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How to Write and Structure a Story for your Local Newspaper

If you’re looking for a good way to put your writing talent to work, try writing for your local newspaper. You’ll sharpen your skills, make some good contacts, and perhaps earn a little money, too. Many small newspapers, especially weekly papers, are crying out for compelling content. (When I say “newspapers” I’m also assuming your content will also go on their website, of course. The stories are written the same for both mediums, with one exception that I’ll note below.)

However, newspaper editors expect stories to follow a certain structure. Following that format gives your story the maximum chance of getting published. Here is how stories should look:

Proper news story structure

You’ll start with a who, what, when, and where lead. This is known as a “traditional lead” or “direct lead.” Here’s an example of a direct lead in a story about an event:

     The Podunk Hollow Garden Club held its first meeting of the year on Feb. 22.

The sentence simply tells who (The Podunk Hollow Garden Club) did what (held its first meeting . . .) and when. (In this case, the where wasn’t important enough to be included. It simply doesn’t matter where they met.)

Note two important points about the first sentence.

1. It needs to be in its own paragraph. Or to put it the other way, the first paragraph should only be one sentence long.

2. It must always tell who did what. Additionally, it may include the where and when unless they’re not important or are obvious.

The second paragraph is called the nut ‘graph. It gets its name from “the story in a nutshell.” It sums up what happened at the meeting. If there wasn’t room for the where and/or when (that is, they would have made the first sentence too long) they can go here.

     The club discussed its plans for this year’s community garden.

We’ll skip the third paragraph for a moment. The fourth paragraph should be a quotation because quotes add interest and provide credibility. When you quote someone be sure to quote their feelings, opinions, or emotions, not simply facts. This is an interesting quote because it shows the source’s feelings:

“We’re extremely excited about this year’s gardening season,” said President Sally Smith. “We can hardly wait to break ground.”

Now back to the third paragraph. Ideally, it leads into the quotation by paraphrasing or summing up what the source is about to say.

     Club members said they are looking forward to the spring planting season.

You can see how nicely this sentence flows into Sally Smith’s quote.

In the next few paragraphs, you’ll supply some details. In this case, you’ll tell readers more specifics about what the garden club discussed. Depending on the story, you might write either chronologically or by topic.

Now you’ll need another quotation. Ideally, you’ll again lead into it with a paraphrase.

     Club members said the best part about belonging to the organization is knowing they’re helping needy families.

     “We do this work because of our love for the community,” said member Bill Jones. “It’s a wonderful feeling to know we’re providing fresh, healthy food for those who may need it.”

End your story with the least important information.

     The garden club meets every other Tuesday evening. Anyone is welcome.

If you write a story like this one the chances are good that an editor will print it. She’ll do so with an appreciation for a well-crafted story that needs little editing.

A few more tips

Keep your sentences short. The maximum word length should be about 15 words per sentence.

Write in inverted pyramid style. That is, put the most important information at the beginning and then work down through less and less important information. The least important info goes at the end.

A story that includes elements is more likely to be used by the newspaper. The elements will go on their website. They include photos (they’re always expected, even in print publications), video, graphs, maps, quizzes, etc. That is anything that grabs readers’ attention and makes them stay on the web page longer.

Sample story

University of Tampa Media Writing students (who) learned about some problems media currently faces (did what) on Sept. 1 (when). (The where is obvious—in a classroom)

Students watched a short video that demonstrated how journalism has changed in the last 50 years. Professor Joe Wisinski said media has gone from only presenting facts to more sensationalistic reporting. (nut ‘graph)

Wisinski said the media’s sensationalism springs from a need to attract an audience. (a paraphrase of the upcoming quote)

“Media has become sensationalistic because it needs to entice viewers,” he said. “Each media outlet must compete with hundreds of others.”

Wisinski said bias is another problem affecting media. He showed graphics from two different media outlets. One graphic referred to the recent economic growth of 2.6 percent as “weaker than expected” and the other referred to it as “solid.” Both graphics showed bias, according to Wisinski, because they’re the writers’ opinions.

Another problem in today’s media is a high number of errors, Wisinski said. The class edited an error-filled story from a print publication. They found 28 mistakes in the story, including spelling, punctuation, and capitalization errors. (The previous two paragraphs contain more detail about the class period.)

One student said the number of errors surprised her. (Note that because I didn’t name the student in this introduction to what she’s about to say I provide her full name in the quote.)

“I never realized that some news stories could contain so many mistakes,” said Sally Smith, a mass communication junior. “I’ve learned to carefully watch for errors in whatever I write.”

Media Writing is open to both mass communication majors and non-majors. It’s offered in both the fall and spring semesters. (The least important information is in these last two paragraphs. This is done so if the newspaper runs out of space for your story it can simply delete the two paragraphs.)

Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Joe Wisinski