NEWSPAPER REPORTING AND CORRESPONDENCE
A MANUAL FOR REPORTERS, CORRESPONDENTS, AND STUDENTS OF NEWSPAPER WRITING
GRANT MILNOR HYDE, M.A.
INSTRUCTOR IN JOURNALISM IN THE UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN.
NEW YORK AND LONDON D. APPLETON AND COMPANY 1912
COPYRIGHT, 1912, BY D. APPLETON AND COMPANY
Printed in the United States of America
TO MY MOTHER
The purpose of this book is to instruct the prospective newspaper reporter in the way to write those stories which his future paper will call upon him to write, and to help the young cub reporter and the struggling correspondent past the perils of the copyreader's pencil by telling them how to write clean copy that requires a minimum of editing. It is not concerned with the why of the newspaper business—the editor may attend to that—but with the how of the reporter's work. And an ability to write is believed to be the reporter's chief asset. There is no space in this book to dilate upon newspaper organization, the work of the business office, the writing of advertisements, the principles of editorial writing, or the how and why of newspaper policy and practice, as it is. These things do not concern the reporter during the first few months of his work, and he will learn them from experience when he needs them. Until then, his usefulness depends solely upon his ability to get news and to write it.
There are two phases of the work which every reporter must learn: how to get the news and how to write it. The first he can pick up easily by actual newspaper experience—if nature has endowed him with "a nose for news." The writing of the news he can learn only by hard practice—a year's hard practice on some papers—and it is generally conceded that practice in writing news stories can be secured at home or in the classroom as effectively as practice in writing short stories, plays, business letters, or any other special form of composition. Newspaper experience may aid the reporter in learning how to write his stories, but a newspaper apprenticeship is not absolutely necessary. However, whether he is studying the trade of newspaper writing in his home, in a classroom, or in the city room of a daily paper, he needs positive instruction in the English composition of the newspaper office—rather than haphazard criticism and a deluge of "don'ts." Hence this book is concerned primarily with the writing of the news.
Successful newspaper reporting requires both an ability to write good English and an ability to write good English in the conventional newspaper form. And there is a conventional form for every kind of newspaper story. Many editors of the present day are trying to break away from the conventional form and to evolve a looser and more natural method of writing news stories. The results are often bizarre and sometimes very effective. Certainly originality in expression adds much to the interest of newspaper stories, and many a good piece of news is ruined by a bald, dry recital of facts. Just as the good reporter is always one who can give his yarns a distinctive flavor, great newspaper stories are seldom written under the restriction of rules. But no young reporter can hope to attain success through originality and defiance of rules until he has first mastered the fundamental principles of newspaper writing. He can never expect to write "the story of the year" until he has learned to handle everyday news without burying the gist of his stories—any more than an artist can hope to paint a living portrait until he has learned, with the aid of rules, to draw the face of a plaster block-head. Hence the emphasis upon form and system in this book. And, whatever the form may be, the embodiment must be clear, concise, grammatical English; that is the excuse for the many axioms of simple English grammar that are introduced side by side with the study of the newspaper form.
The author offers this book as the result of personal newspaper experience and of his work as instructor in classes in newspaper writing at the University of Wisconsin. Every item that is offered is the result of an attempt to correct the mistakes that have appeared most often in the papers of students who are trying to do newspaper writing in the classroom. The seemingly disproportionate emphasis upon certain branches of the subject and the constant repetition of certain simple principles are to be excused by the purpose of the book—to be a text-book in the course of study worked out in this school of journalism. The use of the fire story as typical of all newspaper stories and as a model for all newspaper writing is characteristic of this method of instruction. Four chapters are devoted to the explanation of a single principle which any reader could grasp in a moment, because experience has shown that an equivalent of four chapters of study and practice is required to teach the student the application of this principle and to fix it in his mind so thoroughly that he will not forget it in his later work of writing more complicated stories. It is felt that the beginner needs and must have the detailed explanation, the constant reiteration and some definite rules to guide him in his practice. Hence the emphasis upon the conventional form. Since, in the application of the newspaper principle of beginning with the gist of the story, the structure of the lead is of greater importance than the rest of the story, this book devotes the greater part of its discussion to the lead.
The suggestions for practice are attached in an attempt to give the young newspaper man some positive instruction. Most reporters are instructed by a system of "don'ts," growled out by busy editors; most correspondents receive no instruction at all—a positive suggestion now and then cannot but help them both. Practice is necessary in the study of any form of writing; these suggestions for practice embody the method of practice used in this school of journalism. The examples are taken from representative papers of the entire country to show the student how the stories are actually written in newspaper offices.
Madison, Wisconsin, June 3, 1912.
I. GATHERING THE NEWS 1
II. NEWS VALUES 14
III. NEWSPAPER TERMS 28
IV. THE NEWS STORY FORM 34
V. THE SIMPLE FIRE STORY 41
VI. THE FEATURE FIRE STORY 50
VII. FAULTS IN NEWS STORIES 75
VIII. OTHER NEWS STORIES 105
IX. FOLLOW-UP AND REWRITE STORIES 125
X. REPORTS OF SPEECHES 143
XI. INTERVIEWS 169
XII. COURT REPORTING 192
XIII. SOCIAL NEWS AND OBITUARIES 204
XIV. SPORTING NEWS 219
XV. HUMAN INTEREST STORIES 233
XVI. DRAMATIC REPORTING 259
XVII. STYLE BOOK 276
APPENDIX I—SUGGESTIONS FOR STUDY 294
APPENDIX II—NEWS STORIES TO BE CORRECTED 311
NEWSPAPER REPORTING AND CORRESPONDENCE
GATHERING THE NEWS
Unlike almost any other profession, that of a newspaper reporter combines two very different activities—the gathering of news and the writing of news. Part of the work must be done in the office and part of it outside on the street. At his desk in the office a reporter is engaged in the literary, or pseudo-literary, occupation of writing news stories; outside on the street he is a detective gathering news and hunting for elusive facts to be combined later into stories. Although the two activities are closely related, each requires a different sort of ability and a different training. In a newspaper office the two activities are rarely separated, but a beginner must learn each duty independent of the other. This book will not attempt to deal with both; it will confine itself mainly to one phase, the pseudo-literary activity of writing news stories.
However, introductory to the discussion of the writing of newspaper stories, we may glance at the other side of the newspaper writer's work—the gathering of the news. Where the newspaper gets its news and how it gets its news can be learned only by experience, for it differs in different cities and with different papers. But an outline of the background of news-gathering may assist us in writing the news after it is gathered and ready for us to write.
1. Reporter vs. Correspondent.—There are two capacities in which one may write news stories for a paper. He may work on the staff as a regular reporter or he may supply news from a distance as a correspondent. In the one case he works under the personal supervision of a city editor and spends his entire time at the regular occupation of gathering and writing news. As a correspondent he works in a distant city, under the indirect supervision of the city, telegraph, or state editor, and sends in only the occasional stories that seem to be of interest to his paper. In either case the same rules apply to his news gathering and to his news writing. And in either case the length of his employment depends upon his ability to turn in clean copy in the form in which his paper wishes to print the news. Both the reporter and the correspondent must write their stories in the same form and must look at news and the sources of news from almost the same point of view. Whatever is said of the reporter applies equally to the correspondent.
2. Expected and Unexpected News.—The daily news may be divided into two classes from the newspaper's point of view: expected and unexpected news. Expected news includes all stories of which the paper has a previous knowledge. Into this class fall all meetings, speeches, sermons, elections, athletic contests, social events, and daily happenings that do not come unexpectedly. They are the events that are announced beforehand and tipped off to the paper in time for the editor to send out a reporter to cover them personally. These events are of course recorded in the office, and each day the editor has a certain number of them, a certain amount of news that he is sure of. Each day he looks over his book to note the events that are to take place during that day and sends out his reporters to cover them.
The other class includes the stories that break unexpectedly. Accidents, deaths, fires, storms, and other unexpected happenings come without warning and the reporting of them cannot be arranged for in advance. These are the stories that the paper is most anxious to get and the things for which the whole staff always has its eyes and ears open. Seldom are they heard of in time for the paper to have them covered personally, and the reporting of such stories becomes a separate sort of work—the gathering and sorting of the facts that can be obtained only from chance witnesses.
