Introduction to online news writing

Online news can be presented in a wide range of formats, from photos and video, to data graphics, but simple words and pictures remain the most popular format for online news.

Traditionally news stories are generally divided into two broad categories: news and features. Common examples of news stories are stories about are fires, shootings, political events.

These stories aim to communicate new and important information as quickly and clearly as possible.  They generally have a factual tone and top-down structure with the most important information coming first. This is called the inverted pyramid style.

Feature stories, such as biographies, in-depths, or interviews, aim to engage the reader with a more detailed and nuanced storytelling. They can appeal to reader’s interests or emotions, and can be constructed in an infinite variety of ways.

In recent years popular websites like Buzzfeed and Gawker been successful with all sorts of new formats, like lists and scrolling photo galleries. Many of these are designed to work on mobile phones which so many people now use to get their news.

While these stories are often extremely poplar online, they sometimes are filled with more fluff and gossip than journalism. Nevertheless, journalists can copy the popular formats to make their own lists and potentially viral hits.

In this class we are going to focus on basic news stories first because they are the foundation of good journalism.

Elements of a news story

The structure of a basic news story is not like an English class essay. There is no intro, body and conclusion.

The first element of a news story is the headline. Writing a good headline is a skill that can take years to master, but the basic idea is to give enough information to make someone want to click and read more.

The first sentence of a news story is called the lead. It should contain the most important basic information, and it should be designed to draw the reader into reading the rest of the story. It will often repeat the information in the headline.

The rest of the story should lay out the details, with descriptions, quotes, and facts the reporter has gathered and check.  The information should be arranged with the most important elements at the top, followed by less important details further below.

Can you see how this was done in this story?

3 bodies recovered from Joffre Peak north of Pemberton

Make sure you answer the six W’s – who, what, when, where, why and how.

Sometimes stories such as this one use a chronological style, after the lead, laying out the events as they happened. The idea here is to build a narrative style so readers can follow along with the events as they happened.

Mountain bike traps trigger arrest of North Vancouver woman

Some stories have what is often called a “nut-graph,” often the second or third paragraph, which  puts the whole story in context and tells the reader in a larger sense why the story is important.

Reveal your sources

When you are journalist you are the eyes and the eyes for your readers, but it is very important to tell the reader where all the information you have is coming from, in order to establish your credibility.

Interviews and quotes are the foundation of good journalism because they add to critically important elements to a story.

When you quote other people, especially authorities, officials victims, witnesses proves to your readers that you have valuable information about the events you are describing.

Quotes also they bring the story alive with emotion and human interest.

When using quotes, the people should be introduced with their full name and title before they are quoted.

The second time you quote someone you can just use their surname or a pronoun like he or she.

“All ways put quotation marks around quotes and always make sure your quotes are accurate,” said BCIT instructor Mike Laanela.

But if you don’t have the exact word they says, you can always paraphrase them without quotation marks instead, said Laanela.

In online stories, quotes should stand alone in their own paragraph.

Getting started

In this class you are going to posting stories as posts on your WordPress blogs, so start by clicking on the new post button.

You can fill in a few words for the headline if you want, but often the best headline will come to you after you have finished writing the story.

So skip the headline and try to figure out the lead first. Ask yourself  what the most interesting elements of the story are and try to write a sentence that put them right at the top of your story.

Once you have the lead figured out, start a new paragraph detailing the most important elements of the story. Most paragraphs should be one sentence long, or two short ones.

Don’t forget to ask yourself if there are important background details that the reader will need to make sense of the recent events.

Make your descriptions short and interesting. Be concise – people on the web like to scan and move on. Paragraphs should be only one or two sentences long!

Ideally, anyone reading your story should have a clear idea where your information is coming from. That means you need to attribute all quotes and opinions to specific people with full names and titles.

Information that you did not gather through your own observations should also be clearly attributed to the source.

Use strong language

In order to make your sentences come alive use active verbs and avoid passive verbs were possible.

Active sentences have subject a verb and object normally. Passive verbs have no subject.

  • Passive: A man was shot in a confrontation with police on Sunday.
  • Active: Police shot a man in a standoff on Sunday.

Use strong verbs that illustrate the action or events.

  • Weak: A house burnt down on Saturday night.
  • Strong: Flames engulfed a house on Saturday night.

Remember to check your spelling before publishing!  Mistakes make readers think you are sloppy and they won’t trust the rest of your work.

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About Mike Laanela

Mike Laanela is journalist, photographer and instructor based in Vancouver, B.C.
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