The Citizen Journalism Manual…
19. About formats: News or features?
Journalism is literature in a hurry… Matthew Arnold
HOW do we write our story? Is is to appear as a news item or as a longer feature article in the creative nonfiction genre? The answer comes down to the type of story writing we feature on our blog.
Can we mix both shorter, sharper news items and longer feature articles on our blog? Of course. Doing that would bring variety.
In this chapter we will delve into two very different ways to write. Both have their uses, depending on the type of blog we manage and our readers’ habits.
Let’s start with the long-established style adopted by newspaper to fit stories into the limited space of the columns on a page.
The inverted pyramid
Conventional news journalism adopted the ‘inverted pyramid’ writing style. It is called the inverted pyramid because the important information is at the top, whereas a conventional pyramid has most of its structure towards the base. The story tapers away into less-important information.
In the days of newspapers where the amount of space in a column — the ‘column centimetres’ — was limited, the inverted pyramid format made it possible for editors to shorten a story by deleting paragraphs from the bottom where the least important information ends up, but retain the most important information at the top. Although the inverted pyramid is an artefact of the time when the newspaper was the media by which most people got their news, it has a place in online media such as newsletters, blogs and social media posts where brevity and getting the information across quickly is important.
Let’s look now at the structure of a story in inverted pyramid format.
Arrange information in order of importance and start with a hook
We start by:
- placing the most important information in the opening paragraphs of the story; the most important information goes in the first paragraph — for example, what has happened
- followed by additional detail in descending order of importance; detail and background information is placed further down in the story
- try to put the main points, such as the five W’s and an H, into the first two paragraphs
- if you can get them, quotes from news sources go close to the top, perhaps around the third paragraph; quotes allow a news source to explain something in their own words; they develop the ideas in the preceding paragraph.
Doing this makes your story skimmable, allowing people in a hurry to read only a few paragraphs and come away knowing the gist of what happened.
Your first sentence is very important as it will attract readers and, if written in a catchy way, encourage them to read on. How you write it will depend on your writing style or the editorial style of the publication, as well as on the topic itself. In journalist’s jargon, the first paragraph is the ‘hook’ that catches reader attention. Make it interesting. Make it intriguing.
Let’s look at an example. A story might go like this:
The mayor of Oceanside will open a new outdoor classroom at the Oceanside Community Centre next Saturday.
The classroom will provide much needed space for the council’s pre-and-primary schools education program. It will replace the temporary classroom in the community centre.
That’s fine, it reports on council affairs and on a new facility. But is it the real story? Is the real story less about council affairs and more community benefit? That depends on the focus of your publication.
For a more community-focused publication, like a local newspaper or blog reporting local news, we might word it like this:
Oceanside schools are to gain a new educational venue with the opening this Saturday of the Oceanside outdoor classroom. The classroom will provide additional space to accommodate Oceanside Council’s successful pre-and-primary schools program.
Oceanside mayor, Moringa Olifera, will open the outdoor classroom during National Education Week celebrations at the community centre.
Here we have answered the what, when, where, why and who, the key questions. Even if readers go no further they will know what is to happen, the gist of the story.
It makes for more lively reading to include quotes from the news source so that the source tells their story in their own words. You denote this direct speech through the use of double quote marks (some publications use single quote marks), making sure you attribute the quote to the source.
Here’s an example:
“The outdoor classroom was funded by a state government waste reduction grant”, said project manager, Linda Lavender.
Or, you might start by identifying the source:
According to project coordinator Linda Lavender, “We obtained a state government waste reduction grant to build the outdoor classroom”.
Make your quote as accurate as possible. This is why recording interviews can be useful. Ask the source if it is alright to record what they say. Explain that it permits greater accuracy in quoting them.
Rather than a direct quote, you might paraphrase what your source said. For example:
Project coordinator, Linda Lavender, said that funding for the outdoor classroom came through a state government grant.
Here, we still have what was said and its attribution to its source.
Let’s see how our full story could read:
Oceanside schools are to gain a valuable new educational resource with the opening this Saturday of the Oceanside outdoor classroom.