3. News Sources.—There are certain sources from which the paper gets most of its tips of expected events and its knowledge of unexpected events. These every editor knows about. The courts, the public records, the public offices, the churches, and the schools furnish a great many of the tips of expected news. The police stations, the fire stations, the hospitals, and the morgues furnish most of the tips of unexpected news. Whenever an event is going to happen, or whenever an unexpected occurrence does happen, a notice of it is to be found in some one of these sources. Such a notice or a casual word from any one is called a "tip" and indicates the possibility of securing a story. The securing of the story is another matter. A would-be reporter may get good practice from studying the stories in the daily papers and trying to discover or imagine from what source the original news tip came. He will soon find that certain classes of stories always come from certain sources and that there is a perceptible amount of routine evident in the accounts of the most unexpected occurrences.
4. Runs and Assignments.—Between the news tip and the finished copy for the compositor there is a vast amount of news gathering, which falls to the lot of the reporter. This is handled by a system of runs and special assignments. A reporter usually has his own run, or beat, on which he gathers news. His run may cover a certain number of police stations or the city hall or any group of regular news sources. Each day he must visit the various sources of news on his beat and gather the tips and whatever facts about the stories behind the tips that he can. The tips that he secures furnish him with clues to the stories, and it is his business to get the facts behind all of the tips on his beat and to write them up, unless a tip opens up a story that is too big for him to handle alone without neglecting his beat.
Assignments are used to cover the stories that do not come in through the regular sources, and to handle the big stories that are unearthed on the regular beats. The editor turns over to the reporter the tip that he has received and instructs him to go out and get the facts. A paper's best reporters are used almost entirely on assignments, and when they go out after a story they practically become detectives. They follow every clue that the tip suggests and every clue that is opened up as they progress; they hunt down the facts until they are reasonably sure that they have secured the whole story. The result may not be worth writing, or it may be worth a place on the front page, but the reporter must get to the bottom of it. Whether on a beat or on an assignment every reporter must have his ears open for a tip of some unexpected story and must secure the facts or inform the editor at once. It is in this way that a paper gets a scoop, or beat, on its rivals by printing a story before the other papers have heard of it.
5. Interviews for Facts.—To cover an assignment and secure the facts of a story is not at all easy. If the reporter could be a personal witness of the happening which he is to report, the task would be simpler. But, outside the case of expected events, he rarely hears of the occurrence until after it is past and the excitement has subsided. Then he must find the persons who witnessed the occurrence or who know the facts, and get the story from them. Perhaps he has to see a dozen people to get the information he wants. Getting facts from people in this way is called interviewing—interviewing for facts, as distinguished from formal interviewing for the purpose of securing a statement or an opinion that is to be printed with the name of the man who utters it. Although a dozen interviews may be necessary for a single story, not one of them is mentioned in the story, for they are of no importance except in the facts that they supply.
For example, suppose a reporter is sent out to get the story of a fire that has started an hour or two before he goes on duty. All that his editor gives him is the tip from the fire department, or from some other source, of a fire at such-and-such an address. When he arrives at the scene there is nothing left but smoldering ruins with perhaps an engine throwing a stream on the smoking debris and a few by-standers still loitering about. He can see with his own eyes what kind of building has burned, and how completely it has been destroyed. A by-stander may be able to tell him who occupied the building or what it was used for, but he must hunt for some one else who can give him the exact facts that his paper wants. Perhaps he can find the tenant and learn from him what his loss has been. The tenant can give him the name of the owner and may be able to tell him something about the origin of the fire. He must find the owner to get the value of the building and the amount of insurance carried. Perhaps he cannot find any of these people and must ask the fire chief or some one else to give him what facts and estimates he can. If the fire is at all serious he must find out who was killed or injured and get their names and addresses and the nature of their injury or the manner of their death. Perhaps he can talk to some of the people who had narrow escapes, or interview the friends or relatives of the dead. Everywhere he turns new clues open up, and he must follow each one of them in turn until he is sure that he has all the facts.
6. Point of View.—The task would be easy if every one could tell the reporter just the facts that his paper wants. But in the confusion every one is excited and fairly bubbling over with rumors and guesses which may later turn out to be false. Each person who is interested in the incident sees and tells it only from his own point of view. Obviously the reporter's paper does not want the facts from many different points of view, nor even from the point of view of the fire department, of the owner, or of the woman who was rescued from the third floor. The paper wants the story from a single point of view—the point of view of an uninterested spectator. Consequently the reporter must get the facts through interviews with a dozen different people, discount possible exaggeration and falsity due to excitement, make allowances for the different points of view, harmonize conflicting statements, and sift from the mass what seems to him to be the truth. Then he must write the story from the uninterested point of view of the public, which wants to hear the exact facts of the fire told in an unprejudiced way. Never does the story mention any of the interviews behind it except when the reporter is afraid of some statement and wants to put the responsibility upon the person who gave it to him. And so the finished story that we read in the next morning's paper is the composite story of the fire chief, the owner, the tenant, the man who discovered the fire, the widow who was driven from her little flat, the little girl who was carried down a ladder through the smoke, the man who lost everything he had in the world, and the cynic who watched the flames from behind the fireline—all massed together and sifted and retold in an impersonal way from the point of view of a by-stander who has been everywhere through the flames and has kept his brain free from the terror and excitement of it all.
The same is true of every story that is printed in a newspaper. Every story must be secured in the same way—whether it is the account of a business transaction, a bank robbery, a political scandal, a murder, a reception, or a railroad wreck. Seldom is it possible to find any one person who knows all the facts just as the newspaper wants them, and many a story that is worth but a stickful in the first edition is the result of two hours' running about town, half a dozen telephone calls, and a dozen interviews. That is the way the news is gathered, and that is the part of the reporter's work that he must learn by experience. But after all the gathering is finished and he has the facts, the writing of the story remains. If the reporter knows how to write the facts when he has them, his troubles are cut in half, for nowadays a reporter who writes well is considered a more valuable asset than one who cannot write and simply has a nose for news.
7. News-Gathering Agencies.—This account of news gathering is of course told from the point of view of the reporter. Naturally it assumes a different aspect in the editor's eyes. Much of the day's news does not have to be gathered at all. A steady stream of news flows in ready for use from the great news-gathering agencies, the Associated Press, the United Press, the City Press, etc., and from correspondents. Many stories are merely summaries of speeches, bulletins, announcements, pamphlets and other printed matter that comes to the editorial office, and many stories come already written. Almost everybody is looking for publicity in these days and the editor does not always have to hunt the news with an army of ferrets. Cooperation in news gathering has simplified the whole matter. But it all has to be written and edited. That is why great reporters are no longer praised for their cleverness in worming their way to elusive facts, but for their ability to write a good story. That is why we no longer hear so much about beats and scoops but more about clean copy and "literary masterpieces."
8. How the Correspondent Works.—The correspondent gathers news very much as the reporter does, but he does it without the help of a city editor. He must be his own director and keep his own book of tips, for he has no one to make out his assignments beforehand. He has to watch for what news he can get by himself and send it to his paper of his own accord, except occasionally when his paper instructs him to cover a particularly large story. But he gets his tips and runs down his facts just as a reporter does. Just as much alertness and just as much ability to write are required of him.
The correspondent's work is made more difficult by what is called news values. Distance affects the importance of the facts that he secures and the length of the stories he writes. He must weigh every event for its interest to readers a hundred or a thousand miles away. What may be of immense importance in his community may have no interest at all for readers outside that community. He must see everything with the eyes of a stranger, and this must influence his whole work of news gathering and news writing. This matter will be taken up at greater length in the next chapter.
9. Correspondent's Relation to His Paper.—The relations of a correspondent to the paper or news association to which he is sending news can best be learned by experience. Every paper has different rules for its correspondents and different directions in regard to the sort of news it wants. The rules regarding the mailing of copy and the sending of stories or queries by telegraph are usually sent out in printed form by each individual paper to its correspondents. But while gathering news and writing stories for a distant paper, a correspondent must always regard himself as a reporter and write his stories in the form in which they are to appear in print if he wishes to remain correspondent for any length of time. The following rules are taken from the "INSTRUCTIONS TO CORRESPONDENTS" sent out on a printed card to the correspondents of the St. Louis Star:
QUERY BY WIRE ON ALL STORIES you consider are worth telegraphing, unless you are absolutely certain The Star wants you to send the story without query, or in case of a big story breaking suddenly near edition time. If you have not time to query, get a reply and send such matter as might be ordered before the next edition time; send the story in the shortest possible number of words necessary to tell it, asking if additional matter is desired.
