The Universal Journalist

"This book aims to describe these new techniques which, when added to the more traditional ones, make a universally skilled journalist."

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"The book is called "The Universal Journalist" in answer to those who think that each type of publication produces its own distinct form of journalism, inevitably regarded by its practitioners as superior to other kinds. It doesn't. If you write and read enough stories, in the end you realise that there really are only two types of journalism: good and bad."

1. What Makes A Good Reporter?

2. Limitations of Journalism
3. What Is News?
4. Where Do Good Stories Come From?
5. Research

6. Handling Sources, Not Them Handling You
7. Questioning
8. Reporting Numbers and Statistics
9. Online Research
10. Investigative Reporting
11. How To Cover Major Incidents
12. Mistakes, Corrections and Hoaxes
13. Ethics
14. Writing for Newspapers
15. Intros
16. Construction and Description
17. Handling Quotes
18. Different Ways To Tell A Story
19. Comment, Intentional and Otherwise
20. Journalism on The Net


1. What Makes A Good Reporter?
o Some journalistic legends
o Role of a reporter
o The right attitudes
o The character you need
o The story of a great reporter

"The heroes of journalism are reporters. What
they do is find things out. They go in first,
amid the chaos of now, battering at closed
doors, sometimes taking risks, and capture
the beginnings of the truth. And if they do
not do that, who will? Editors? Commentators?
There is only one alternative to reporters: accepting
the authorised version, the one the businesses,
bureaucrats and politicians choose to give us.
After all, without reporters, what would
commentators know?"


2. Limitations of Journalism
o Owners' priorities
o The journalistic culture
o Readers' values
o Limits of journalism

"All newspapers should appear with a disclaimer:
'This paper, and the hundreds of thousands of
words it contains, has been produced in about 15
hours by a group of fallible human beings, working
out of cramped offices while trying to find out about
what happened in the world from people who are
sometimes reluctant to tell us and, at other times,
positively obstructive.
Its content has been determined by a series of
subjective judgements made by reporters and
executives, tempered by what they know to be the
editor's, owner's and readers' prejudices. Some
stories appear here without essential context as this
would make them less dramatic or coherent, and
some of the language employed has been deliberately
chosen for its emotional impact, rather than
accuracy. Some features are printed solely to
attract certain advertisers."


3. What Is News?
o What is news?
o News values
o Story subject
o Fashion in news
o Factors that make up a story's news value
o A sliding scale to help judge newsworthiness

"This chapter is an attempt to identify what
is - or should be - whirring around inside
journalists' heads when they judge a news story.
For want of a better phrase, we can call them news
value factors. There are seven of them. Five are
concerned with the story (subject, development,
source, knowledge and timing); one with audience
(the readers); and another with the world that
the audience and paper inhabit (context)."


4. Where Do Good Stories Come From?
o The habits of succcessful reporters
o Non-obvious sources of good stories
o Stories that good reporters avoid

"If successful reporters have a trick, apart from
hard work, it is knowing the stories that are unlikely
to be good ones and staying well away from them.
They know that good stories don't, except in very
rare circumstances, come from commercial press
releases, routine press conferences, most of the mail
that arrives at your news desk, or from people who
call you up and say 'Have I got a story for you!'. Neither
do they come from surveys with small samples, surveys
that dress the blindingly obvious in the language of
science, surveys purporting to identify new social groups,
stories that are purely about what people are saying,
or from events concocted purely for the benefit of
journalists, like photo-calls, press launches or stunts.
And, above all, they know they don't generally
come from row stories."


5. Research
o What you should be looking for
o Detail, anecdote, background and perspective
o Where to get it
o Handling human sources
o Using printed sources

"You don't have to edit and judge news stories
for very long before one thing becomes apparent:
the most common reason why stories fail is not bad
writing, duff quotes, or poor construction, it is
nadequate research. In reporting, no amount
of fancy phrases will disguise that. You either have
the raw material, or you don't."


6. Handling Sources, Not Them Handling You
o General guidelines
o Official sources
o News management
o Handling unauthorised sources
o Unattributable sources
o Getting too close to sources

"These days you are far more likely to be one
of many, and dealing not with the person with
the expertise, but their mouthpiece. All the more
reason, then, to know how to deal professionally
with sources, and how to make the best of, and
occasionally subvert, the channels down which
officialdom would prefer you to go. For although
most dealings with sources are routine,
straightforward transactions where both sides gain,
there are times when you are in a highly competitive
game of wits with sources to make sure that the
strongest and most complete version of the story hits
the streets, and not the self-serving one
they would prefer."


7. Questioning
o How to get people talking
o Secrets of professional interviewers
o Questioning uneasy sources
o Questioning evasive and hostile sources
o Press conferences
o Personality interviews

"Asking someone questions for a newspaper story
is a special skill. It may at times resemble a
conversation, but it is not one; it may at times
be entertaining to overhear or participate in, but
that is not its point. Questioning people for
newspapers has one purpose: to collect information."


