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Reaction to America’s Best Newspaper Writing: Deadline Writing

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Deadline: the word that strikes fear into both students and journalists alike. The anticipation, the ticking clock, the pressure. Writing prize-winning journalism on a tight deadline is something that takes practice. But with the right preparation, planning, reporting and drafting, a great story can arise. In America’s Best Newspaper Writing, by Roy Peter Clark and Christopher Scanlan, the aspects that make up a great deadline story are evaluated.  Reporters tend to work better when they are on deadline. The adrenaline rush is a reporter’s drug of choice. Sometimes the more pressure and frustration a reporter is under, the better the story will be. For example, Richard Ben Cramer, reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote a prize-winning story in a “white heat of frustration.” The reporting he did in the Middle East won the first American Society of Newspaper Editors deadline-writing award.  In Cramer’s work, he doesn’t just tell the story, he shows the story. The best journalism puts people right into the story and evokes emotion from them. By doing this, journalists are bringing the writing closer to home for most people. A good example of this is the Wall Street Journal’s “Nation Stands in Disbelief and Horror,” an account of September 11. The lead says, “They were like scenes from a catastrophe movie. Or a Tom Clancy novel. Or a CNN broadcast from a distant foreign nation. But they were real yesterday. And they were very much in the U.S.” The writer makes the subject real for the readers. In the next paragraph, a description of the sounds, ash blowing in and ceiling collapsing paints a picture.

With Cramer’s work, he allows the story to be told through the subjects, rather than an outsider’s perspective. He used the appropriate amount of narrative to move the reader through the story, but told it mainly through the accounts of the people affected. It was emotional, descriptive and painted a mental picture. When readers can actually picture everything happening, you know you’ve written a good piece.

David Von Drehle and Leonara LaPeter, both deadline winners, also employed the idea of telling a story, not just reporting.  Von Drehle used the idea of a timeline to move his story along. LaPeter’s story has emotion but not through her saying something like “it was an emotional verdict,” but rather by describing the scene: “About 45 minutes later, they emerged from the jury room, many of them overwrought with tears as jury foreman James Burrows read the death sentence.” She set the stage for writing in all aspects. LaPeter didn’t just show the viewpoint of one side. She spent time describing the victims, the murderer and even the jury.  Throughout the reading and research, I found this juxtaposition of sides to be an important part of deadline writing. In addition to LaPeter, Francis X. Clines does this in his story “In Belfast, Death, Too, Is Diminished by Death.” He juxtaposes the idea of a sweet innocent girl against the gruesome background of death. Other stories that employ technique are the St. Petersburg Times and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. In “Gunman Kills 5,” the St. Petersburg Times says “beside the pool, a man lay shot to death.” The pool is normally something people associate with a calm, relaxed setting, but the reader is given a jarring image because of this contrast. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette contrasts KKK members against the group that stood to defy it in “Unity Thrived at Market Square.

Another important element of deadline writing is to not include too many people in one story.  Clines said a story is not a catalog of comments. Two publications that I think did a really good job limiting their sources were The Boston Globe and The Washington Post. Both publications covered tragedies involving large amounts of people and easily could have made the mistake of just filling their stories with quotes, but they had a good balance of quotes and narration. The Boston Globe covered a tragic nightclub fire in Rhode Island that killed 96 people and injured 187.  However, in the article “Death Toll Reaches 96 in fire at R.I Nightclub; 187 Hurt” they used 10 sources, who were a good mix of victims of the fire, fire officials, club staff and the band whose lighting effects caused the fire. In The Washington Post’s article about the tsunami in South Asia, “Sea Surges From Massive Quake Kill Over 13,000 Across South Asia“, they also used a decent amount of sources. Of the 8 sources, most were officials, witnesses and rescuers.

All good deadline reporting employs the ideas discussed, along with many other tactics of good journalism. The graphic at the top gives tips on more ways to improve your deadline writing.

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Written by juliasayers

February 18, 2011 at 9:06 am

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