The classroom will meet the demand for additional space to accommodate Oceanside Council’s successful pre-and-primary schools program.
Oceanside mayor, Moringa Olifera, will open the classroom during National Education Week celebrations at the Oceanside community centre.
“The outdoor classroom has been funded by a state government waste reduction grant”, said project manager, Linda Lavender.
“It is going to solve the problem we have when the community centre is booked out at a time that schools want to use it.”
The classroom has been built using as many recycled materials as possible to demonstrate the materials reuse that is supported by the waste reduction grant.
“The grants are made to organisations that can demonstrate waste reduction in what they do”, said Ms Lavender. “The outdoor classroom does that well”.
She said that the energy efficient design of the building, harvesting roof water in a 10,000 litre tank to irrigate the surrounding gardens and the use of recycled floorboards and recycled bricks for the walls is evidence of its waste reduction and reuse features.
The official opening will be this coming Saturday at 2pm outside the new classroom.
Note we referred to our source by the formal honorific “Ms” — “Ms Lavender”. A less formal blog might refer to her as ‘Linda’. Once again, it comes down to your blog’s and your personal writing style. “Ms” came into common use as an altenative to “Miss” or “Mrs” around 40 years ago because it does not classify women according to their marital status, which for most purposes was considered irrelavent.
The piece places the main idea at the start, features one idea per paragraph, expands on the main message in the body of the text and directly quotes and attributes a source. Later paragraphs contain less important information with time and place in the final paragraph for readers interested in attending. Alternatively, that could have been put closer to the top.
The information would probably have been distributed by the council as a media release, a common means of distributing information to media organisations. Common practice is for the public relations or communications department to write media releases and to make up quotes attributable to sources.
The inverted pyramid is a writing style suited to reporting something briefly and to the point. It works well for newsy content on your blog.
Useful for social media
Some people like stories starting with a human interest angle and then getting to the newsy core. Some prefer some other less-direct route into a story in its opening paragraphs. Others prefer to get to the main thing as soon as possible. That is where the inverted pyramid format is applicable.
As well as writing for newspapers, the news writing style can be used for posts that are brief and straight to the point, especially in online newsletters distributed by email where story head and a paragraph carry a link to the full story on a website. The paragraph in the newsletter would be the opening paragraph of the website article written in the inverted pyramid style.
Here is an example of a news item in the inverted pyramid style for an organisation’s online newsletter:
Australia’s sprawling suburbs could be the answer to how we respond to climate change and to a declining oil supply, says author and permaculture design consultant, David Holmgren.
David was speaking at the launch of his book, Retrosuburbia, during the recent Australasian Permaculture Convergence in Canberra.
He said the suburbs offered plenty of space for growing food, and detached homes have great potential for simple, low-cost retrofitting for energy efficiency and rainwater harvesting. He believes a co-operative approach to meeting most local needs from the local area could be developed.
David warned that urban consolidation such as infill housing and large apartment buildings are the main barriers to making the suburbs more self-reliant.
Here we start with the main idea, identify the source and where he made his announcement, and then go into a few details that support his idea. We end with a warning that could challenge the viability of the idea.
As an item in a newsletter, the story could go on to report more detail, however the length is sufficient to get the idea over as a brief post on social media. Because visuals increase the readership of social media posts it would be useful to include a photo of the author with his book to accompany the story. That is why basic proficiency with a camera is important to citizen journalists. A photo could have been made of the speaker during his presentation or he could have been asked to pose with his book afterwards.
By way of contrast, a website featuring longer-form stories might start like this:
When he was living in the suburbs, David Holmgren realised that the suburban lawn of most home gardens was an unproductive waste of space. By replacing lawn with vegetables and fruit trees, suburban Australia could be a far-more productive environment that fed people and encouraged healthy outdoor exercise.
A Western Australian by birth, David developed the permaculture design system over 40 years ago with researcher and academic, Bill Mollison, while a student at the Tasmanian College of Advanced Education in Hobart. The idea took off, slowly at first, then with increasing speed as people became more aware of the environmental issues facing Australia and, later, the threat of climate change.
