Writing on deadline: Reaction to Chapter 1 of ‘America’s Best Newspaper Writing’

Chapter 1: Deadline Writing

The first chapter of “America’s Best Newspaper Writing” offers a nice introduction to deadline writing. Deadline writing is when an event occurs and the there is an immediate need for the public to become aware and informed about it. There may be a level of danger or violence involved in the event or that may be the result of the event. The event may be unexpected. These stories must be reported, written and sent to print extremely quickly — hence a deadline that must be followed.

For the majority of the chapter, Editors Roy Peter Clark and Christopher Scanlan discuss the importance of infusing creativity and narrative elements into journalistic writing. This helps make the article more readable, interesting and have smoother transitions.

The great writers who were included in Chapter 1 used elements of narrative writing in their articles. They used dialogue, setting, characters and characterization, scene, specific diction, descriptions of the weather, alliteration, access to places and people, plot, climax, pacing, rhythm, variation of sentence structure and words, tight and focused construction, allusions, theme, focus and the list goes on. The hallmarks of good narrative writing includes all or a number of these elements, according to the editors. “Characters are used instead of sources, scenes instead of summaries, dialogue instead of disembodied quotes,” Clark and Scanlan said.

Reporters have to consciously write about people, like Richard Ben Cramer did in the story about the shiva for a child slain in a Palestinian raid.

The great writers in this chapter know there is nothing that makes up for actually being present at an event, at the scene, doing real reporting and talking to people in-person. Nothing makes up for the emotion a reporter will experience and get as reactions from sources and interviews. The details and descriptions a reporter will pick up on and record are necessary elements to an effective, complete and successful story. Francis X. Clines, one writer listed in the chapter, believed that being at an event is the only way a reporter can “soak up the sensory details that bring a story to life and listen for the quotes that make it breathe,” Clark and Scanlan said.

Selection is also extremely important in any journalistic writing, but especially deadline writing. A reporter cannot use all of the amazing quotes, stories, details or facts he writes in his reporter’s notebook. Reporters must choose what to use and what to cut, oftentimes before they even start writing. It is smart to start the selection process during the event or speech or in the car or metro ride to the office after the event. Collecting thoughts and choosing what quote is more important, descriptive and storytelling during the event or on the ride home saves time and helps the writer begin to formulate the story and article.

There is not enough space in a newspaper or article to fit in all of the emotions, facts, and quotes collected during the reporting and interviewing process. If an editor says an article has to be 400, 600 or 1,200 words, that’s the final verdict. Reporters cannot go over word count or the space (inches) allotted to the article. This is why selection is so crucial.

Graphic by Marlena Chertock.

The reporters in this chapter were thinking about theme and focus immediately, once they received their assignment or came up with the idea as an enterprise story. They were thinking about how to frame the article, who to talk to, what and who to focus on. They are thinking about more than telling a story and finding quotes and details. Reporters like David von Drehle are searching for meaning, as Clark and Scanlan said.

They were able to be so concise and clear in their stories by thinking of the lead while reporting, thinking of storytelling, descriptive quotes when interviewing and making a note of them and by writing during the event. Lenora LaPeter began writing her lede at the courtroom. She went to the back of the room and began writing her article while the court was in session. This is how she was able to use valuable time and find focus early on. It helped her in the long run by already having something down on paper and knowing what she was going to focus on or where the story was going. It is so important not to procrastinate, not to wait and wonder about a lead and focus, but to report and interview thoroughly and efficiently and write it out quickly. This is not to say that the story shouldn’t be edited — all stories should be copy edited and if possible more eyes should see the story before it goes to print or published online. The more people who see the article, the more errors are likely to be found and the better the story will be because confusing or slow parts will be reworked and improved.

Top 5 list of deadline writing articles:

1. Bahrain Protests Expand on Third Day, The New York Times

By Michael Slackman and Nadim Audi

This article is an example of deadline writing because it describes the ongoing protest in the Middle East. It informs readers that the Internet and cell phone service has been slowed down by the government. The quotes are very descriptive and storytelling, they don’t just fill up space. The first quote is from a Shiite protestor, explaining how Shiites are gathering together to cause change. Another quote is a chant from the crowd, setting a mood of the article and story, that the people want the regime to fall. It is clear that Slackman and Audi were there to witness the speeches and protest. They included details that a reporter can only gather if he was there at the event, taking notes and talking to people as it unfolded.

The final grafs of the article summarize a night scene at the end of a successful day of protests in Bahrain. The people congregating in the public square, smoked tobacco in water pipes, sat on rugs, children played with each other and became a community of protestors. The reporters explain how BBC Arabic was projected onto the side of a monument, making the square seem like a living room. This detail and description can only be gathered from reporting at the scene, from talking to people, from being present, using narrative elements and writing a focused story.

2. Bronx jeweler opens fire on trio of well-dressed thieves after armed stick-up, lookout suspect hit, New York Daily News

By Sarah Armaghan, Bob Kappstatter and Joe Kemp

Directly from the lede, the reporters, Sarah Armaghan, Bob Kappstatter and Joe Kemp, use details and descriptions. They describe the thieves as dapper. The story goes on to give a description of the thieves’ clothing. These details seem to have been collected later, after the crime had taken place, but the effect of the narrative element remains strong and adds to the story.

