Syllabus: Advanced Reporting Lab: Covering Local News in Durham, N.C.

PJMS 391 — Fall 2018

This is the syllabus for a new course I’m teaching at Duke this fall. The students’ news stories will be posted on a website that will go live in mid-September.


National reporting has the glamour, but local news often matters more. It’s about property taxes and zoning and crime in your neighborhood. It’s about the City Council and the County Commission and the City-County Committee on Confederate Monuments and Memorials.

It is the two-car collision and the three-alarm fire; the burglary around the corner and the power outage down the street. It is the stuff that matters to people, like the opening of the Korean barbecue place on Erwin Road.

One paradox of the digital age is that people consume more news than ever, yet local news organizations are struggling. There are fewer reporters watching city hall and the county courthouse.

In this course, you will do your part by covering Durham. You’ll be assigned a beat, develop sources and write news and feature stories. As a class, it will be wonderfully simple. You’ll report and write compelling stories; I’ll edit them; and we’ll publish them on the class website.

This is an advanced class, so you will be challenged to produce great stories. Along the way you’ll learn about local government, the problems of urban American and the challenges of daily journalism.


The goal of this course is to teach you advanced skills in reporting and writing. By covering Durham, you will learn how to develop sources, conduct interviews, access public records and decode the language of government. You’ll learn the value of doing face-to-face interviews and the importance of getting to know a wide range of people on your beat. You probably won’t have secret meetings with your sources in parking garages, but I expect you to meet them for coffee at Cocoa Cinnamon.

You’ll hone your writing skills. You’ll learn the importance of structure and which story forms work best for different types of news and feature articles. You’ll also learn value of concise leads, clear writing and effective kickers.

Also, you’ll have fun, because journalism is a blast.


You won’t have a textbook, but you will do plenty of reading. Every day you’ll need to keep up with the news of Durham. You should read the Durham Herald-Sun, Indy Week, and the Durham coverage of WRAL, ABC-11 and other outlets that cover the city. You should set the Herald-Sun as your browser’s home page so you’ll see the latest news every you time you launch it. You should also do a daily check on your local agency’s website for new agendas, news releases and newsletters. You should read websites and magazines related to your beat such as Governing magazine or Education Week.

You will need a copy of the AP Stylebook, either in print or an online subscription. (It’s fine if you have a 2017 copy from last year’s Newswriting and Reporting course, but beware that 2017 edition does not have the important new entries on topics such as gig economy, storm names and churros (“Fried pastries covered in cinnamon sugar and sometimes dipped in chocolate sauce. Popular in Latin America.”))

Depending on trends I see in your writing, I may also assign chapters from:

McPhee, John. “Draft №4: On the Writing Process”; New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017

Zinsser, William, “On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction”; New York: Harper Perennial, 2012 edition

I’ll provide the chapters to you, but it would be worthwhile to get both books and read them in their entirety.


Great writing requires great reporting, so we’ll emphasize how to identify key people on your beats, find and scour public records and conduct revealing interviews. The best reporting is done in person, so you’ll be required to attend meetings, visit government offices and have coffee with your sources. As a general rule, you’ll need to conduct all interviews in person or by phone. You won’t be allowed to interview people by email without special approval.

Because we’re covering the news, you’ll need to reachable at all times. We’ll use a class Slack channel for most communications. Please have the Slack app on your phone with notifications enabled. If there’s something urgent and I can’t reach you by Slack, I’ll call or text you.

You’ll write your stories in Google Docs and submit them to me through a shared folder. Some things about style and formatting:

  • We will follow AP style. Make sure you are familiar with the stylebook entries for key things such as titles, numerals and abbreviations. We’ll also develop our own style sheet for things unique to our publication such as datelines (none on stories from Durham, for example). Our style sheet will be posted in the shared Google folder.
  • Put the story’s slug and your name at the top of the story, i.e. “Bikeshare / McCarthy” and indicate on the next line if you assigned a photo and any details about the photo.
  • Please include a headline and subhed in the story you submit. Put two spaces between paragraphs.
  • All stories should be fact-checked thoroughly on paper using red pens. Put a check at the end of each sentence when you have verified in your notes or another source that the sentence is accurate. Put a check over each name or number when you have verified it is accurate. Please have your fact-checked sheet available to discuss during editing. (If you are filing a news story remotely, we’ll figure out an alternative method so you don’t put red checkmarks on your computer screen.)
  • I’ll edit your story in Google Docs and go over my suggestions with you before we publish. Editing is a collaboration. I’ll work with you to make sure you agree about any changes to your story.
  • Every story should have a photo, either a file photo or a new assignment for Katie. Make sure you’ve assigned one or identified the file photo in our online archive.


News is unpredictable and each beat is different, so you’ll have flexibility for your assignments. Over the course of the semester you should publish six to seven articles plus three to four newsbriefs. This would be a typical mix:

  • 1–2 news stories plus 3–4 briefs
  • 2–3 feature articles
  • 1–2 profiles
  • 1 accountability story (an article or small investigative project that holds the people on your beat accountable for their actions or spending)

I’ll meet with you every week to talk about the stories you’re working on, help you choose stories and set deadlines. My goal is to make sure you get a good mix of stories to learn about different types of writing.


Reporting and revisions (30 percent of course grade) — This will give you credit for pursuing stories even when they sometimes fall through, as well as the improvements you make to stories after they’re edited.

Writing (70 percent of course grade) — You’ll be graded on each assignment as it is turned in at deadline. You will revise it before publication, of course, but by having the draft graded will give you an incentive to make it as complete and polished as possible. You’ll receive separate grades for each assignment and one grade for all of your newsbriefs.

I grade roughly half on your content and analysis (Do you understand the topic? Is your reporting thorough? Did you cover the main aspects of the story? Is your writing lively?) and half on your writing (grammar, spelling, proper punctuation, following AP Style).

Because you’re learning how to write for news sites and magazines, the grading will reflect how an editor would view your work. I’ll generally follow this scale:

A — Ready to publish, with only minor edits and minimal copyediting

B — In good shape, but needs some rewriting or additional reporting

C — The makings of a story, but some reporting gaps, organizational issues or clarity questions

D or below — Not ready for prime time. Under-reported or poorly written.

Tips to earn an A: I’m particularly interested in stories that…

Analyze — You are advanced student journalists, so you should be able to analyze the actions of government, the trends you’re seeing, the problems that are on the horizon.

Hold officials accountable — You don’t have to get someone indicted. Just reveal how someone had personal stakes in a government decision, or raise questions about sloppiness or waste.

Use alternate story forms — Some of the best stories aren’t stories. You can tell stories through creative charts and tables, or through smart quizzes.