Write your queries so they can be understood. Never send a "blind" query. If John Smith, a confirmed bachelor, whose age is 80 years, elopes with and marries the daughter of the woman who jilted him when he was a youth, say so in as few words as possible, but be sure to convey the dramatic news worth of the story in your query. Do not say, "Bachelor elopes with girl, daughter of woman he knew a long time ago." In itself the story which this query tells might be worth printing, but it would not be half so good a story as the elopement of John Smith, 80, bachelor, woman hater, with the daughter of his old sweetheart.
When a good story breaks close to edition time and the circumstances justify it, use the long-distance telephone, but first be reasonably certain The Star will not get the story from another source.
Write your stories briefly. The Star desires to remunerate its correspondents according to the worth of a story and not for so many words. One good story of 200 words with the right "punch" in the introduction is worth a dozen strung over as many dozen pages of copy paper with the real story in the last paragraph of each. Tell your story in simple, every-day conversational words: quit when you have finished. Relegate the details. Unless it is a case of identification in a murder mystery, or some similar big story, no one cares about the color of the man's hair. Get the principal facts in the first paragraph—stop soon after.
Send as much of your stuff as possible by mail, especially if you have the story in the late afternoon and are near enough to St. Louis to reach The Star by 9 o'clock the next morning. If necessary, send the letter special delivery.
Don't stop working on a good story when you have all the facts; if there are photographs to be obtained, get the photographs, especially if the principals in the story are persons of standing, and more especially if they are women.
Correspondents will appreciably increase their worth to The Star and enhance their earning capacity by observing these rules.
Before any one can hope to write for a newspaper he must know something about news values—something about the essence of interest that makes one story worth a column and cuts down another, of equal importance from other points of view, to a stickful. He must recognize the relative value of facts so that he can distinguish the significant part of his story and feature it accordingly. The question is a delicate one and yet a very reasonable and logical one. The ideal of a newspaper, according to present-day ethics, is to print news. The daily press is no longer a golden treasury of contemporary literature, not even, perhaps, an exponent of political principles. Its primary purpose is to report contemporary history—to keep us informed concerning the events that are taking place each day in the world about us.
To this idea is added another. A newspaper must be interesting. In these days of many newspapers few readers are satisfied with merely being informed; they want to be informed in a way that interests them. To this demand every one connected with a newspaper office tries to cater. It is the defense of the sensational yellow journals and it is the reason for everything in the daily press. There is so much to read that people will not read things that do not interest them, and the paper that succeeds is the paper that interests the greatest number of readers. Circulation cannot be built up by printing uninteresting stuff that the majority of readers are not interested in, and circulation is necessary to success.
This desire to interest readers is behind the whole question of news values. News is primarily the account of the latest events, but, more than that, it is the account of the latest events that interest readers who are not connected with these events. Further than that, it is the account of the latest events that interest the greatest number of readers. Susie Brown may have sprained her ankle. The fact is absorbingly interesting to Susie; it is even rather interesting to her family and friends, even to her enemies. If she is well known in the little town in which she lives her accident may be interesting enough to the townspeople for the local weekly to print a complete account of it. However, the event is interesting only to people who know Susie, and after all they do not comprise a very large number. Hence her accident has no news value outside the local weekly. On the other hand, had Susie sprained her ankle in some very peculiar manner, the accident might be of interest to people who do not know Susie. Suppose that she had tripped on her gown as she was ascending the steps of the altar to be married. Such an accident would be very unusual, almost unheard of. People in general are interested in unusual things, and many, many readers would be interested in reading about Susie's unusual accident although they did not know Susie or even the town in which she lives. Such a story would be the report of a late event that would interest many people; hence it would have a certain amount of news value. Of course, the reader loses sight of Susie in reading of her accident—it might as well have been Mary Jones—but that is because Susie has no news value in herself. That is another matter.
1. Classes of Readers.—Realizing that his story must be of interest to the greatest number of people, the reporter must remember the sort of people for whom he is writing. That complicates the whole matter. If he were writing for a single class of readers he could easily give them the news that would interest them. But he is not; he is writing for many classes of people, for all classes of people. And he must interest them all. He is writing for the business man in his office, for the wife in the home, for the ignorant, for the highly educated, for the rich and the poor, for the old and the young, for doctors, lawyers, bankers, laborers, ministers, and women. All of them buy his paper to hear the latest news told in a way that interests them, and he has to cater to each and to all of them. If he were simply writing for business men he would give them many columns of financial news, but that would not interest tired laborers. An extended account of the doings of a Presbyterian convention would not attract the great class of men with sporting inclinations, and a story of a very pretty exhibition of scientific boxing would not appeal to the wife at home. They all buy the paper, and they all want to be interested, and the paper must, therefore, print stories that interest at least the majority of them. That is the question of news values. The news must be the account of the latest events that interest the greatest number of readers of all classes.
This search for the universally-interesting news is the reason behind the sensational papers. Although the interests of any individual differ in almost every aspect from the interests of his neighbor, there is one sort of news that interests them both, that interests every human being. That is the news that appeals to the emotions, to the heart. It is the news that deals with human life—human nature—human interest news the papers call it. In it every human being is interested. However trivial may be the event, if it can be described in a way that will make the reader feel the point of view of the human beings who suffered or struggled or died or who were made happy in the event, every other human being will read it with interest. Human sympathy makes one want to feel joy and pain from the standpoint of others. Naturally that sort of news is always read; naturally the paper that devotes itself to such news is always read and is always successful as far as circulation and profits go. The papers that have that ideal of news behind them and forsake every other ideal for it are called sensational papers. Whether they are good or not is another question.
With this idea of what news values means and the idea that news is worth while only when it interests the largest number of people of all classes, we may try to look for the things that make news interesting to the greatest number of people of all classes. The reporter must know not only what news is, but what makes it news. He must be able to see the things in a story that will interest the greatest number of people of all classes. These are many and intricate.
2. Timeliness.—In the first place, news must be new. A story must have timeliness. Our readers want to know what happened to-day, for yesterday and last week are past and gone. They want to be up to the minute in their information on current events. Therefore a story that is worth printing to-day will not be worth printing to-morrow or, at most, on the day after to-morrow. Events must be chronicled just as soon as they happen. Furthermore, the story itself must show that it is new. It must tell the reader at once that the event which it is chronicling happened to-day or last night—at least since the last edition of the paper. That is why the reporter must never fail to put the time in the introduction of his story. Editors grow gray-headed trying to keep up with the swift passing of events, and they are always very careful to tell their readers that the events which they are chronicling are the latest events. That is the reason why every editor hates the word "yesterday" and tries to get "to-day" or "this morning" into the lead of every story. Hence, to the newspaper, everything that happened since midnight last night is labeled "this morning," and everything that happened since six o'clock yesterday afternoon is labeled "last night." Anything before that hour must be labeled "yesterday," but it goes in as "late yesterday afternoon," if it possibly can. Hence the first principle of news values is timeliness—news is news only because it just happened and can be spoken of as one of the events of "to-day" or of "late yesterday."
3. Distance.—Distance is another factor in news values. In spite of fast trains and electric telegraphs human beings are clannish and local in their interests. They are interested mainly in things and persons that they know, and news from outside their ken must be of unusual significance to attract them. They like to read about things that they have seen and persons that they know, because they are slow to exert their imaginations enough to appreciate things that they do not know personally. Hence every newspaper is primarily local, even though it is a metropolitan daily, and news from a distance plays a very subordinate part. It has been said that New York papers cannot see beyond the Alleghanies; it is equally true that most papers cannot see more than a hundred miles from the printing office, except in the case of national news. Any newspaper's range of news sources goes out from the editorial room in concentric circles. Purely personal news must come from within the range of the paper's general circulation, because people do not care to read purely personal news about persons whom they do not know. Other news is limited ordinarily to the region with which the paper's readers are personally acquainted—the state, perhaps—because subscribers unconsciously wish to hear about places with which they are personally acquainted. Any news that comes from outside this larger circle must be nation-wide or very unusual in its interest. A story that may be worth a column in El Paso, Texas, would not be worth printing in New York because El Paso is hardly more than a name to most New York newspaper readers. In the same way, the biggest stories in New York are not worth anything in Texas, because Texas readers are not personally interested in New York—they cannot say, "Yes, I know that building; I walked down that street the other day; oh, you can't tell me anything about the subway." News is primarily local, and the first thing a correspondent must learn is how to distinguish the stories that are purely local in their interest from those that would be worth printing a hundred miles away in a paper read by people who do not know the places or persons involved in the story. Colonel Smith may be a very big frog in the little puddle of Smith's Corners, and his doings may be big news to the weeklies all over his county, but he has to do something very unusual before his name is worth a line in a paper two counties away. He is nothing but a name to people who do not know him or know of him, and therefore they are not interested in him. Every correspondent must watch for the stories that have something more than a local interest, some element of news in them that will carry them over the obstacle of distance and make them interesting to any reader.
