News is an essential part of the Medium—it covers student life, campus politics, and sometimes outside issues, if they’re relevant to UTM students. You might be asked to cover a policy topic, a referendum, a staff or faculty change, a student-run event, a charity fundraiser, and other campus happenings.
Most of our volunteers have never written a journalistic news article before, so we’ve put together a short guide. (Before you start, it might help to brush up on the basic writing tips.) Not every article will require you to follow every last tip in this guide, but it’ll still be worth reading and absorbing for the journalistic principles it encourages.
The basic news story follows a structure called the inverted pyramid. In this structure, the information is presented in descending order of importance, so that readers receive the most important and interesting information first. They are not unravelling a mystery as they read; if they were to stop partway through, they wouldn’t have missed the essential facts of the story.
The opening sentence is the lead, an incredibly important element of the news story. The lead presents the most important information—what exactly is it that’s newsworthy. It also hooks the reader, since readers tend to decide whether to read the rest of the story after reading just the opening line. Immediately following the lead is usually the nut graph, which clarifies “who, what, where, when, why, and how” questions not addressed in the lead and brings important aspects of the issue to light. An optional lead quote provides a human dimension and contextualizes the event in terms of the reaction.
Note that the exact organization of this information depends on whether the lead is hard or soft. A hard news lead gets the necessary information out immediately, whereas the soft lead has a more interest-driven line before explaining what it’s talking about. For example, a hard lead would run, “The Student Centre expansion referendum was rejected by UTMSU’s board of directors last Thursday after it was determined that voter lists had been mishandled.” The equivalent soft lead might start with something like “UTM students won’t be getting an expansion to their Student Centre next year…” The Medium prefers hard leads for its news section.
From there, the rest of the story provides background information, reactions, quotations, and so forth, winding down towards the end. The final line usually fills the reader in on anything else they should know about the context of the event, such as a past or expected development.
Before writing the story
Ask yourself what you need to cover for the story: what basic facts and events took place that necessitated an article? This will help you remain focused and keep your writing tight as you go, and will start to give you an idea of your lead.
Depending on the background needed for your topic, conduct some research by reading articles. Past Medium articles can be used; if you can’t find enough via the site’s search bar, check the archives page or simply Google “medium” and the keywords you need. For U of T topics, you can inform yourself from other U of T papers (like the Varsity) or external publications. U of T’s own media releases are also valuable, although like any organization reporting on itself, they should be supplemented by other sources. If you can’t get enough from summaries, go directly to original documents like budget reports and meeting minutes. Always feel free to ask us for places to look.
It goes without saying that drawing information from these sources is not the same as reprinting them in whole or in part. Now and then in the past, we’ve had to turn down an article that simply copied from another. Please avoid it!
Decide who you need to interview for more up-to-date information, and decide which questions you’ll need to ask them. Never go into an interview without having questions prepared or at least a thorough understanding of the topic. You can also interview students without much preparation in order to get a sense of people’s perceptions of the topic or event.
When you’re asked to cover an event, you must contact the people who organized it. Ask them how many attendees they got, and ask them how it compares to previous years, if applicable. Ask them how much money it raised if it’s a fundraiser. Ask them how they organized the budget for the event. Ask them why the event was held—what issues did it address and why should students care? How did it differ from the average event? Was a success or a challenge, and will they hold it again?
When you’re actually there, take a look at what people are doing. Take notes on anything interesting (or anything unusual) that happens. What actions are being taken at an event that get a response the attendees, or that affect students in general? Sometimes you’ll be scrambling to note everything. Sometimes there won’t be many, and that’s okay too. Not every event produces something significant.
You can also interview people at the event itself. What brought them there? How does it compare to their other relevant experiences? Did they walk away with what they came to get; would they go again? What’s the most significant thing that’s happened at the event?
Come to an interview already knowing which questions you’re going to ask and why you’re going to ask them. What facts do you still need to know? Do you need a colourful account of an event, a publicly stated opinion, or general background information? And conversely, you don’t have to stick exactly to your list if something is said that needs clarification or a follow-up.
Be casual and conversational when you’re interviewing. It can be intimidating to be interviewed, be friendly. It’s possible to be innocent and still be listening closely for information you need. Pay attention to what they’re saying like you would anyone else and make mental notes.
Sifting through an interview afterwards is often the trickiest part. A voice recorder is your best option. Most cellphones have a recorder built in (albeit a low-quality one). Take a pen and a pad of paper, too. You’re not going to use them to write everything down as it’s being said—that’s just impossible. You’ll just make notes about particular quotes and gems you’ll want to come back to. It can also really help to mark the point in time in your recording whenever something significant is said. Later, when you listen to it at your computer, you can go back to those specific reference points, and then get the verbatim version.
Writing and editing
You may have collected a lot of notes while preparing to write. Review them and decide what’s most important. Make a list of basic points you need to get across, and rank them most to least important. This will guide the order of information in your story. Decide on the topic of the lead. This isn’t always easy; look for root causes, changes to long-standing policies, events that affect a lot of people.
Write an outline or “roadmap” of the story, including any facts, quotes, anecdotes, and observations that need to be included. Extra detail that can be trimmed down later on is far better than insufficient detail that needs to be backed up. Turn your outline into a quick draft that you’ll revise and polish it later. Go clear your mind for a bit. Submit your draft to the news editor if you need some guidance.
Then your editing begins. At this point you should be communicating with the news editor, who will guide you on different angles to investigate, people to talk to, and sources to include to back up a statement. Please check your facts to reduce the chance that we need to call you at the last minute for clarification! Even a typo, if it changes a figure or the meaning of a quote, can be leapt upon by watchful readers.
Always watch out for the possibility of bias. Remember that everyone who gives you information may have a position to promote. Even a good agenda with noble purposes needs to be stripped down to the facts to maintain integrity and credibility. Of course, give everyone the benefit of the doubt and don’t be overly skeptical. People rarely try to mislead you, but they will draw your attention to certain aspects rather than others. Just compare what they say with the rest of what you know and keep related facts together. And remember that you might come with a set of assumptions too. Never strip a quote of its context or edit out parts that challenge your understanding of the issue.
You can also do a round of stylistic editing once you’ve got the information itself down. Cut out flowery, poetic language from news articles. Cut out the academic beefing up of sentences. Make sure every sentence is easy to read—the basic goal of a news article—and read it aloud if you like. Keep your paragraphs fairly short—two to three sentences is normal. Cut out anything that’s said twice. Of course, this is mainly the section editor’s job; you’re just catching what you can before sending it off.
Speaking of which, when you’re done, don’t forget to email it to email@example.com!