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What News Is





=34. Essentials of News Writing
To write successful news stories,
four requisites are necessary: the power to estimate news values
properly, the stories to write, the ability to work rapidly, and the
power to present facts accurately and interestingly.

=35. The "Nose for News."=--Recognition of news values is put first in
the tabulation of requirements for successful writing because without a
"nose for news"--without the ability to recognize a story when one sees
it--a reporter cannot hope to succeed. Editorial rooms all over the
United States are full of stories of would-be reporters who have failed
because they have not been able to recognize news. The following is a
genuine first paragraph of a country correspondent's letter to a village
weekly in Tennessee:

There is no news in this settlement to speak of. We
did hear of a man whose head was blown off by a
boiler explosion, but we didn't have time to learn
his name. Anyhow he didn't have any kinfolk in this
country, so it don't much matter.

Then follow the usual dull items about Henry Hawkins Sundaying in
Adamsville and Tom Anderson autoing with a new girl.

=36. Need of Knowing News
The fault with this correspondent was that
he did not know a good story. He lacked an intuitive knowledge of news
values, and he had not been trained to recognize available news
possibilities. A clear understanding of what news is, and an analysis of
its more or less elusive qualities, is necessary, therefore, before one
may attempt a search for it or may dare the writing of a newspaper
story.

=37. Definition of News
In its final analysis, news may be defined as
any accurate fact or idea that will interest a large number of readers;
and of two stories the accurate one that interests the greater number of
people is the better. The student should examine this definition with
care as there is more in it than at first appears. Strangeness,
abnormality, unexpectedness, nearness of the events, all add to the
interest of a story, but none is essential. Even timeliness is not a
prerequisite. If it were learned to-day that a member of the United
States Senate had killed a man in 1912, the occurrence would be news and
would be carried on the front page of every paper in America, even
though the deed were committed years ago. And if it should transpire
that Csolgosz was bribed by an American millionaire to assassinate
President McKinley in 1901, the story would be good for a column in any
paper. Freshness, enormity, departure from the normal, all are good and
add to the value of news, but they are not essential. The only
requirements are that the story shall be accurate and shall contain
facts or ideas interesting to a considerable number of readers.

=38. Accuracy
The reason for emphasizing so particularly the need of
accuracy in news requires little discussion. Accuracy First is the
slogan of the modern newspaper. If a piece of news, no matter how
thrilling, is untrue, it is worthless in the columns of a reputable
journal. It is worse than worthless, because it makes the public lose
confidence in the paper. And the ideal of all first-class newspapers
to-day is never to be compelled to retract a published statement. This
desire for accuracy does not bar a paper from publishing, for example, a
rumor of the assassination of the German Crown Prince, but it does
demand that the report be published only as an unverified rumor.

=39. Interest
The statement, however, that interest is the other
requisite of news requires full explanation, because the demand
immediately comes for an explanation of that elusive quality in news
which makes it interesting. In other words, what constitutes interest?
Any item of news, it may be defined, that will present a new problem, a
new situation, that will provoke thought in the minds of a considerable
number of readers, is interesting, and that story is most interesting
which presents a new problem to the greatest number of people. It is a
psychological truth that all men think only when they must. Yet they
enjoy being made to think,--not too hard, but hard enough to engage
their minds seriously. The first time they meet a problem they think
over it, and think hard if need be. But when they meet that problem a
second or a third time, they solve it automatically. A man learning to
drive a car has presented to him a new problem about which he must think
keenly. The steering wheel, the foot-brake, the accelerator, the brake
and speed levers, the possibility of touching the wrong pedal,--all
demand his undivided attention and keep him thinking every moment of the
time. But having learned, having solved his problem, he can run his car
without conscious thought, and meanwhile can devote his mind to problems
of business or pleasure. As Professor Pitkin says:

Whatsoever we can manage through some other agency we do so
manage. And, if thinking is imperative for a while, we make that
while as brief as possible. The baby thinks in learning to walk,
but as soon as his feet move surely he refrains from cogitation.
He thinks over his speech, too, but quickly he outgrows that,
transforming discourse from an intellectual performance to a
reflex habit. And he never thinks about the order and choice of
words again, unless they give rise to some new, unforeseen
perplexity; as, for instance, they might, were he suddenly
afflicted with stammering or stage fright. This is no scandal,
it is a great convenience. Thanks to it, men are able to concern
themselves with fresh enterprises and hence to progress. Indeed,
civilization is a titanic monument to thoughtlessness, no less
than to thought. The supreme triumph of mind is to dispense with
itself. For what would intellect avail us, if we could not
withdraw it from action in all the habitual encounters of daily
life?[2]

[2] Short Story Writing, pp. 64-65.