It would be impossible to analyze news values to the extent of telling every conceivable element of interest that will overcome the obstacle of distance. Yet there are certain elements that always make a newspaper story interesting to any one.
4. Loss of life.—One of these is the loss of human life. For some strange reason every human being is interested in the thought of death. Just as soon as a story mentions death it is worth printing, and if it has a number of deaths to tell about it is worth printing anywhere. Any fire, any railroad wreck, or any other disaster in which a number of persons are killed or injured makes a story that is worth sending anywhere. There seems to be a joy for the reader in the mere number of fatalities. A story that can begin with "Ten people were killed," or "Seven men met their death," attracts a reader's interest at once. As a very natural result, and justly, too, newspapers have been broadly accused of exaggeration for the sake of a large number. But at present many papers are inclined to underestimate rather than overestimate, perhaps to avoid this accusation. In a number of instances in the past year, among them the Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York, the first figures were smaller than the official count printed later. That does not mean, however, that newspapers do not want stories involving loss of life. Any story which involves a large number of fatalities will carry a long distance, if for no other reason.
5. Big Names.—Another element of news values is the interest in prominent people. The mere mention of a man or a woman who is known widely attracts attention. Although Colonel Smith of Smith's Corners has to do something very unusual to get his name in any paper outside his county, the slightest thing that President Taft does is printed in every paper in the country. It is simply because of our interest in the man himself. Some names give a story news value because the names are widely known politically or financially, some names because they are simply notorious. But any name that is recognized at once, for any reason, gives a story news value.
6. Property Loss.—Akin to man's love for any account that involves large loss of human life, is his love of any story that tells about a huge loss of property. The mere figures seem to have a charm; any story that can begin with awesome figures, like "Two million dollars," "One hundred automobiles," "Ten city blocks," has news value. Hence any story that involves a large loss that can be expressed in figures has the power to carry a great distance.
7. Unusualness.—It is safe to say that newspaper readers are interested in anything unusual. It does not matter whether it is a thing, a person, an action, a misfortune; so long as it is strange and out of the range of ordinary lives, it is interesting. Many, if not most, newspaper stories have nothing but the element of strangeness in them to give them news value, but if they are sufficiently strange and unusual they may be copied all over the country. An unusual origin or an unusual rescue will give an unimportant fire great news value. And so with every other kind of story.
8. Human Interest.—Along with the element of the strange and unusual, goes the human interest element. Any story that will make us laugh or make us cry has news value. Hundreds of magazines are issued monthly with nothing in them but fictitious stories that are intended to arouse our emotions, and newspapers are beginning to realize that they can interest their readers in the same way. No life is so prosaic that it is not full of incidents that make one laugh or cry, and when these stories can be told in a way that will make any reader feel the same emotions, they have news value that will carry them a long distance. Obviously their success depends very largely upon the way they are told.
9. Personal Appeal.—Another element that may give a story news value is that of personal appeal or application to the reader's own daily life. Men are primarily egoistic and selfish and nothing interests them more than things that affect them personally. They can read complacently and without interest of the misfortunes and joys of others, but just as soon as anything affects their own daily lives, even a little, they want to hear about it. Perhaps the price of butter has gone up a few cents or the gas company has reduced its rates from eighty cents to seventy-seven. Every reader is interested at once, for the news affects his own daily life. Sometimes this personal appeal is due merely to the reader's familiarity with the persons or places mentioned in the story; sometimes it is due to the story's application to his business life, his social or religious activities, or to any phase of his daily existence. That is the reason why political news interests every one, for we all feel that the management of the government has an influence on our own lives. The story of any political maneuver—especially if it is one that may be looked upon as bad or good—carries farther than any other story. Show that your story tells of something that has even the slightest effect on the lives of a large number of people and it needs no other element to give it news value.
10. Local Reasons.—These factors and many others give news stories a news value that will carry them a long distance and make them interesting in communities far from their source. Many local reasons may enhance the value of a story for local papers. A paper's policy or some campaign that it is waging may give an otherwise unimportant event a tremendous significance. If an unimportant person is slightly injured while leaving a trolley car the story is hardly worth a line of type. But if such an item should come to a newspaper while it is carrying on a campaign against the local street railway company, the story would probably be written and printed in great detail. Any slight occurrence that may be in line with a paper's political beliefs would receive an amount of space far out of proportion with its ordinary news worth. News value is a very changeable and indefinite thing, and there are countless reasons why any given story should be of interest to a large number of readers. And the possibility of interesting a large number of readers is the basis of news value.
11. The Feature.—In connection with the study of news values the question of feature is important. In editorial offices one is constantly hearing the word "feature," and reporters are constantly admonished to "play up the feature" of their stories. Feature is the word that editors use to signify the essence of news value. Every story that is printed is printed because of some fact in it that makes it interesting—gives it news value. The element in the story that makes it interesting and worth printing is the feature. The feature may be some prominent name, a large list of fatalities, a significant amount of property destroyed, or merely the unusualness of the incident. This feature is the element that makes the story news; therefore it is used to attract attention to the story. Every newspaper story displays like a placard in its headlines the reason why it was printed—the element in it that makes it interesting. "Playing up the feature" is simply the act of bringing this feature to the front so that it will attract attention to the story. Just how this is done we shall see later. But when, as a reporter, you are looking for a feature to play up in your lead, remember that the feature to be played up is the thing in the story that gives the story news value. And few stories have more than one claim to news value, more than one feature.
The newspaper vernacular that is used in the editorial and press rooms of any daily paper is a curious mixture of literary abbreviations and technical printing terms. It is the result of the strange mingling of the literary trade of writing with the mechanical trade of setting type. For that reason a green reporter has difficulty in understanding the instructions that he receives until he has been in the office long enough to learn the office slang. It would be impossible to list all of the expressions that might be heard in one day, but a knowledge of the commonest words will enable a reporter to get the drift of his editor's instructions.
When a young man secures a position as reporter for a newspaper he begins as a cub reporter and is usually said to be on the staff of his paper. His sphere of activity is confined to the editorial room, where the news is written; his relations with the business office, where advertising, circulation, and other business matters are handled, consists of the weekly duty of drawing his pay. His chief enemies are in the printing office where his literary efforts are set up in type and printed. His superiors are called editors and exist in varying numbers, depending upon the size of his paper. The man who directs the reporters is usually called the city editor, or perhaps the day or night city editor; above him there are managing editors and other persons in authority with whom the cub is not concerned; and the favored mortals who enjoy a room by themselves and write nothing but editorials are called editors or editorial writers. There may also be a telegraph editor, a sporting editor, a Sunday editor, and many other editors; or if the paper is small and poor all of these editors may be condensed into one very busy man. On a city daily of average size there are desk men, or copyreaders, who work under editorial direction but feel superior to the reporter because they correct his literary efforts.
The reporter's work consists of gathering and writing news. In the office this is called covering and writing stories. He is ordinarily put on a beat, or run; this is simply a daily route or round of news sources which he follows as regularly as a policeman walks his beat. The reporter's work on a special story outside his beat is called an assignment. Any hint that he may receive concerning a bit of news is called a tip. Any bit of news that he secures to the exclusion of his paper's rivals is called a beat, or a scoop.
