"Hooked by the Truth"

Journalism Manual

The LARGEMOUTH Journalism workshops are taught by
Douglas McGill, a former New York Times reporter and Bloomberg
News bureau chief in London and Hong Kong.

The workshops teach basic-to-advanced reporting skills as a tune-up
for professional journalists, and as a primer for citizens and part-time journalists

striving to meet professional standards in their blogs, community news sites and
other 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


The 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?

Since 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 offer journalism 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 reports on 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.

What 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

You 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, a government 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 migrant laborers who live in my community every summer.”

Next, 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.”

Finally, 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!

The Importance of Reporting

The 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.

In this sense, journalism is fundamentally distinct not only from fictional 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 newspaper articles (“Home,” “Style,” etc.), and most of the writing on personal web logs or “blogs” on the Internet.

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, and their passion for peace and justice and democracy with others.

But 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 as possible.

This 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. A point-of-view 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.

Your 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.

Therefore, 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.

For every article you write, then, prepare yourself to go out into the world to observe and listen carefully, with an open heart and mind.

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 will 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.


For some journalists, the biggest hurdle is simply approaching other people for an interview. Saying “Hi, I’m Sandy, 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.

My 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.

Broadly 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.

Here are ten interview guidelines to keep in mind:

1. Prepare.
Learn as much as you can in the time allowed about the person you will interview, including personal 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 your list of questions follow a kind of arc or plot, so that the interview will have some form to it. You can organize questions along "plot lines" so they are chronological, thematic, analytical, etc.

2. 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.

3. Be forthright and direct. Interviews are all about building trust with your sources, no matter how short or long the interviews are. The 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.

4. Explain yourself. Immediately give your name and say who you are writing for.

5. 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?"

6. 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 source: "I 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 to elaborate?"

7. 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.

8. Say "Please help me understand."

9. 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 your source 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."

10. 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 Four Boxes

The Four Boxes is a story structure that’s adaptable to almost any conceivable 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 time reading.

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
Box #3: The Motley Middle

                     i) Statistics, Quotes, Anecdotes

                     ii) Chronologies

                     iii) Paraphrase-quote, Paraphrase-quote, Paraphrase-quote.

                     iv) Bricks & Pillows

Box #4: The Kicker


Box #1: The Anecdotal Lead

Professional 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 way illustrates 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?”

For 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 to her 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

This 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 sometimes also called the “billboard paragraph,” because it gives readers quick highlights of the article to come.

For an investigative story about migrant workers at the local cannery, the two-paragraph story “nut’ might read something like this:

“Maria’s 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, a picture 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.

“In 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. State legislators say this case and dozens of others documented by Migrant Rights International, a human rights group, are certain to influence a controversial “illegal immigration” bill that is supported by Governor Tim Plenty and scheduled for a vote this week.”


Box #3: The Motley Middle

This 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 the statements 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:


1. Anecdote, Quote, Statistic -- Tell an anecdote (one paragraph), give a quote (another paragraph), give just one or two carefully chosen statistics (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 then.”

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.


Box #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 pleasing way.

The 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 anecdote.

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:


1. 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.

2. Author’s language (as opposed to a quote) that restates the story’s main theme in a fresh way.

3. 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 or questioning.

4. A phrase that lightly strikes or echoes a phrase or theme from the story’s lead.

5. Phrases that evoke or directly mention endings, beginnings, continuity or finality, births, deaths, etc.



Quotations are sacrosanct in journalism.

Those 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.”

Paragraph 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 said.”

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.

My view is that changing ungrammatical to grammatical English, such as when 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 have gone silent, or 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 say Y?”

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.


“The market went like a yo-yo today,” said Evelyn Smith, a trader for Baring securities. “Everybody got whiplash.”

Usually no:

“The market went like a yo-yo today. Everybody got whiplash,” said Evelyn Smith, a trader for Baring Securities.

4. Almost 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.


Kalman said, “Consumption is a treatable disease.”


1. "The Associated Press Stylebook"

Is 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 States.

2. "The Elements of Style" by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White

The 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.

3. "Writing Tools" by Roy Peter Clark

This is the best writing style guide specifically for journalists. The author has a unique style that’s equal parts common sense, lightly-worn technical mastery, and delightful offbeat humor. His skill as a journalism writing coach and teacher is legendary.

4. Poynter Online

The leading journalism coaches Roy Peter Clark and Chip Scanlan archive their acute writing and reporting advice at www.poynter.org


Copyright @ Douglas McGill 2007