or “fly-fishing?” The
AP Stylebook answers all such questions, giving
instructions as well on punctuations, acronyms,
usage, and much else. Style is the spit-and-polish
of writing. It doesn’t
take much to get right – all you need to
do is refer to the book. In return for that,
you automatically get a certain level of credibility
and respect. The subliminal message to readers
is “The writer is
paying attention to the smallest details.” The
AP Stylebook is also the one used by most newspapers
and magazines used in the United
Elements of Style" by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
best good writing guide ever written. Shunned as elitist by some – it
is, no doubt, idiosyncratically prescriptive in places – and by
now dated here and there, it nevertheless was penned by two masters of
English prose, William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. It focuses on the
few eternal guidelines – e.g., omit needless words, use the active
voice – and models its own advice to value clarity above all else
in writing and to keep things brief.
Tools" by Roy Peter Clark
This is the
best writing style guide specifically for journalists. The
author has a unique
equal parts common sense, lightly-worn technical mastery, and
delightful offbeat humor. His skill as a journalism writing
4. Poynter Online
leading journalism coaches Roy Peter Clark and Chip Scanlan
archive their acute writing and reporting advice at
@ Douglas McGill 2007