There’s a notion amongst journos who are good at what they do that every prospective reporter should be born with some sort of heaven-sent ability to write a story in perfect inverted pyramid form. Baloney. As anyone who’s spent time as a section editor for a college paper knows, first-year students getting stuck in to writing for the first time need to be shown the ropes.
Not every university that has a college paper has a journalism course or school of media. Mine didn’t, but I was lucky enough to be educated by a smart and savvy team in a student paper which has been around for over 50 years. For those less fortunate, there’s plenty of material out there to teach those who need to teach themselves. Whether you’re an incoming news editor who needs to train reporters for the first time, or someone who has inherited the Editor’s position and wants to brush up on some skills, these are some resources which have helped me out over the years.
The News Manual
This is a real nuts-and-bolts guide to writing news, and should be metaphorically thrust into the eager hands of beginners. Structure, the importance of intros, what questions to answer: all the core stuff is there. Teaching reporters the basics early on will not only save the sub-editors a lot of hours, it will make your staff better writers.
The manual was originally drafted by UNESCO in the early 90’s as a resource for news outlets in developing nations that might not have formal education set up for the media. As such, it’s a great match for student newsrooms where some or all of the staff might not be taking courses in reporting.
Click here to read The News Manual
The Student Newspaper Survival Guide
What a book. Rachel Kanigel writes an inspirational book that covers the basics of each style of writing, from news to features to sports, with sections on photography and editing. The book is aimed squarely at the college newspaper market, and as a result contains advice on dealing with college authorities, seizure of copies, and other university-specific problems.
It’s written with an American audience in mind, but that’s no bad thing. The US student press is bigger and more successful than that of most other countries, and many of the tips for structure and organisation can really help redefine the newsrooms of any paper, making them more efficient and professional. For any paper looking to get off the ground or reinvent itself, this truly is a must-have.
You can buy this book on Amazon or have a look inside on Google books. There’s also an author’s site, but it hasn’t been updated in a long time.
The Associated Press Stylebook
Every newspaper should have a style guide. Odds are that if you invest time into writing your own, some staff will never use it. So, align your house style to one of the big names- the AP or the Chicago Manual, which carry weight and authority. I find that the AP Stylebook tends to cross borders very, very well. It contains comprehensive advice on punctuation and listings for industry-specific terms.
It’s also very widely available, coming in paperback, electronic, or even iPhone app formats. Although asking every writer to buy a copy would be pointless, it’s a great resource to have on the office bookshelf or editor’s desk. I’ve found myself missing the office copy since I’ve started writing freelance. A formal style guide is the easiest way to introduce consistency in style, which adds a whole new layer of polish (and, again, will save the subs many headaches).
The AP stylebook has its own website with multiple purchase options available here; unfortunately delivery of a physical copy of the newly-released 2010 version is prohibitively expensive. The 2009 edition is readily available on Amazon, while those who opt for an iPhone version from the App Store will receive a free update to the 2010 version once it’s ported.
There’s also a very nice and easy-to-use Guardian Style Guide available, though it’s not nearly as comprehensive as the AP.
Freedom of Information knowledge
The FOI act (which you can read here) is your friend. Universities receive funding from the state, via the HEA, so they’re covered by the act. That means you can request information that your college (or any other state body) won’t give you willingly. There are exceptions, notably â€œcommercially sensitive informationâ€ (which gets trotted out a lot, and is sometimes worth appealing) and personal information about someone else.
There’s a €15 charge for each request, and they can also charge for hours of work if they need to hunt down files or copy them. Luckily, you can also FOI personal information about yourself without any charge. Don’t underestimate the usefulness of this in a small environment like a college: you’d be amazed at how often people you know are involved in stories.
Sadly, there’s no idiot’s guide to FOI that I can find tailored to jousnlists, thought the government does maintain a guide of sorts here. The short version is to ask for the records without the act first (just in case they hand them over), then to write a letter stating that you are making a request under the act, enclosing the â‚¬15 fee. A word of warning: you’ve got to be specific about the records you request.
There’s also the (free) Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) option which you can find out more about here and here.
With these four resources under your belt, you’re off to a good start. Of course, there’s no substitute for actually doing what you’re reading about, so get stuck in!
Have I missed any quality resources for those starting out? If so, let me know in the comments and I’ll add them if they’re good.