Over the succeeding decades David watched as the home food production, home energy efficiency and water conservation ideas he popularised as an author and educator in permaculture took off. With partner Sue Dennett, David set up his own homestead on the outskirts of Hepburn in Victoria’s goldfields district, and travelled widely to teach and appear at conferences. Now, he says, he travels less because of the carbon emissions attributable to air travel, but still speaks at conferences through online media.
Now, with the increasing cost of home energy and water and with Australians searching for ways to reduce their contribution to the warming climate, David has brought together examples and ideas from those food-producing, energy and water conserving homes in his new book, Retrosuburbia.
Retrosuburbia is about more than home food growing. “With a warming climate and questions now being asked about the possible peaking of global oil supplies and the volatility of the oil market, it is time to focus on reducing our fossil fuel reliance and increasing the energy efficiency of our homes, commercial buildings and transport system.
“Retrosuburbia brings together the stories of people who are making their homes energy efficient, growing some of what they eat and harvesting and storing the rain that falls on their roofs so it can be used in the garden. Combined with a focus on local resources and community, Retrosuburbia is about a movement that would transform the suburbs into truly productive places which address the climate crisis and increase our self-reliance.”
Additional material exploring the retrosuburbia idea would follow.
This is a more round-about introduction to the book mentioned in the text that answers the ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘when’ questions. Whereas the inverted pyramid news writing style makes for a quickly-read, succinct introduction focused only on the book, the longer piece contexts the book in David’s personal story and in environmental and climate issues. The two examples are suited to different types of publications.
We might want to talk about people, their character, appearance, background and motivations in doing whatever they do. This brings more colour to a story and moves us away from the straight news story towards a style common in feature writing.
The purpose in doing this is as much to profile those doing something as it is about what they are doing.
Let’s look at an example:
It’s a bleak landscape in the depths of winter. This rolling countryside just outside the ACT is a landscape suited to stoic characters.
That well describes farmer Mandy Croft. She says the landscape is beautiful, just as are her thirty black pigs that grunt and slosh in the cold, muddy puddle in their pen.
“I suppose you have to be hardy to put up with our winters”, she said. “The rain, the cold southerlies, the early mornings when you have to get up rain, hail or frost. I’m no different to other farmers around here, though”.
The hardiness she mentions is quite useful in Mandy’s other work — advocating for a fair future for Australia’s small, family owned farms.
“After having to deal with big agribusinss interests and politicians, I think I prefer the company of my pigs”, she said, perhaps not in jest.
Mandy explained how her organisation, Fair Food Producers United, had only last year completed a national survey about what people in country and city want in our national food system.
“You will find that in our Peoples’ Food Plan”, she said. “It’s a blueprint for a better, fairer-for-all food system for this country”.
In contrast to Mandy’s muddy blue jeans, old grey sweater, wool beanie and black waterproof jacket, her husband, Tony, is starting his workday in the city in grey suit, blue shirt and red tie. Unlike Mandy’s wind-dishevelled grey hair poking out below her beanie, Tony’s hair has seen the passage of a comb this morning.
“He’s dressed up because he’s talking to our local MP, then a TV appearance this afternoon in town… about the food plan”, she says, gesturing in the general direction of Canberra.
Mandy hasn’t been a pig farmer all of her life. Before the couple bought the ten hectare property a decade ago she worked as a financial adviser in that same city she now likes to distance herself from — Canberra. Husband Tony worked there too, in the public service.
“We were looking for something different. I was tired of totting up columns of numbers on a spreadsheet and Tony was tired of the boredom and year-to-year sameness of life as a public servant.
“Then, one day, a farmer came into my office to talk about selling his farm and investing the proceeds in his superannuation. I mentioned it to Tony that same night and we began seriously considering buying the property, a herd of resident pigs included.
“Tony knew a bit about pig farming, having spent a few years living on his friends parents’ pig farm.
“A week later I called that farmer and put in an offer. And here we are”.
