In news-style writing, there are some essential elements which you should identify in your story before you conduct any interviews, and begin to write. You will identify some of these immediately when you find your topic, but you will also uncover them during the research stage, and again, or more solidly, when interviewing.
This guide is not prescriptive or exhaustive, but hopefully it will serve as a set of basic guidelines to help you with writing a good piece. This will also help you with pitching a story to Togatus.
Audience: Who will be interested in your story? In this case the answer is fairly simple: students. You may want to narrow this down by also deciding which kind of students. International students? Artists? Science or business students? You may also have wider interests in mind such as people identifying as activists, feminists, hobbyists, etc. This is fine, but remembers that your article will be presented to a fairly broad audience, so try not to use jargon which may not be understood or if you must, make sure that you explain it. Do not assume people will have specific knowledge.
What makes your topic news-worthy? Your story should include specific elements, these are known as ‘news values’. If you’ve done any first year journalism units, you’ve probably heard all about these. But Togatus is open for all students to contribute, and it’s always good to have a refresher. There are different theories of what constitutes a news value, and your story may have one or several of these (in no particular order):
Proximity – How relevant is the story by distance? The more local the better, usually.
Conflict – Someone or something is at odds with an opposing party. This is the bread and butter of news. If you look at news headlines, the story may not relate to an actual war, but the language and metaphors used in the story will often use words or phrases like ‘at war’, ‘battle’, ‘shots fired’, ‘lines drawn’, etc.
Currency – Has there been a development in a current story? Has a similar event happened elsewhere?
Prominence – Is the person or organisation at the centre of the story a public figure or celebrity?
Human interest – Is there a personal element to the story? If you don’t immediately have one, try to find someone who has been personally affected. The human interest angle features more and more in news stories. It’s a great vehicle to allow people to identify with your story on a personal level. Even if they are not in a similar situation, something that happened to someone is more interesting and relevant than a threat or positive outcome for people in general. A good anecdote or a few comments from your peers is all you need.
Novelty – Did something unusual or quirky happen? This is why odd-shaped vegetables make the news. Or cats coming home after 10 years. Something fun or trivial is always welcome.
Essential questions: Who, what, when, where, why, how?
These questions should be answered in the opening lines, in order or importance. You may not need to answer every single one of these points if it’s not especially relevant. Any article, unless it’s non-fiction, needs to explain to the reader exactly what the key elements of the story are in the opening lines, otherwise they will move on. Do not leave the kicker to the end. However, do leave a little something up your sleeve for the end to give your story that extra oomph. The dusted icing sugar on top of the cherry, type-thing.
Length: If you’re aiming for an article in print, please keep your story to around 600 – 700 words. If you’re having trouble cutting it down, we will gladly give it a read and make suggestions. Please don’t do this for your first or second draft, though. Keep paragraphs between 3-5 lines if you can. Use a variety of short, punchy sentence and longer ones. If you think a sentence is too long, read it out loud and if you have to take a breath, it’s too long.
Language: As we’re a student publication, there’s no need to be too formal. If you want to have something in your portfolio that’s formal, that’s fine. Use proper syntax, formatting and grammar, but it’s fine to use slang, or swear. It’s also good to read your article out loud to see if it flows well. If you can say something with fewer words, then do. News stories use minimal adjectives.
Interviews and quotes
You might feel that the interviewee is out of your league, but you can get good interviews, even if it’s your first time. You may be surprised by who is willing to speak to you. If someone has expert knowledge in a field, or direct involvement in an event etc. they are putting their time and effort into that and will want to share their knowledge, experience and opinions with others. Consider that many people may that the person is unapproachable and unless something big has happened and every journo wants to talk to them this means they may not actually receive that many interview requests. If there’s been a significant event, and you can’t get a response to your inquiry, ask or search for a press release and use quotes from that. If you can, please use quotes which make sense on their own so we can highlight them in the text.
You do not need to quote things like ‘umm’, ‘yeah’, ‘you know’, ‘errr’.
To secure an interview: You may need to be a bit persistent. There’s a few ways to go about this. Either call first, and let them know what you’re writing about and why you want to speak with your subject. If you can’t get hold of the person or their assistant straight away, send an email, wait a full business day, then call to follow up. If you don’t get the right person, send a follow up email. Phone or live interviews are preferable to email interviews as you’ll get more natural answers. Or, email then call. A call will get you a long way. An email is more easily ignored.
