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


=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


[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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