Wednesday, September 22, 2021
Sept. 22, 2021

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From the Newsroom: Here’s how I write a news story

By , Columbian Editor
Published:

Way back in the 20th century, I broke into newspapers as a reporter.

My first real job was in a “bureau,” a remote office where I covered crime, courts, fires, politics, local government, environment, schools and business. It was a fun job!

But it was also a busy job, so I learned to write news stories quickly.

Now I am an editor, and I don’t often write stories. When I do, they are usually just small items to help out when the reporters are busy, and I like to joke they always contain the words “police said.”

But this month, I actually left the office to cover a story. It was a very simple story — I went on a curator-led walking tour of Vancouver Barracks. But it got me to thinking about how reporters approach writing stories. I thought I would share my approach with you.

I start by writing the lead paragraphs to the story in my head, usually before I even go to the assignment. I can, and do, change my mind later, but having a tentative lead helps me decide what to listen for and ask about while I am reporting.

For this story, I thought about how interesting it would be to learn about the subject, which was Vancouver Barracks in the 1880s. I’ve visited the reconstructed Hudson’s Bay Co. fur trading post, which tells a story of the early 1800s. I’ve learned about the important roles the barracks played during World War I. So I thought the lead of my story could talk about how this new tour spotlights a lesser-known between time.

I grabbed my reporter’s notebook — it took me a few minutes to find it — and headed to the designated meeting point.

National Park Service curator Meagan Huff greeted me, photojournalist Josh Hart and about 20 people who had signed up for the tour. She started by giving some context about the United States in the 1880s. I scribbled notes as fast as I could, feeling like an actual reporter.

So now I had the introduction, or lead, of my story, and the context. From there it was a matter of following the group for about an hour as we walked to nine or 10 vantage points. I took notes as Huff made some key points at each stop.

I scribbled as fast as I could — my handwriting is not as fast as it used to be — trying to get both the overall theme and some of the finer details. Stories are better when they contain examples and details. Like frosting a cake, you don’t want to over-decorate.

Huff was so interesting and did such a great job that afterward I only had one question: How can other folks take this tour? She told me that, unfortunately, the final walking tours were full, but that people can do a self-guided tour through Aug. 28. There are interpretive signs at each stop, but the best way to enjoy the tour is to bring your smart phone and visit go.nps.gov/vancouver1880s.

Back at the office, I sat down at the computer and thought about the story for a couple of minutes before I started writing. Did the lead I had written in my head still work? Was it factual? Would it frame the story? Was there something more interesting to use?

In this case, I thought my original idea would work, so I wrote it down. Next I added why Josh and I were covering this story on a beautiful Saturday morning: There’s a new limited-time tour that will tell you some interesting history about Vancouver that you probably don’t know.

Next came the context paragraph, that the 1880s were a time of transition in America. Then it was time to write what we call the “nut graf,” or the paragraph that lays out the story’s central idea. “Huff put the transition in context for the soldiers, Indigenous people, servants and immigrants who called Vancouver Barracks home,” I wrote.

That statement made it easy to write a paragraph or two about each of those groups’ diverse experiences. I looked at my notes and used the details to decorate the cake.

Then it was time for an ending. As a reader, I like to be rewarded with a punchline. Sometimes a quote works, but I didn’t have a great one in my notebook. So I ended up using the best quote I had left and added one more sentence: “‘We do not live in a boring country,’ Huff said. Saturday’s tour of the East Barracks confirmed it.” OK, I liked that.

I wrote the story in about 40 minutes, then edited and revised for another 20 minutes. In an hour I was done.

Now before I end this column, I want to say that I don’t think my story was particularly noteworthy. It doesn’t deserve an award. It didn’t lay bare the human condition in the 21st century. But I thought it was interesting and that readers might enjoy it. Finally, it didn’t contain the words “police said.”

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