Everything that is written for the paper, whether it be a two-line personal item or a two-column report, is called a story, or a yarn, and from the time the story is written until it appears in the printed paper it is called copy. If the story is well written and needs few corrections it is called clean copy. After the story is written it is turned over to the copyreader to be edited. The copyreader corrects it and writes the headlines or heads; then he sends it to the composing room to be set in type by the compositor. The story itself is usually set up on a linotype machine and the heads are set up by hand. For the sake of keeping the two parts of the copy together the reporter or the copyreader ordinarily gives the story a name, such as "Fire No. 2"; the bit of lead on which the name is printed is called a slug and the story is said to be slugged. If at any time in its journey from the reporter's pencil to the printed page, the editor decides not to print the story, he kills it; otherwise he runs it, or allows it to go into the paper. When the story is in type, an impression, or proof, is taken of it, and this proof, still called copy, comes back to the copyreader or the proofreader for the correction of typographical errors. The gathering together of all of the day's stories into the form of the final printed page is called making up the paper; this is usually done by some one of the editors. In like manner, the finished aspect of the paper is called the make-up.
Some stories are said to be big stories because of unusual news value. When any news comes unexpectedly it is said to break; and when any story comes in beforehand and must be held over, it is said to be released on the day on which it may be printed. The first paragraph of any story is called the lead (pronounced "leed"); the word lead is also used to designate several introductory paragraphs that are tacked on at the beginning of a long story, which may be of the nature of a running story (as the running story of a football game), or may be made up of several parts, written by one or more reporters. In general, that part of a story which presents the gist or summary of the entire story at the beginning is called the lead. The most interesting thing in the story, the part that gives it news value, is called the feature, and playing up the feature consists in telling the most interesting thing in the first line of the lead or in the headline. An entire story is said to be played up if it is given a prominent place in the paper. A feature story is either a story that is thus played up or a story that is written for some other reason than news value, such as human interest. When a story is rewritten to give a new interest to old facts it is called a rewrite story; when it is rewritten to include new facts or developments, it is called a follow-up, second-day, or follow story.
Because of the close relation between the editorial room and the printing office many printing terms are commonly heard about the editorial room. All copy is measured by the column and by the stickful. A column is usually a little less than 1,500 words and a stickful is the amount of type that can be set in a compositor's stick, the metal frame used in setting type by hand—about two inches or 100 words. A bit of copy that is set up with a border or a row of stars about it is said to be boxed. Whenever copy is set with extra space between the lines it is said to be leaded (pronounced "leded")—the name is taken from the piece of lead that is placed between the lines of type. The reporter must gradually learn the names of the various kinds of type and the various proofreader's signs that are used to indicate the way in which the type is to be set, for the whole work of writing the news is governed and limited by the mechanical possibilities of the printing office. The commonest signs used by the proofreader or the copyreader, together with instructions for preparing copy, are given in the Style Book at the end of this volume. (A complete list of proofreader's signs can be found in the back of any large dictionary.) Style is a word which editors use to cover a multitude of rules, arbitrary or otherwise, concerning capitalization, punctuation, abbreviation, etc. A paper that uses many capital letters is said to follow an up style, and a paper that uses small letters instead of capitals whenever there is a choice is said to follow a down style. Every newspaper has its own style and usually prints its rules in a Style Book; the Style Book given in this volume has been compiled from many representative newspaper style books. It sets forth an average style and the beginner is advised to follow it closely in his practice writing—for, as editors say, "uniformity is better than a strict following of style."
THE NEWS STORY FORM
When we come to the writing of the news we find that there are many sorts of stories that must be written. In the newspaper office they are called simply stories without distinction. For the purpose of study they may be classified to some extent, but this classification must not be taken as hard and fast. The commonest kind of story is the simple news story. Practically all newspaper reports are news stories, but as distinguished from other kinds of reports the simple news story is the report of some late event or occurrence. It is usually concerned with unexpected news, and is the commonest kind of story in any newspaper. It is to be distinguished from reports of speeches, interview stories, court reports, social news, dramatic news, sporting news, human-interest stories, and all the rest. The distinction is largely one of form and does not exist to any great extent in a newspaper office where all stories are simply "stories."
The simple news story is probably the most variable part of a newspaper. Given the same facts, each individual reporter will write the story in his individual way and each editor will change it to suit his individual taste. No two newspapers have exactly the same ideal form of news story and no newspaper is able to live up to its individual ideal in each story.
But there are general tendencies. Certain things are true of all news stories; whether the story be the baldest recital of facts or the most sensational featuring of an imaginary thrill in a commonplace happening, certain characteristics are always present. And these characteristics can always be traced to one cause—the effort to catch and hold the reader's interest. When a busy American glances over his newspaper while he sips his breakfast coffee or while he clings to a strap on the way to his office, he reads only the stories that catch his interest—and he reads down the column in any one story only so long as his interest is maintained. Hence the ideal news story is one which will catch the reader's attention by its beginning and hold his interest to the very end. This is the principle of all newspaper writing.
The interest depends, in a large measure, on the way the facts are presented. True, certain facts are in themselves more interesting to a casual reader than others, but just as truly other less interesting facts may be made as interesting through the reporter's skill. The most interesting of stories may lose its interest if poorly presented, and facts of the most commonplace nature may be made attractive enough to hold the reader to the last word. The aim of every reporter and of every editor is to make every story so attractive and interesting that the most casual reader cannot resist reading it.
In the old days news stories were written in the logical order of events just like any other narrative, but constant change has brought about a new form, as different and individual as any other form of expression. Unlike any other imaginable piece of writing, the news story discloses its most interesting facts first. It does not lead the reader up to a startling bit of news by a tantalizing suspense in an effort to build up a surprise for him; it tells its most thrilling content first and trusts to his interest to lead him on through the details that should logically precede the real news. Therefore every editor admonishes his reporters "to give the gist of the news first and the details later."
There are other reasons for this peculiar reversal of the logical order of narrative. Few readers have time to read the whole of every story, and yet they want to get the news—in the shortest possible time. Therefore the newspaper very kindly tells the important part of each story at the beginning. Then if the reader cares to hear the details he can read the rest of the story; but he gets the news, anyway. Again, if the exigencies of making up the stories into a paper of mechanically limited space require that a story be cut down, the editor may slash off a paragraph or two at the end without depriving the story of its interest. Imagine the difficulty of cutting down a story that is told in its logical order! If the real news of the story were in the last paragraph it would go in the slashing, and what would be left? Whereas, if the gist of the story comes first the editor may run any number of paragraphs or even the first paragraph alone and still have a complete story.
The arrangement of news stories in American newspapers is thus a very natural one, resulting from the exigencies of the business. Just how to fit every story to this arrangement is a difficult task. However, there are certain rules that the reporter may apply to each story, and these are very simple.
In the first place, almost every story has a feature—there is some one thing in it that is out of the ordinary, something that gives it interest and news value beyond the interest in the incident behind it. No two stories have the same interesting features; if they had, only one of them would be worth printing and that would be the first. This extraordinary feature the reporter must see at once. If a building burns he must see quickly what incident in the occurrence will be of interest to readers who are reading of many fires every day. If John Smith falls off a street car the reporter must discover some interesting fact in connection with Mr. Smith's misfortune that will be new and attractive to readers who do not know John and are bored with accounts of other Smiths' accidents. The accident itself may be interesting, but the part of the accident that is out of the ordinary—the thing that gives the accident news value—is the feature of the story, and the reporter must tell it first.
Thoroughly determined to tell the most interesting part, the gist, of his story in the first paragraph, the reporter must remember that there are certain other things about the incident that the reader wants to know just as quickly. There are certain questions which arise in the reader's mind when the occurrence is suggested, and these questions must be answered as quickly as they are asked. The questions usually take the form of when? where? what? who? how? why? If a man falls off the street car we are eager to know at once who he was, although we probably do not know him, anyway; where it happened; when it happened; how he fell; and why he fell. If there is a fire we immediately ask what burned; where it was; when it burned; how it burned; and what caused it to burn. And the reporter must answer these questions with the same breath that tells us that a man fell off the car or that there was any fire at all.
The effort to answer these questions at once has led to the peculiar form of introduction characteristic of every newspaper story. Newspaper people call it the lead. It is really nothing but the statement of the briefest possible answers to all these questions in one sentence or one short paragraph. It tells the whole story in its baldest aspects and aims to satisfy the reader who wants only the gist of the story and does not care for the details. When all his questions have been answered in one breath he is ready to read the details one at a time, but he won't be satisfied if he must read all about how the fire was discovered before he is told what building burned, when it burned, etc. For example:
Fire of unknown origin caused the practical destruction of the famous old "Crow's Nest," at Tenth and Cedar streets, perhaps the best known and oldest landmark in the Second ward, yesterday afternoon. Milwaukee Free Press.