… and so the story goes on. You can see we have used the landscape to segue into Mandy’s character and work. We used contrast to her husband’s formal dress to introduce the idea of their work in food advocacy. The story becomes one primarily about them and their advocacy work that is the main point of the story. It embeds a serious theme of national food policy by characterising the farmer advocates in their everyday rural life.
This approach to storytelling takes more time to write and makes a longer read. A photo of Mandy with her pigs would make a suitable environmental portrait to accompany the story.
The story covers the five W’s and an H as it would if written in a more conventional news writing structure, however you can see that the longer story provides a more personalised, more detailed and contextualised story.
One of the advantages of this approach is catering to the preference for reading about people and how they live as a means of gaining readers. It is taken as a truism that people are interested in reading about other people or learning about them in video. The people-focused story can be a means of introducing readers to a serious topic in a more intriguing way than simply and factually introducing the topic.
Other structures: the anecdote
Our example story begins by characterising the protagonists, the main characters. It could just as well start with an anecdote sourced from the protagonists:
“This farm, well, we bought it as a weekend escape from our work in the city. We put a few cattle on it in addition to the pigs that came with the farm, hoping to make a few dollars as a sideline to our full time jobs. But as time went on we realised that we would rather be farming full time than working day after day at those deskbound jobs in town. So we quit, sold our town apartment and moved out here.
“It was good to be living on the land but when it came time to sell those cattle, and when we assessed the potential income from the stone-fruit orchard we planned to establish, we quickly learned about the difficulty of making farming life pay. It was this that led us into our current work in food advocacy… so farmers can get a good price for what they produce”.
Mandy Croft is a woman hardened by the rugged environment her farm is situated in not far from Canberra. This I discovered after a twenty minute drive along the rutted, gravel road that leads to her and husband Tony’s farm. Like that road, their attempt to create a life on the farm has had its challenges.
The anecdote, told in Mandy’s own words identified by quote marks, encapsulates and leads into what the rest of our story will be about — food advocacy and fair financial returns to farmers. Just like the first paragraph of our news-writing story, it is the hook taking us deeper into the issue. The direct speech that introduces the story is not attributed until the third paragraph. By likening their farming life to the road to their property, analogy is used to lead the reader into their work.
Unlike reports in the inverted pyramid news-writing style, creative nonfiction allows the author to enter the story through imagery, as in the paragraph about traveling the road to the farm.
Other structures: the question
We might use our main question of what we are writing about to lead into our story:
Why is it that so many farmers find it hard to make a living on the land? ACT farmers, Mandy and Tony Croft, have the answer to that.
The couple have been on their farm at the base of the Brindabella Range for seven years. Before that they worked in consultancy and administrative roles in Canberra. Tiring of that, they moved full-time onto the hobby farm they had bought a decade ago. Here, they run several dozen head of cattle and pigs and manage a large orchard of stone fruit, over 150 trees according to Tony. In the warmer months the couple maintain a market garden producing herbs and vegetables which they sell at the Canberra farmers’ market.
The couple have the weathered, tough look of people who farm country that is baked by the summer sun and chilled by winter’s frost. It is a toughness that serves them well in the often-trying circumstances of their work in food advocacy, of getting a fair financial return for small-scale farmers.
The opening question summarises the theme of our story. It is followed by biographical information about the protagonists and introduces their farming life. This adds context and colour to the story and introduces the protagonists. It leads into their work in food advocacy. Following paragraphs would explore some of the challenges facing farmers and how the couple’s work in advocacy is addressing them.
This approach to storytelling makes a longer read. There is a persistent belief that people today read only short pieces.
The inverted pyramid, traditional news writing form, we have seen, is well-suited to short, factual reports that get their main points over concisely.
The longform feature-writing format of creative nonfiction is just as valid although it requires readers to make time for reading. The feature writing form can also be used in shorter format.
The format we choose depends on our blog and its readers. It depends on how much information we have, limitations on length and how people read our blog — is it a news blog of mainly short, sharp pieces or is it more of a story format where longer reads are appropriate?
The Citizen Journalism Manual…
- Citizen journalism: A few definitions