=40. What Provokes Thought is News
Men apply the same principle, too,
in their news reading. Whatever presents a new problem, or injects a new
motive or situation into an old one, will be interesting and will be
read by those readers to whom the problem or situation is new. It is
not, therefore, that American men and women are interested in the sins
and misfortunes of others that they read stories of crime and unhallowed
love, but that such stories present new problems, new life situations,
or new phases of old problems and old situations. A story of innocence
and hallowed love would be just as interesting. When the newspapers of
the United States make the President's wedding the big story of the day,
it is not that they think their patrons have never seen a wedding, but
that a wedding under just such circumstances has never been presented
before. And every published story of murder or divorce or struggle for
victory offers new thought-provoking problems to newspaper readers. Men
are continually searching for new situations that will present new
problems. And any story that will provoke a reader's thought will be
enjoyed as news.

=41. Timeliness
But there are certain definite features that add
greatly to the interest of stories. Timeliness is the first of these.
Indeed, timeliness is so important in a story that one prominent
writer[3] on journalism deems it an essential of a good story. Certainly
it figures in ninety per cent of the published articles in our daily
newspapers. The word yesterday has been relegated to the scrap heap.
To-day, this morning, this afternoon should appear if possible in
every story. And the divorce that was granted yesterday or the accident
that happened last night must be viewed from such an angle that to-day
shall appear in the write-up. Close competition and improved machinery
have made freshness, timeliness, all but a requisite in every story.

[3] Professor Willard Grosvenor Bleyer. See his
Newspaper Writing and Editing, p. 18.

=42. Closeness of the Event
Next to nearness in time comes nearness
in place as a means of maintaining interest. Other things being equal,
the worth of a story varies in inverse proportion to its closeness in
time and place. A theft of ten dollars in one's home town is worth more
space than a theft of a thousand in a city across the continent. A visit
of Mrs. Gadabit, wife of the president of our city bank, to
Neighborville twenty miles away is worth more space than a trip made by
Mrs. Astor to Europe. Whenever possible, the good reporter seeks to
localize his story and draw it close to the everyday lives of his
readers. Even an accidental acquaintance of a man in town with the noted
governor or the notorious criminal who has just been brought into the
public eye--with a brief quotation of the local man's opinion of the
other fellow, or how they chanced to meet,--is worth generous space in
any paper. Oftentimes a resident man or woman's opinion of a statement
made by some one else, or of a problem of civic, state, or national
interest, is given an important place merely by reason of the fact that
the story is associated with some locally prominent person. Always the
effort is made to localize the news.

=43. The Search for Extremes
Again, say what one may, the American
public loves extremes in its news stories. If a pumpkin can be made the
largest ever grown in one's section, or a murder the foulest ever
committed in the vicinity, or a robbery the boldest ever attempted in
the block, or a race the fastest ever run on the track, or anything else
the largest or the least ever registered in the community, it will be
good for valuable space in the local news columns. A record breaker in
anything is a new problem to the public, who will read with eager joy
every detail concerning the attainment of the new record.

=44. The Unusual
The exceptional, the unusual, the abnormal is in a
sense a record breaker and will be read about with zest. A burglar
stealing a Bible or returning a baby's mite box, a calf with two heads,
a dog committing suicide, a husband divorcing his wife so that she may
marry a man whom she loves better,--such stories belong in the list with
the unique and will be found of exceptional interest to readers.