This is the lead of an ordinary news story—a newspaper report of a fire. The lead begins with "Fire" because the story has no unusual feature—no element in it that is more interesting than the fact that there was a fire. The reporter considers "Fire" the most important part of his story and begins with it. As soon as we read the word "Fire" we ask, "When?"—"Where?"—"What?"—"Why?"—"How?" The reporter answers us in the same sentence with his announcement, "yesterday afternoon"—"at Tenth and Cedar Streets"—"the famous old 'Crow's Nest,' perhaps the best known and oldest landmark in the Second ward"—"unknown origin." How is not worth answering, in this case, beyond the statement that the destruction was practically complete. Thus the reporter has told us his bit of news and answered our most obvious questions about it at the very beginning of his story—in one sentence. According to newspaper rules this is a good lead. The order of the answers will be considered later. For the present we are concerned only with the facts that the lead must contain.
THE SIMPLE FIRE STORY
The simplest news story is the story which has no feature—which has no fact in it more important than the incident which it reports—e.g., the fire at the end of the last chapter. If we recall the various elements of news value we note that any incident may be given greater news value by the presence of some unusual or interesting feature—a great loss of life, an unusual time, a strikingly large loss of property, or simply a well-known name. Such a story is called a story with a feature, because its interest depends not so much on the incident itself as upon the unusual feature within the incident. On the other hand, many news stories do not have features. Many stories are worth printing simply because of the incident which they report, without any unusual feature within them. For example, a building may burn with no loss of life, no great loss of property, and no striking occurrence in connection with the burning. Such a fire is worth reporting, but there is no fact in the story more interesting than the fact that there was a fire; the story has no feature.
The leads of these two kinds of stories are different. When a story has a feature it is customary to play up that feature in the first line of the lead. If the story has no feature, is simply the record of a commonplace event, the lead merely announces the incident and answers the reader's questions about it.
The commonest of featureless stories is the simple fire story in which nothing out of the ordinary happens, no one is killed, no striking rescues take place, and no tremendous amount of property is destroyed. This may be taken as typical of all featureless stories. The reporter, in writing a report of such a fire, merely answers in the lead the questions when, where, what, why, and perhaps how, that the reader asks concerning the fire. The most striking part of the story is that there was a fire; hence the story begins with "Fire." For example:
Fire today wrecked the top of the six-story warehouse at 393 to 395 Washington street, used by the United States army as a medical supply store-room for the Department of the East. Capt. Edwin Wolf, who is in charge of the warehouse, says the loss on tents, blankets, cots, and other bedding stored on the floors of the building was large. New York Mail.
As one reads down through the rest of the story he finds nothing more striking than the fact that there was a fire. Therefore there is no particular feature. No one was killed; no one was injured; the loss was not extraordinary for a New York fire—nothing in the story is of greater interest than the mere fact that there was a fire. Hence the story begins with the word "Fire." Notice that it does not begin "A fire" or "The fire"—for the simple reason that the word fire does not need an article before it. The editor will also tell you that it is not considered good to begin a story with an article, for the beginning is the most important part of a story and it is foolish to waste that advantageous place on unimportant words.
The first word tells the reader that there has been a fire. He immediately asks where?—what burned?—when?—how much was lost? And the reporter proceeds to answer his questions in their order of importance. The reporter who wrote this story apparently thought that the time was of greatest importance and slipped it in at once—"today." He might just as well have left the time until the end of the sentence because it is not of very great interest. He considers the question "Where" of next importance, and answers with "the top of the six-story warehouse at 393 to 395 Washington Street." The question "what?" he answers with a clause, "used by the United States army as a medical supply store-room for the Department of the East." He does not try to answer the question "why?" because, as the rest of the story tells us, no one knew exactly what caused the fire. And as for the "How?" there is nothing extraordinary in the way that it burned beyond the fact that it burned. Thus, in one sentence, he has answered all four questions about the fire, except a little query concerning the amount of the loss. That he considers worth a separate sentence of details.
This is not a perfect lead. Many editors would consider it faulty, but it illustrates one way of writing the lead of a featureless fire story. Obviously there are faults; for instance, the time is given an undue amount of emphasis and the cause is omitted.
Suppose that we construct another lead from the same story—a lead which would be more in accordance with the logic of newspaper writing. We shall begin with the word "fire," but after it we shall slip in a little mention of the cause since to the reader not directly acquainted with the property that point is always of the greatest importance. Then we shall tell where the fire was and after that what was burned. And last of all we shall give the time since that is of least importance to the average reader. This would be the result:
Fire of unknown origin wrecked the top of the six-story warehouse at 393-395 Washington street, used by the United States army as a medical supply store-room for the Department of the East, destroying a large number of tents, blankets, cots, and other bedding, today.
We might as well have put the what before the where or altered the lead in any other way. But we would always begin with the word "fire" and answer all the questions that the reader might ask—in one short simple sentence. This constitutes our lead. We have told the casual reader what he wants to know about the fire. We give him more details about the fire if he wants to read them, but after we have stated the case clearly in the lead we no longer reckon his time so carefully and allow ourselves some latitude in the telling. After the lead we begin the story from the beginning and tell it in its logical order from start to finish, always bearing in mind that the editor may chop off a paragraph or two at the end.
Hence the second paragraph of the story as it appeared in The Mail begins:
John Smith, a man employed in the stock-room on the sixth floor, saw smoke rolling out of one corner and notified other employees in the building, while Patrolman Hogan turned in an alarm.
We are back at the beginning now and telling things as they came. The next paragraph of the story tells us how they fought the fire, and the third tells us how they finally brought it under control. The last paragraph of the story reads:
There are three such warehouses in the country, one at St. Louis, another at San Francisco, but the one in this city is by far the largest. In it are kept supplies for the Departments of the East, Gulf, Cuba, Porto Rico, and the Philippines.
The editor of The Mail had plenty of space that day and saw fit to run this last paragraph, but we should not have lost much had he chopped it off. Perhaps the reporter's copy contained still another paragraph telling about Captain Wolf, but that did not pass the editorial pencil. Even more of the story might have been slashed without depriving us of much of the interesting news.
Judging from the above story a newspaper account is divided into two separate and independent parts: the lead and the detailed account. The lead is written for the casual reader and contains all the necessary facts about the fire; it may stand alone and constitute a story in itself. The detailed account is written for the reader who wants to hear more about the incident, and is written in the logical order of events—with an eye to the danger of the editor's pencil threatening the last paragraphs. In other words, the reporter tells his story briefly in one paragraph and then goes back and tells it all over again in a more detailed way. If the story is of sufficient importance the second telling may not be sufficient and he may go back a third time to the beginning and tell it again with still greater detail—but that is another matter. For the present we shall consider only the lead and the first detailed account.
There are certain other points to be noticed in the report of a featureless fire. Under no condition should it begin with the time. Why? Because, unless the time is of extreme interest, no one cares particularly when the fire occurred. And if the time is of great interest—as, for instance, if a church should burn while the congregation is in it—then the time becomes a feature to be played up and the story is no longer a featureless story. We are now considering stories in which nothing is of greater interest than the mere fact that there was a fire.
The same is true of the location. Who cares what street the fire was on until he knows more about the fire? If the location were of such significant importance as to be played up, the story would no longer be a featureless story.
The paragraphing is also important. Since the lead is in itself a separate part of the story it should always be paragraphed separately. Do not let the beginning of the detailed account lap over into the lead, and do not introduce into the first paragraph any facts which are not absolutely a part of the lead—that is, facts that are absolutely essential to a general knowledge of the fire. When once you begin to tell the story in detail tell it logically and paragraph it logically. Do not tell us that John Smith discovered the fire and that the loss is $500 in the same paragraph. Take up each point separately and treat it fully before you leave it—then begin a new paragraph for the next item.
* * * * *
To take a hypothetical case, suppose that misfortune visits the home of John H. Jones, who lives at 79 Liberty Street. A defective flue sets his house on fire and it burns to the ground. By inquiry we find that the house is worth about $4,000 and is fully insured.
There is nothing particularly striking about the story. We are sorry for Mr. Jones, but many houses worth $4,000 are set on fire by poor chimneys and many more houses burn down. No one was hurt, no one was killed; the most striking part of it all is that there was a fire. We would begin with the word "Fire." Perhaps our readers would be most interested in the cause of the fire and we shall tell them that first. Then we shall tell them what burned, when it burned, and where it stood. There is nothing else that a casual reader would want to know and the lead would read:
Fire starting in a defective chimney destroyed the residence of John H. Jones, 79 Liberty street, at midnight last night, causing a loss of $4,000, covered by insurance.
