How to deal with those pesky journalists, according to a journalist

I was halfway through a Written Feedback for a newspaper article this week and took a moment to look at the words I was using –lede, nut graph, the inverted pyramid, all terms that I hoped the JOUR 275 student on the other end had written down in a notebook somewhere – when it occurred to me: how many UCWbLers not majoring in journalism would know what the heck I was talking about?

Journalism is kind of formulaic by nature, which can make it difficult for tutors unfamiliar with the specifics to give the advice that writers may be looking for. No more! Below, you’ll find a list of common concepts that the field relies on for consistency, clarity, and brevity, which can help UCWbLers, or anyone, really, interpret journalism terminology.

1. Copy – fancy journalist talk that refers to either word choice or the article itself, depending on the context. It can also sometimes be used to differentiate between different forms of publication, such as print copy, broadcast copy, magazine copy, and so on.

2. Hard news your basic story, featuring facts, facts, and nothing but the facts. Hard news stories typically look at an event and answer the basic questions of who, what, where, when, and why. These 5 W’s come up a lot, so it’s important to look for them in any article you’re reviewing. If you are giving feedback on something you think is supposed to be hard news, make sure that bad boy gets in and out without any meandering. Facts, facts, and nothing but the facts.

3. Feature (soft) news – when creative writing and journalism join forces! If a writer has something that feels more like a feature story, some of that hard news rigidity can take a back seat to fuzzier human elements. Feature news is less concerned about absolute objectivity than hard news. A writer’s style can be a little more loose and casual, and the subject matter may be more frivolous. To be clear, though, there’s a spectrum; on one end, you’ve got the water-skiing squirrel, the other, a profile of a local celebrity, for example.

4. Lede (lead)the first sentence or two of an article that answers those 5 W’s from above; who, what, where, when, and why. The writer doesn’t have to check off every item from that list in their lede, but it’s important that their story emphasizes the elements that are most significant to their story. Beware the lengthy lede: introductory sentences should almost never be longer than 35 words or so. Hard news stories typically start with a summary lede, and that’s probably what you’ll see the most often from writers. For example:

University officials announced plans today to change the name of DePaul’s Demon mascot from “Dibs” to “Debbie,” citing student concern that demons are just as likely to be female as they are to be male.

5. Nut graph – the silliest sounding vocab word you’re going to see all day. The nut graph is the paragraph that comes directly after the lede explaining the greater significance or context of your story. While the lead breaks down what happened, your nut graph is all about why your audience is supposed to care.

6. Headline – a self-explanatory attention grabbing element. What’s important to know about the headline is that it shouldn’t be much longer than 10 or so words and should focus on two or three of the most important elements of your 5 W’s. Here’s a very real example from the Palm Beach Post circa March 2015:

Drunk, Machete-Wielding Florida Man Chases Neighbor on Lawnmower

7. Inverted pyramid – a structure based on the prioritization of information. The basic idea here is that the most important parts of your story are supposed to come first in paragraph order. That may sound fairly intuitive, but some students may want to leave their reader is suspense. That may be fine and dandy in creative writing, but journalism ain’t got time for that. If you find something that seems to be more important to understanding the story below a more trivial factoid, namedropping the inverted pyramid in your feedback can make you look like real expert.

8. Active / passive voice – active voice involves sentence structure where the subject of the sentence is acting on an object. Passive voice, by comparison, is a sentence where an object is being acted upon. The classic example is the politician’s answer, demonstrated below. News articles should almost always be in the active voice, unless the object is significantly more important than the subject, i.e., “the president was shot.”

Passive politician’s answer: “Mistakes were made.”

Active politician’s answer: “We made a mistake.”

9. AP Style – there are a lot of little rules from Associated Press’ Stylebook that I’m not going to list here for sake of space and time. It’s the student journalist’s job to know what they’re expected to stick to on a class-by-class basis, but there are some basic categories that you can keep an eye out for. In AP style, dates, titles, abbreviation, and capitalization tend to be done in a very specific way. If you encounter an article where something seems off, look it up! Here’s a link to help you and your writer out.

There you have it! The next time you’ve got news copy in front of you and a hapless journalist waiting for their written feedback on the other end, you’ve got your work cut out for you. Best of luck, and happy writing!

Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Karina S. says:

    I loved all of your examples! Good piece – this stuff is important to know.

  • Darian H. says:

    I may or may-not have looked up the article about the drunken-machete-wielding-lawnmower-riding neighbor! More importantly, a big thank you for the AP link!!

  • Mike T. says:

    Great post! I’ve also heard this formula referred to as The Wall Street Journal formula.