News writing for professional news outlets is unlike conventional article writing in which you can latch on to a topic and write to your hearts desire.
When writing news, you are generally, but not always, restricted because you are writing about something that is largely beyond your control. You may write about a crime, a sporting event, what someone says or other events in which you are but an observer.
You could argue that interviewing someone allows you the control the news depending on the craftiness of your questioning. This is true. However, your interviewee could be equally crafty and deftly skip around your hoped-for answers.
Whatever the case, news writing depends on external factors and journalists more often than not have to find the news. Regular article writing, such as “how to" pieces, allows you to insert your own thoughts, give opinions and make you, the writer, a central theme.
This is not possible with writing news, although, it is entirely feasible to adapt news writing style for all kinds of articles to make them punchier.
For news outlets, finding news is the number one priority from the start of the day to deadline time. This function normally lies with reporters, who are given a helping hand from news editors.
In normal news outlet scenarios, news is generated four ways – events, press releases, interviews and initiative.
Events – this covers a massive spectrum but suffice to say that anything that has happened, whether pre-organized or haphazard, could be described as an event. A crime, traffic accident, court case, sports, speech, press conferences … all these are events that can be reported and published depending on its newsworthiness.
Press releases – news editors receive a constant stream of press releases every day, of which only a fraction are read all the way through. Press releases, or news releases, contain information of an event or a newsworthy issue, written in standard news style, with the intention of being published. Any company or individual is free to send in a press release to a news organization hoping for publicity. Naturally, a person such as Bill Gates has more chance of being published than Joe Bloggs.
Interviews – these are common journalistic practices that often turn into news. Interviews can be conducted face to face, over the telephone or by email, but what matters is who is being interviewed and what does this person say. If you have Bill Gates on the phone, you have the potential for a great news story. But if all he says is that he expects the weather to be sunny, it is hardly worth writing about. However, if he talks about the next generation of Windows applications, then you have an earth-shattering story.
Initiative – this is probably the most important aspect of news writing , and it depends on the creativity of the journalist. There may be no events, press releases or interviews lined up for the day but as a reporter, it is your duty to make the news. This is where you can have a hand in controlling the news but when the article is published, you appear to be only a distant observer. There are many ways to do this and it involves getting on the phone, going out of the office and pursuing news angles that others may have thought are long dead. This is what separates brilliant journalists form average ones.
News writing and the art of getting news is a challenge for any rookie when they learn how to write like a journalist. But the reward of seeing your byline in the newspaper, magazine or online makes it worth the effort.
Nazvi Careem is an experienced journalist, writer and writing coach who has written for newspapers, magazines and global news agencies such as Reuters, Associated Press and Agence France-Presse. To download a free chapter from his book on the secrets to writing news, check out his website dedicated to news writing