Our casual reader is satisfied. For the reader who wishes to know more about the fire we add a paragraph or two of detail. First, we may tell him who discovered the fire; then how the Jones family managed to escape; and after that how the fire was extinguished, and we might slip in a paragraph explaining just what trouble in the chimney made a fire possible. The editor may chop off any number of paragraphs or cut the story down to the lead, and yet our readers will get the facts and know just exactly what was the reason for the fire bell and the red sky at midnight last night.
THE FEATURE FIRE STORY
A fire story without a feature begins with "Fire" because there is nothing in the story more interesting than the fact that there has been a fire. Such was the case in the burning of John Jones's house in the last chapter. But just as soon as any part of the story becomes more interesting than the fact that there was a fire, the story is no longer featureless—it is a fire story with a feature, or, for the purposes of our study, a feature fire story. This feature may be related to the story in one of two ways. In the first place, the answer to some one of the reader's questions may be the feature—e.g., the answer to when, where, what, how, why, who. On the other hand, the feature may be in some unexpected attendant circumstance that the reader would not think of; for instance, loss of life, an interesting rescue, or something of that sort. Such a distinction is entirely arbitrary and would not be considered in a newspaper office, but it will make the matter simpler for the purposes of study.
A. FEATURES IN ANSWERS TO READER'S CUSTOMARY QUESTIONS
(When, Where, What, How, Why, Who).
Suppose that John Jones's house did not burn in the usual way—suppose that there is some striking incident in the story that makes it different from other fire stories. The story has a feature. Perhaps the answer to some one of the reader's customary questions is more interesting than the answers to the others—so much more interesting that it supersedes even the fact that there was a fire. Then it would be foolish to begin with the mere word "fire" when we have something more interesting to tell. The fire takes a second place and we begin with the interesting fact that supersedes it. For the present we shall consider that this interesting fact is the answer to one of the questions that the reader always asks; for instance, why the house burned or when it burned.
1. Why.—Perhaps Mr. Jones's house was set on fire in a very unusual way. There was a little party in session at the Jones's and some one decided to take a flash-light picture. The flash-light set fire to a lace curtain and before any one could stop it the house was afire. Few fires begin in that way, and our readers would be very interested in hearing about it. The story has a feature in the answer to the reader's Why? And so we would begin our lead in this way:
A flashlight setting fire to a lace curtain started a fire which destroyed the residence of John H. Jones, 79 Liberty street, at 11 o'clock last night and caused a loss of $4,000.
In this way the feature is played up at the beginning of the sentence, and yet the rest of the reader's questions are answered in the same sentence and he knows a great deal about the fire. Or, leaving Mr. Jones to his fate, we may give another example of an unusual cause taken from a newspaper. This was a big fire, and yet the unusual cause was of greater interest than the fire itself or the amount of property destroyed:
A tiny "joss stick," the lighted end of which was no larger than a pinhead, is thought to have been responsible for a fire that destroyed the White City Amusement Park at Broad Ripple last night. The loss to the amusement company is $161,000. Indianapolis News.
2. Where.—To return to Mr. Jones, there may have been some other incident in the burning of his house aside from the cause that was of exceptional interest. Let us say that his house stood in a part of the town where a fire was to be feared. Perhaps it stood within twenty feet of the new First Congregational Church. The burning of Jones's house would then be insignificant in comparison to the danger to the costly edifice beside it, and our readers would be more interested in an item concerning their church. The answer to Where? is more interesting than the fire itself. Hence we would bury, so to speak, Mr. Jones's misfortune behind the greater danger, and the story would read:
Fire endangered the new First Congregational Church on Liberty street, erected at a cost of $100,000, when the home of J. H. Jones, in the rear of the church, was destroyed at midnight last night.
The First Congregational Church, recently built at a cost of $100,000, was seriously threatened by a fire which destroyed the residence of John H. Jones, 78 Liberty street, within twenty feet of the church, at midnight last night.
Turning again to the daily papers, we can find many fire stories in which the location of the burned structure is important enough to take the first line of the lead. Here is one:
The Plaza Hotel had a few uncomfortable moments last night when flames from a building adjoining at 22 West Fifty-ninth street were shooting up as high as the tenth story of the hotel and the fire apparatus which responded to the delayed alarm was looking for the blaze several blocks away. New York Sun.
3. When.—Sometimes the time of the fire is very interesting. John H. Jones's house may have caught fire from a very insignificant thing and its location may have been unimportant, but the fire may have come at an unusual time. Perhaps Mr. Jones's daughter was being married at a quiet home wedding in her father's house and in the midst of the ceremony the roof of the house burst into flames. The unusual time would be interesting; the answer to When? would be the feature. We might write the lead thus:
During the wedding of Miss Mary Jones at the home of her father, John H. Jones, 78 Liberty street, last night, the house suddenly burst into flames and the bridal party was compelled to flee into the street.
Fire interrupted the wedding of Miss Mary Jones at her father's home, 78 Liberty street, last night, when the house caught fire from a defective chimney during the ceremony.
The daily papers furnish many illustrations of fires at unusual times—here is one:
When the snowstorm was at its height early this morning, a three-story brick building at Nos. 4410-18 Third Avenue, Brooklyn, caught fire, and the flames spread rapidly to an adjoining tenement, sending a small crowd of shivering tenants into the icy street. New York Post.
4. What.—(a) The Burned Building.—Many fire stories have their feature in the answer to the reader's What? Not infrequently the building itself is of great importance. Naturally "The residence of John H. Jones" would not make a good beginning, if John Jones is not well known, because people would be more interested in reading about a mere fire than in reading about the residence of John H. Jones, whom they do not know. For it must be remembered that it is the first line that catches the reader's eye and the interest or lack of interest in the first line determines whether or not the story is to be read. Now, suppose that a building that is very well known burns—the City Hall, the Albany State House, the Herald Square Theater—the mere mention of the building will attract the reader's attention. Therefore the reporter begins with the answer to What? the name of the building, as in the following cases:
GLENS FALLS, N. Y., Aug. 17. The Kaatskill House, for many years a popular Lake George resort, was completely destroyed by fire this forenoon. New York Times.
The First M. E. Church of Chelsea, familiarly known as the Cary avenue church, was damaged last night to the amount of $7,000 by fire. Boston Herald.
(b) The Amount of Property Destroyed.—The answer to What burned? is not necessarily a building, for the building itself may not be worth featuring. The contents of the building may be more interesting, especially if the amount of property destroyed can be put in striking terms, such as $2,000,000 worth of property, or two thousand chickens, or fifty-three automobiles, or 7,000 gallons of whisky. These figures printed at the beginning of the first paragraph catch the reader's eye, thus:
Five automobiles, valued at $5,800, and property amounting to $6,200 were destroyed last evening when fire broke in the repair shop of the G. W. Browne Motor company, 228-232 Wisconsin street, near the North-Western station. Milwaukee Sentinel.
5. How.—Very rarely the manner in which a fire burns is quite unique and deserves featuring. It is inconceivable that John Jones's house could burn in any very unusual way—"with many explosions," "with a glare of flames that aroused the whole city," "with vast clouds of oily smoke"—but some fires do burn in some such a way and are interesting only for the way they burned. The following story begins with the answer to How? although the manner might be described more explicitly:
Stubborn fires have been fought in the past, but one of the hardest blazes to conquer that the local department ever contended with gutted the plant of N. Drucker & Co., manufacturers of trunks and valises, at the northwest corner of Ninth and Broadway, last night. Cincinnati Commercial Tribune.
6. Who.—Just as it would be foolish to begin with "the residence of John Jones," since the building is not well known, it would not be advisable to begin with John Jones's name, no matter what part he played. John Jones is not well known and so to the newspaper he is just a man and is treated impersonally regardless of what he does or what happens to him. Our interest in him is entirely impersonal, and all we want to know about him is what he has done or what has happened to him. Therefore few reporters would begin a story with John Jones's name. However, let some man who is well known do or suffer the slightest thing and his name immediately lends interest to the story—and therefore commands first place in the introduction. If John D. Rockefeller should even witness a fire, or if President Taft should be in the slightest way connected with a fire, the mere fire story would shrink into significance behind the name. And so, very often it is advisable to begin a fire story with a name, if the name is of sufficient prominence. It is not necessary that the well-known man's property be destroyed or even endangered for his name to have the first place in the first sentence of the lead; if the well-known man has anything whatever to do with the fire his name should be featured because to the average reader the interest in his name overshadows any interest in the fire. In this example, the name overshadows a striking loss of property and the story begins with the answer to Who?