=45. Contests
The description of a contest always makes interesting
news. No matter whether the struggle is between athletic teams, business
men, society women, race horses, or neighboring cities, if the element
of struggle for supremacy can be injected into the story, it will be
read with added zest. Such stories may be found in the search of
politicians for office, in the struggles of business men for control of
trade or for squeezing out competitors, in contests between capital and
labor, in religious factions, in collegiate rivalry, and in many of the
seemingly commonplace struggles of everyday life. The individual,
elementary appeal that comes from struggle is always thrilling.

=46. Helplessness
Opposed to stories depicting struggle for supremacy
are those portraying the joys or the sufferings of the very old or very
young, or of those who are physically or mentally unable to struggle.
The joy of an aged mother because her boy remembered her birthday, the
undeserved sufferings of an old man, the cry of a child in pain, the
distress of a helpless animal, all are full of interest to the average
reader. Helplessness, particularly in its hours of suffering or its
moments of unaccustomed pleasure, compels the sympathy of everyone, and
every reporter is delighted with the opportunity to write a "sob story"
picturing the friendlessness and the want of such unprivileged ones.
These stories not only are read with interest, but often prove a
practical means of helping those in distress.

=47. Prominent Persons
Directly opposed to stories about helpless
persons or animals are those of prominent men and women. For some reason
news about the great, no matter how trivial, is always of interest, and
varies in direct proportion to the prominence of the person. If the
President of the United States drives a golf ball into a robin's nest,
if the oil king in the Middle West prefers a wig to baldness, if the
millionaire automobile manufacturer never pays more than five cents for
his cigars, the reading public is greatly interested in learning the
fact. Nor is it essential that the reader shall have heard of the
prominent man. It is sufficient that his position socially or
professionally is high.

=48. Well-known Places
The same interest attaches to noted or
notorious places. A news item about Reno, Nevada, is worth more than one
about Rome, Georgia, though the cities are of about the same size. A
street traffic regulation in New York City is copied all over the United
States, notwithstanding the fact that the same law may have been passed
by the city council in Winchester, Kentucky, years before and gone
unnoticed. And so with Coney Island or Niagara Falls or Death Valley, or
any one of a hundred other places that might be named. The fashions they
originate, the ideas for which they stand sponsors, the accidents that
happen in their vicinity, all have specific interest by virtue of their
previous note or notoriety. And if the reporter can fix the setting of
his story in such a place, he may be assured of interested readers.

=49. Personal and Financial Interests
Finally, if a news story can be
found that will bear directly on the personal or financial interests of
the patrons of the paper, one may be sure of its cordial reception. If
turkeys take the roup six weeks before Thanksgiving, or taxes promise a
drop with the new year, or pork volplanes two or three cents, or an ice
famine is threatened, or styles promise coats a few inches shorter or
socks a few shades greener, the readers are eager to know and will
applaud the vigilance of the editors. For this reason, a reporter can
often pick up an extra story--and reporters are judged by the extra
stories they place on the city editor's desk--by occasionally dropping
in at markets, grocery stores, and similar business houses and inquiring
casually for possible drops or rises in price. For the same reason, too,
new styles as seen in the shop windows are always good for a
half-column. And one cannot think of covering a dressmakers' convention,
an automobile show, a jewelers' exhibition, or a similar gathering
without playing up prominently the new styles. A clever San Francisco
reporter covering a convention of insurance agents once produced a
brilliant story on new styles in life insurance policies.

=50. Summary
By way of summary, then, it may be said that the only
requirements of an event or an idea to make it good story material are
that it be presented accurately and that it possess interest for a
goodly number of readers; and any fact or idea which presents a
situation or poses a problem differing, even slightly, from preceding
situations or problems encountered by the readers of a paper is sure to
possess interest. Timeliness is of vital worth, but is not a necessity.
The geographical nearness of an event adds to its value, as does the
fact that the event or the product or the result is a record breaker or
is unique in its class. Contests of all sorts invariably possess
interest, and stories of the helplessness of old persons, children, or
animals never fail to have an emotional appeal. Any news item concerning
a well-known person or place is likely to attract attention, and any
story that touches the home or business interests of the public is sure
to command interested readers. All these features are valuable, and any
one will contribute much to the worth of a story, but none is essential.
The prerequisite is that the news shall be true and shall present a new
situation or problem, or a new phase of an old situation or problem.





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