The reporters also gathered quotes from neighboring shop owners, one who didn’t want to give his name. The shop owner describes through his quote what he heard. Another witness described what he saw and what the owner did — the owner chased the robbers with his licensed gun.

The reporters spoke with several sources. While the quotes weren’t as storytelling and descriptive as they could have been, they did elicit and show emotion.

3. Letter-writing campaign persuades Pepco to make Gaithersburg repairs, The Gazette

By Danielle E. Gaines

This article uses narrative elements such as detail, timeline or chronology and focus. The lede describes how many Maryland residents were left in darkness for days when Pepco, the electricity company in the region, failed to fix old power lines. One community in Maryland escaped the widespread power outages in the Jan. snowstorm perhaps because they sent in letters of complaint in Nov. to the electrical company, Pepco.

The story focuses on people, on characters and not sources, from the start. The focus of the story is community members who sent in letters of complaint, community members who were stuck without power for days and what they had to go without or do differently. The residents experienced power outages even when the weather was nice. The article offered an example of community members working together to cause a change: Pepco came into the neighborhood and fixed an underground cable that wouldn’t have been worked on for months. The people were requesting information and answers from their councilmen and Pepco. In a way, this article is about a community that goes against a company. The community members documented power outages and how long they lasted and it was found that Pepco documented far fewer outages.

There are storytelling quotes throughout the article. Additionally, the structure of chronology helps the article read better and more understandably. The reporter went through several months and events, such as the Nov. meeting where the Pepco region president said residents could send him letters about power outages to Jan. and afterward, when residents didn’t experience power outages during a snowstorm that caused outages for much of the region.

4. Report: State hospital staff sleeping, watching TV after woman strangled, The Gazette

By Alex Ruoff

The lede sets up a scene, almost, where nursing staff at a state mental hospital become the antagonists and are lying, napping, being lazy and failing to perform their duties. The patients and convicted felons become protagonists, in a way. The patients are being neglected and one patient, Susan Sachs, was strangled by another in their absence. This detail and depiction of the nurses is effective and thought-out.

The characterizations of the people involved in this story are really great and powerful. The man who strangled one patient, El Wahhabi, is described through both of his crimes — the murder that got him into the justice system and the strangling.

The article is very concise and clear. Ruoff uses a type of timeline or chronology to make sense of what went wrong when in the state-run mental hospital. He goes through several times within the article, explaining that the nurses failed to complete a mandatory door lock of the patients’ rooms, which allowed Wahhabi to get into Sachs’ room.

Ruoff gives several instances where the nurses showed signs of neglect. He cites videotaping, where nurses were seen to be napping and signing out round boards but failing to conduct rounds.

At the end of the article, Ruoff also goes through what has been changed as a result of this incidence. He explains that an investigation is underway, steps have been taken to keep patients with history of predatory behavior segregated and security officers have been told to check up on nurses periodically.

Ruoff seems to ask questions from all angles and to consider what readers would be wondering. He informs readers that the CEO of the hospital is resigning soon and he makes a point to ask her if the death influenced her decision, which she said it did not. Even though he received an answer like this, he decided to include it in the article. This is a part of careful selection.

5. A Father’s Pain, a Judge’s Duty, and a Justice Beyond Their Reach, Los Angeles Times

By Barry Siegel

This article is extensive and covers much content. Siegel covers the neglect of Paul Wayment, a father who he took his young son hunting with him and left him sleeping in the car. The son died as a result, the man became grief-stricken and killed himself as a result of the long court proceedings. The judge finally ruled to send Wayment to prison, even though he didn’t want to since the father was so distraught.

The article focuses very much on characters and not sources. Judge Robert Hilder becomes a very important character in the article, as he is the one making final decisions about life and death but the readers see him visibly struggling with the decision and the case. The readers learn about Wayment, the one decision that changed the rest of his life and his struggle with it. Wayment is not seen as a felon who committed a terrible crime — he didn’t — he was a father who unfortunately made a decision that ended his child’s life. The reporter’s careful wording and descriptions, ensuring he gave Wayment an accurate portrayal is very deliberate.

Siegel utilizes many narrative elements in his writing. He uses pacing very effectively. The article is very long, but Siegel divides the story into chronological parts and different sections with diverse emotions. One part focuses on a father’s grief with his decision and resulting death of his child. The thread that runs through the entire article is not entirely focused on the father, on Wayment, but actually on the judge, another man who struggled with a decision.

Siegel’s use of storytelling quotes is also truly effective in the article. He quotes Wayment, the judge, the lawyers, Wayment’s family members and several others involved to portray an accurate and descriptive story. Siegel seems to leave nothing out, but at the same time has certainly used careful selection.

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About Marlena Chertock

Marlena Chertock's first collection of poetry, On that one-way trip to Mars, is available from Bottlecap Press. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Marketplace, and WTOP. Her poems and fiction has appeared in The Deaf Poets Society, Moonsick Magazine, and Paper Darts.

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