NEW YORK, Nov. 6. While Clendenin J. Ryan, son of Thomas F. Ryan, the traction magnate, and a band of volunteer fire fighters many of them millionaires fought a blaze which started in the garage of young Ryan's country estate near Suffern, N. Y., early in the morning, three valuable automobiles, seven thoroughbred horses and several outbuildings were totally destroyed. Milwaukee Sentinel.
It will be seen that in each of the above feature fire stories some incident in the fire, or connected with the fire, overshadows the mere fact that there was a fire and makes it advisable to begin the story of the fire with the fact or incident of unusual interest. Furthermore, in each of these stories the unusual feature in the story is a direct answer to one of the reader's questions—when? where? how? what? why? who? In other words, the reporter in answering these questions, as he must in the lead of every story, finds the answer to one question so much more interesting than the answer to any of the other questions that he puts it first. In every fire story, however, the feature is not so easily discovered.
B. FEATURES IN UNEXPECTED ATTENDANT CIRCUMSTANCES
There are other things in the day's fire stories, besides the answers to the reader's questions, that may overshadow the rest of the story and deserve to be featured. Very often there are unexpected attendant circumstances occurring simultaneously with the fire or resulting from the fire to command our interest. Perhaps a number of people are killed or injured; then we want to know about them first, and the reporter neglects to answer our questions for the moment while he tells us the startling attendant circumstances that we had not expected. Even so, while giving first place to the feature, he does not forget our questions but answers them in the same sentence. Hence the introduction of a fire story with significant attendant circumstances begins with the startling fact resulting from the fire and then goes on to answer the reader's questions—in the same sentence.
This is not so difficult as it may sound. Suppose that when John Jones's house burns there is a stiff breeze blowing and the chances are that all the other houses in the block will go with it. All of his neighbors become frightened and work with feverish haste to move their household goods out into the street. In the end the fire department succeeds in confining the fire to Mr. Jones's house and his neighbors promptly carry their chattels back indoors thanking the god of good luck. Now the mere fact that John Jones's house burned down is rather insignificant beside the fact that a dozen families were driven from their homes by the fire. Therefore the reporter would begin thus:
Twelve families were driven from their homes by a fire which destroyed the residence of John H. Jones, 78 Liberty street, at 11 o'clock last night. The fire was at length kept from spreading and the neighboring residences were reoccupied.
Or to take an incident from the daily press in which the neighbors were not so fortunate; although they might have entirely lost their homes:
Twenty-two families in the six-story tenement at 147 Orchard street were routed out of the house twice early today by fires which caused a great deal of smoke, but little real damage. New York Mail.
1. Death.—(a) Number of Dead.—The most usual attendant circumstances that will come to our notice is death in the fire. Let us say that Mr. Jones's three children were alone in the house and burned to death. Their death would be of more interest to us than the burning of their father's house—and our story would necessarily begin in this way:
Three children were burned to death in a fire which destroyed the home of their father, John H. Jones, 78 Liberty street, last night.
So common is death in connection with fire that almost every day's paper contains one or more stories beginning "Ten persons were cremated——" or "Four firemen were killed——" And in every case the loss of human life is considered of greater importance than any other incident in the story, and the number of dead always takes precedence over many another startling feature. Here are a few examples:
JOHNSTOWN, Pa., Jan. 18. Seven men were cremated in a fire that burned to the ground three double houses near Berlin, Somerset County, early this morning. New York Sun.
Three children of Mr. and Mrs. Bernard Lindberg, 3328 Nineteenth avenue south, were cremated in a fire which destroyed their home shortly after 12 o'clock yesterday. The children had been left alone in the house, shut up in their bedroom, etc. St. Paul Pioneer Press.
One fireman was killed, another fireman and a woman were injured and eight people escaped death by a narrow margin Saturday night in a fire which destroyed the, etc. Milwaukee Sentinel.
NEW YORK, March 27. One hundred and forty-one persons are dead as a result of the fire which on Saturday afternoon swept the three upper floors of the factory loft building at the northwest corner of Washington place and Greene street. More than three-quarters of this number are women and girls, who were employed in the Triangle Shirt Waist factory, where the fire originated. Boston Transcript.
(b) List of Dead.—When the number of dead or injured reaches any very significant figure it is customary to make a table of dead and injured. This table is usually set into the story close after the lead, but very often the list is put in a "box" and slipped in above the story. In writing the story, however, the reporter disregards the table and begins his lead as if there were no table: e.g., "Twelve firemen were killed and fourteen injured in a fire——" The list usually gives the name, address (or some other identification), and the nature of the injury, thus:
Injured Firemen: Capt. Frank Makal, Engine Co. No. 4, cut by glass. Acting Captain W. E. Brown, fire boat No. 23, cut by glass. Peter Ryan, No. 15, flying glass. Milwaukee Free Press.
The Dead: Mrs. Charles Smith, 14 W. Gorham street. John Johnson, 1193 Chatham street. The Injured: Thomas Green, 1111 Grand street; face cut by flying glass. James Brown, 176 Orchard avenue; internal injuries; may die.
(c) Manner of Death.—A number of fatalities at the beginning always attracts attention. Not infrequently the manner or the cause, especially in the case of a single death, is worth the first place in the lead—not as "One man killed——" but as "Crushed beneath a falling wall, a man was killed." If a man burns to death in a very unusual way, or for an unusual reason, we are more interested in the way he was burned, or the reason that he burned, than in the mere fact that he was burned to death. The first line then tells us how or why he was burned. Thus:
To save his money, which he hoped would some day raise him from the rank of a laborer to that of a prosperous merchant, Hing Lee, a Chinese laundryman, ran back into his burning laundry at 3031 Nicollet avenue today, after he was once safe from the flames, and was so badly burned that physicians say he cannot live. Minneapolis Journal.
2. Injuries.—Very often no one is killed in a fire but some one is injured. For example, five firemen are overcome by ammonia fumes or two men are seriously injured by a falling wall. This then becomes the feature. Injuries to human beings, if serious or in any considerable number, take precedence over other features, just as loss of human life does. Here is an example from the press in which all the injuries are gathered together at the beginning:
Six firemen and two laborers were overcome by smoke, while three other firemen received minor injuries by flying glass in a fire which broke out yesterday morning at 10:30 o'clock in the Wellauer-Hoffman building, at, etc. Milwaukee Free Press.
3. Rescues.—(a) Number of People Rescued.—When people are rescued from great danger in a fire their escape makes a very good feature. If many of them are rescued or escape very narrowly, the mere number of people saved deserves the first place, as:
More than 150 men and women were saved from death today in a fire at 213-217 Grand street by toboganning from the roof of the burning structure on a board chute to the roof of an adjoining five-story building. New York Mail.
(b) Manner of Rescue.—But more often the manner of their escape interests us most. If a man slides down a rope for four stories to escape death by fire we are more interested in how he saved himself than in the fact that he didn't burn, and so we tell how he escaped, in the first line. In the same way, if unusual means are used to save one or more persons, the means of rescue is usually worth featuring. For example:
Overcoats used as life nets saved the lives of a dozen women and children in a fire of incendiary origin in the three-story frame tenement house at 137 Havemeyer avenue, Brooklyn, to-day, etc. New York Mail.
4. Property Threatened.—Death and injury are the commonest unexpected circumstances in fire stories, but they are not the only ones that may be worth featuring. There is an inconceivable number of things that may happen at a fire and overshadow all interest in the fire itself. A good feature may be found in the property that is threatened. Often the fire in itself is insignificant, but because of a high wind or other circumstances it threatens to spread to neighboring buildings or to devastate a large area. In such a case the amount of property threatened or endangered deserves a place in the very first line, especially if it exceeds the amount of property actually destroyed and if it can be put in a striking way; i. e., the entire waterfront district, or twenty-five dwelling houses, or $5,000,000 worth of property. When contrasted with the small amount of damage actually done, the amount that is threatened becomes more important. Thus: