What’s the story?

This month, ACME is publishing a series of articles based on its book, Write Right Tight – Navigating Common Mistakes in News Reporting & Writing. The book, authored by award-winning journalist Richard M. Kavuma, goes to great lengths to point out common mistakes in our journalism (especially in reporting and writing) and, above all, provides practical tips on how to navigate these enduring challenges. Write Right, Tight also offers insights into attributes and practices that define great journalists. This second article explores one of the greatest challenges for journalists – finding the story.

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It happens often that a reporter writes 700 words on a topical issue only for the frustrated editor to ask: “what is the story here? I don’t get it.”

Editors expect the reporter to differentiate the ‘story’ or ‘angle’ from the topic. Imagine this scenario: A young reporter breezes into the newsroom and declares to the editor that he has a story.

Ed: What is the story?

Rp: Besigye has been addressing a press conference and I was there.

Ed: Okay, so what’s the story?

Rp: It’s Besigye; he had many journalists at his home!

Ed: Okay, what kind of story do you want to write?

Rp: [nervous]: “Boss, Besigye, the former FDC candidate, was addressing us…”

Ed: [impatient]: Okay, what did he say?

Rp: He talked about many things: the defiance campaign, the way the elections were stolen by Museveni, how the donors should support a recount of the votes. Many things, boss.

From that topic of the Besigye press briefing, the reporter was guided to arrive at the right angle for the story. Other writers are not so fortunate to have a patient editor who will listen and guide. They come up with a story, write it and hand it over to the relevant editor.

But without getting the angle right, one can write so many words and the editor will still ask: what is the story? Some basics will aid our ability to find the right news angle:

One, we must understand our subject and know the latest developments about it. Otherwise, we can write ‘news’ that is not really news because  readers already know it. New Vision deputy news editor Francis Kagolo reminds us of the value of reading and keeping abreast with the news. He says if reporters are not religiously reading their newspaper and its competitors, they risk taking old angles. And if the editor also missed the story, the newspaper can readily publish ‘old news’.

Secondly, reporters need to discuss possible story angles with their editors before writing. Obviously some editors might be too busy and they will ask you to write the freshest angle, but normally they would hear your options and back or guide you.

Kagolo says that story angles are even more important in this era of the internet, FM radio and social media, which publish the ‘obvious’ angle almost instantly. If our newspapers are to be relevant the next day, when readers have already dissected the story on Facebook, Twitter or WhatsApp, editors and reporters must dig deeper to find the right angle. Reporters, especially, need to be more expansive during debriefing. As Kagolo suggests, the right angle might come from a careful, 360-degree look at your notes.

“The reporter comes, briefs you, [but] he doesn’t mention other issues that would probably bring some exciting story. But then after she has written the story, you realise there is this other issue that she didn’t put emphasis on, which is more exciting and newsworthy than the angle she has taken. So you have either to rewrite or call the reporter to redo it. Now, that consumes a lot of time given our tight deadlines…”

Uninverting the Pyramid

Traditionally, journalists were told to write stories in the inverted pyramid shape – with the most important news at the top. But as we struggle to hold onto readers who already know the 5Ws+H (What, who, where, when, why +how) of the story from social media and online editions, Kagolo argues that we need to topple or uninvert the pyramid. This thinking is already pushing even some daily newspapers towards what you would call Day Two stories and human-interest news features.

“There is this inverted pyramid style of news writing… We need to rethink it. You may have a headline that tells the story but when it comes to writing, you may change [the approach]. Okay, this is the story you want to tell, but you can start with [something else]: freshen it up. Maybe there’s an anecdote somewhere. For instance, there has been an HIV conference and there’s an orphan who has given testimony on how she has lived with HIV. I think we need to, even in colleges they need to, rethink this pyramid style.”

How Do We See News?

For non-daily publications like The Independent, The Observer or The EastAfrican, finding the unique angle is even more important. The Independent managing editor Joseph Were says the biggest skills gap in newsrooms is how to generate news ideas that will deliver value to readers.

“You find most of our journalists now are ‘he said’ /‘she said’. They like press conferences. Press conferences are good but what do you pick from them? Because press conferences should act as tips, not as [sources of ready news].

You must be a critical thinker to be a journalist; when something happens, you must be able to reflect deeply on it and ask yourself one fundamental question: Why should my reader, my viewers, my listeners, care about this thing that has happened?

After you have understood, you say: “okay, this is a very important story that the audience needs to pay attention to”. Then you ask yourself: “why am I telling the audience about it?” In my journalism, you tell the audience to help the audience make correct decisions. It’s not merely a question of providing people with information. It’s not enough to tell people that an accident has happened at this place. You must provide information that makes people say: ‘Okay that accident has happened; how can it be avoided?’ Maybe the road needs to be turned into a one-way; maybe they need humps. Maybe there should be a zebra crossing.

We need to move ahead… not in a didactic way, not in a lecturing way, but you present all the facts – there is this view, and there is this view – so that a logical member of the audience will be able to arrive at a certain decision.”

5Ws+HIP

Most journalists are schooled in the 5Ws+H. But as these become instantly available to audiences – on social media or even FM radio – newspapers are under pressure to infuse more of what Joseph Were calls ‘thinking’ into their reports. More thinking on our part should lead to more analysis of possibilities; more importantly, it should get readers to think in a more nuanced manner about what has happened.

Hence to the 5Ws+H, we should consider adding I for implications and P for prescriptions so that we end up with 5Ws+HIP.

This is just as well, because according to the dictionary, something ‘hip’ is modern and fashionable or contemporary. The ‘hip’ newspaper story should certainly go beyond the traditional 5Ws+H. In addition to all our good reporting and investigations, this requires us to ask questions such as:

  1. Why should the reader care about this? Why is it important?
  2. How significant is it?
  3. What implications/ramifications/effect might this development have?
  4. How can this issue/problem be addressed? What needs to be done?

Once we have identified the relevant questions and sub-questions, our job is half done. We only have to find the best-placed, most knowledgeable sources and ask them. Our presentation of their answers and how the different arguments from the different sources relate to one another will leave readers enlightened.

This means that quality journalism has to go beyond casual storytelling and cursory dissemination of information. It is a craft of weaving together facts with context to produce a narrative that informs, engages and captures readers’ deeper imagination.

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Image by TeroVesalainen from Pixabay

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