Record your interview: When you do an interview, it’s essential to record it. Taking notes is ok, but it’s far from ideal as the person will keep talking while you’re franticly trying to take notes and you will miss what they say next. Make sure that you transcribe your recording, so that you can correctly quote the interview, and also so that you can prove that was what they said if there is any question over it after the article is released. Listening to the interview again will help you pick up interesting points you might have missed or forgotten.
If you have only have an iPhone to record a call on, use speakerphone and record on your laptop (there will be a default program on your laptop, or use a free one like Audacity) . Let the person know they’re on speakerphone and why. They will likely be familiar with this scenario as iPhones are notoriously difficult for phone interviews unless you’re patient enough to use some convoluted app which will probably not be free.
Unless you’re doing something in-depth, your article should clock in at around 400-450 words. Try to break it up with gifs, memes, links, photos etc. Make sure we know the sources. This is makes the story more visually appealing and more likely to be read.
Music and entertainment reviews and artist interviews
Arrive on time. Preferably before the support band starts. You might not have heard of them but they could steal the show (in a good or a bad way). It also ensures you can secure a good position for watching the show. They are also an important element in building the atmosphere and reception for the main act.
Try to find comparisons with other artists which people can relate to. See what others have written about the performer/s. Try to find a metaphor for the show and run with it (sometimes, not always). A good review (or artist interview) should be relevant outside of the immediate gig, so that if someone were to find your review on Google in two years time, the information is still interesting. Talk a little about their previous work. Talk about your favourite song/s or point of the night.
What do you think the artist is trying to convey with their work? Did you receive that or was your interpretation different?
Do not, repeat DO NOT get intoxicated before or during the event. Getting drunk will affect your memory of the event, and if you have to interact with anyone, it will make you look unprofessional. Keep in mind that you are representing a state-wide publication. ? Sure, have a couple of drinks, enjoy yourself. Please do not try to tell us that you think it ‘adds flavour’ or that because we have a student audience that you think it will be cool. No. Not anywhere, not ever. If you are feeling tipsy after enjoying a beverage, do not include anything at all related to this in the review. The article is not about you. Is it about the show. Try to avoid mentioning yourself too much at all. How was the performer behaving? How was the crowd reacting/not reacting? How was the atmosphere of the event in general? Was the venue specially decorated? How was the sound/acoustics? Was the guitarist totally shredding/playing with their teeth/gyrating like a cat on heat?
Photography: The rule (no exceptions) is to only photograph the first three songs, and do not use a flash. If there’s no photo pit or press area, make your pass visible (if you have one) and just let people know that you’re there to cover the event and politely ask to jump in front of them for a few minutes to get some good photos. If people are dancing and you can’t get a good shot because you’re getting jostled around, there are a couple of things you can do: Ask the bar staff or sound guys if you can quickly join them to get the shots you need. Do not hang around in their area. If this still doesn’t work, you may have to ask their management for press pics. We can do that for you.
Length: The review should be 250-350 words.
1) If in doubt, leave it out. If you can’t prove what you’re saying, no matter how juicy the information is, it should not make it into your final draft.
2) If you’re feeling nervous about an interview, just be honest and say that when you start talking. Eg “Hi such and such, thanks for speaking with me today. I’m a student-writer/still new at this/quite a fan so I’m feeling a bit nervous. Please excuse me if I stumble a little.”
Only do this once. Do not apologise repeatedly. Everyone starts somewhere and you are not the focus us the interview. If the subject is promoting something (tour, album, book launch etc) they are likely doing a string of interviews that day and you will not be the only budding/hobby writer. Also, you will probably only be allotted 10-20 minutes with them so use it wisely.
3) Please supply us with a graphic if you can, to avoid boring stock images. Be sure to ask if a photographer so they can be credited for the image.
4) Please provide evidence of your claims. If you make any claims which are not directly substantiated in the article, or you quote statistics, please supply us with the source of that information. We are full time students (probably like you), and it makes it much easier for everyone if we don’t have to go hunting to back up your claims. Just include a link or the publication name, article title, date and page number. Or if it’s something we might not be able to access from the library (like a magazine), include a scanned copy of the article.