8. Reporting Numbers and Statistics
o How to question data
o Sources of data and their motives
o A journalists' guide to statistics
o Averages
o Percentages
o Per head
o Surveys
o How not to fooled by samples
o Opinion polls
o Correlation
o Projections
o Real v apparent rise

"Far from innumeracy being some badge of
literary worth, it is, for the modern journalist,
a fatal weakness. If you don't know enough to
question data then you really are impotent as a
journalist. Sources play tricks with numbers
all the time. Without the rudimentary
knowledge to sniff out the bullshit figures, you
will have to swallow what sources tell you, and
faithfully reproduce it. The result? Your
readers are mislead and misinformed, and you
look - and, indeed, are - foolish."


9. Online Research
o What the Net can do
o Research resources
o Jounalism resources
o News sites
o How to search
o Advanced searches
o Evaluating web pages
o Tips for surfers
o Newsgroups
o Message Boards
o Lists

"Not to use the Internet for research is becoming
akin to a reporter refusing the use the telephone.
To just take one humdrum example, suppose two
journalists are asked to prepare a feature on toxic
shock syndrome, the condition some women have
developed after using conventional tampons.
This is how they might proceed:

Offline reporter: Uses telephone to find doctors
about their experiences. Finds experts, asks them
or interview, and asks for references in the
non-specialist press. Seeks leads to campaigners
on the subject, interviews them and hopefully gets
led to sufferers. Interviews tampon makers.

Online reporter: All of the above, plus: searches
subject on web and finds sites for campaign groups,
sites giving 'idiot's guide' to subject, sites listing major
recent articles in journals, testimony of sufferers,
and sites for manufacturers disputing blame for
syndrome. From these sites, obtains email addresses
for potential phone or email interview; searches
subject on news story archive and finds all recent
news and features published in major publications;
goes to newsgroup and message boards run by
self-help groups, finds good testimony posted
on sites, plus further experts names; contacts
these by email asking permission to quote and
posing supplementary questions. Also discovers good
news angle, giving a news story to front up feature,
plus web site of the world's only museum of
menstruation, giving light feature for the future.
Which reporter gets the next plum job?"


10. Investigative Reporting

o What is investigative reporting?
o Productive areas to investigate
o Investigative reporting skills
o How to run investigations
o Going undercover

"Investigative reporting is not a summary
or piecing together of others' findings and data,
but original research carried out by journalists
using often the rawest of material. It can be extensive
interviewing, or matching and comparing facts
and figures and discovering previously unknown
patterns and connections."


11. How To Cover Major Incidents

o Difficulties of covering disasters
o The elements of ideal disaster coverage
o Death tolls
o The death call
o How tough are reporters?

"These days, the threat of litigation, liability, and
insurance claims may make officials even more
cautious, unhelpful and, occasionally, deceitful.
Never underestimate the willingness of organisations
involved, or representing those involved, in disasters
to brief journalists to further some internal, hidden, agenda."


12. Mistakes, Corrections and Hoaxes

o The six types of errors
o Where errors come from
o How to respond to mistakes
o Great newspaper hoaxes

"Inaccurate reporting produced (and is producing)
millions of wrong details, false accounts, and not a
few spectacularly duff stories. On the 15th of April 1912,
for instance, the Baltimore Evening Sun ran a story
headlined "All Titanic Passengers Safe". On 3 November
1948, the Chicago Daily Tribune proclaimed "Dewey
defeats Truman", and on May 1983, The Times declared
all over its front page "Hitler's Secret Diaries to be
published". As contemporaries knew very soon after each
of these stories appeared, 1,500 died on the Titanic, Harry
Truman beat Dewey, and the diaries were not written by
Hitler but a little German crook called Konny Fischer."


13. Ethics

o Practical ethics
o Guidelines
o Bias
o Inducements
o Dealing with advertisers
o Favours and promises
o Improving information
o Privacy and where to draw the line

"Journalists have a sanction, too. We do not have to
be mere creatures of the papers we work for; we
have choice. Just as readers can stop buying, so
journalists can change jobs. We can decide that there
are some things we will not do and leave the paper
­ either discreetly after having found another post, or
publicly, in a blaze of righteous indignation. If more
of us did that, and made clear our reasons for doing
so, journalism would be better for it.
This element of moral choice, the dictinction between
how papers acting under commercial pressures expect
us to behave and how we can chose to behave,
explains why ethics have a daily purpose ­ or rather,
two purposes. First is to provide some kind of moral
compass, telling us how far we are diverging from
a desired route. Second, ethics provides a practical
guide to the production of safe and credible journalism."


14. Writing for Newspapers

o Planning
o Clarity
o Jargon
o Fresh language
o Cliches
o Automatic phrases
o Puns
o Honesty
o Hype
o Black and white language
o Precision
o Avoiding euphemism
o Sex
o Suitability
o Humour
o How to write efficiently
o Revision
o Joys of writing

"The most important part of writing is what
happens inside your head between finishing your
research and putting the first word down. You have
got to think about your material and decide what
it is about and what you want to do with it.
Composition is not merely the business of arranging
words, it is the business of organising thought. It does
not matter how wonderful you are at conjuring up
colourful phrases or witty remarks, if you have not
got a clear idea of what you want to say it will show."


15. Intros
o How to write snappy intros
o Hard news intros
o Other kinds of intros - narrative, anecdote, delayed drop, summary, bullet, singular, jolt, scene-setter, joke, false intro
o Do you always write the intro first?

"The intro is the most important paragraph in
the story. It can make people want to read to the
end, or turn them off and send them hurrying to
another article. And they will not be slow to do
this. Newspapers are often consumed fast, by people
with little time to read them, in places and conditions
not designed for relaxation and contemplation ­ trains,
cars at traffic lights, offices, the street etc. There is a good
chance that if the first paragraph does not grab their
attention, they will never get to the second one."


16. Construction and Description

o Organising writing
o Building blocks
o Avoiding blind alleys
o Common construction faults
o How to achieve clean construction
o Payoffs
o Attribution
o Relevant description
o Using detail

"The construction difficulties mostly centre on
this: how do you present often diverse aspects
clearly and logically in a way that presents a
coherent picture at the end? What goes where
and how does it hang together? These problems
at their worst are like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle
where the pieces can be an almost infinite number
of sizes and shapes and the picture on the box is
missing. Fortunately you are in command, a word
which is at the heart of this process. Good construction
is about taking command of the material. That
means you have to survey the information you
have, decide on its essence, envisage the overall
picture and effect you want to achieve, decide
which pieces you need and which you don't, what
size and shape they should be and how
they should fit together."


17. Handling Quotes

o When to use quotes
o Accuracy and quotes
o Can you 'improve' the things they say?
o Incoherent and ungrammatical quotes
o Dialect
o Attributing quotes
o How to shorten quotes honestly
o Inventing quotes
o Cheating with quotes

"And now, let me reveal a little-known secret
of the journalistic trade: you cannot be arrested
for writing a story without quotes. I know this runs
contrary to what many young journalists are told,
but it is true. Most stories benefit from quotes, but
it is not actually illegal to to write without them.
I pass on this on because quotes have become
something of a fetish with many editors. They
have come to believe that every story must have
quotes dropped into it at regular intervals, like
buoys marking the entrance to a port. In
mass-market sport reporting, this belief
has been taken to extremes, and story after
story is little more a series of quotations laid
end to end with odd linking interjections
from the reporter. Spurred, perhaps, by the
belief that television has robbed them of
the need to relate what happened, they
confine themselves instead to reporting
reactions to what happened. For their
work, the post-event interview has become
more important than the event itself."


18. Different Ways To Tell A Story

o News v features
o How to write everything from a fly-on-the-wall piece to a backgrounder

"The truth is that trying to make distinctions
between news and features does not get us
very far. In fact, it is positively dangerous;
producing narrow thinking which can
restrict coverage of news to conventional subjects,
and put writing of it into the unimaginative
strait-jacket of a formula. With features, it
encourages the insidious idea that normal
standards of precision and thorough research
don't apply and that they can be a kind of
low-fact product, instantly recognisable from their
lack of capital letters. The opposite, of course, is
the case. Most news pages could benefit from a
greater sense of adventure and a more
flexible approach to stories. Similarly, most
features sections cry out for sharper research
and less indulgent writing. There is no great divide
between news and features. Best to think of
it all as reporting."


19. Comment, Intentional and Otherwise

o Comment in news
o Inadvertent comment
o Where to use and not use the big I
o Political correctness
o Analysis
o Opinion pieces
o Reviews

"Journalism is by nature a subjective process.
It can no more help producing and projecting
views of the world than a cow can help making
milk. Be it intentional or unintentional, overt
or covert, comment comes with the territory.
To deny this is to deny that ink
makes a mark on paper.
As far as intentional comment is concerned
(columnists, leading articles) no one would want to
deny it. After all, a newspaper without such
opinion would be like someone who had
a personality by-pass operation. The problem
comes with comment that goes in disguise,
dressed up as straight reporting, speaking in
its voice and aping its mannerisms. The problem,
too, is with comment that creeps in under
cover of a paragraph in a news story and has
infiltrated before either reader, and
sometimes writer, realises. Comment, then,
is only a problem when it does not advertise
itself. We can never eliminate this, but we can
hope to minimise it by searching for it, studying
it, thinking about it and trying to recognise
it for what it is."


20. Journalism on The Net

o Planning web sites
o What the Net can and cannot do
o Front pages
o Site structure
o Navigation
o How to treat stories online
o Archives
o Links
o Visuals
o Interactive options
o Databases
o Noticeboards
o Storyboarding
o Logs

"Any journalist who approaches online work thinking
their present skills are directly transferrable and
that they can happily leave the rest to "these
technical johnnies" is doomed, as redundant
in the future as silent movie actors with squeaky
voices suddenly were in 1929.
no one is going to let technically ignorant
journalists direct a large-scale web site
production. Anyone doing that has to know
about how computers and browsers function,
about video and audio plug-ins, about colour
and databases. Not everything about them,
but enough to know what they are, what they
do and how relevant they may be to
achieving a particular effect. And that means
constantly learning new skills and keeping
up to date with developments. The alternative
is a backroom role, much like writers in
Hollywood ­ beavering away in some
darkened recess, berated, regarded
as interchangable and expendable, and
in anything but control of
the finished product."

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