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Working for the reader: telling what the news means

by on 1 Mar, 2010

Let’s start with a classic definition of news: a fact or event not made public before. Facts or events. And the public is the reader, listener or viewer.

The attempt to implement this classic definition is under pressure from:

• Smaller teams of journalists who do not have the time to get to the new facts or events;
• The multiplicity of media which means that somebody else may have the story and so it is not new; and
• The increased organisation of the PR machines which see journalism as just another step in the marketing plan.

Our readers, listeners and viewers have shorter attention spans then they used to. We encourage this by using shorter sentences. And the media we use encourages this by demanding that the world is carved into smaller parts and delivered faster.

Interpret: don’t just describe

Readers, viewers and listeners are, therefore, less and less likely to want to work out what the news means to them. In short, they want it interpreted, not just delivered.

If we are to retain their attention we need to use our professional skills to interpret for them. We need increasingly to tell them what the impact is or will be on them. Put yourself in the readers’ shoes and start from there.

Good

These thoughts were reinforced last week by the BA cabin crew strike ballot. Here’s The Sun’s intro to the story:

“British Airways cabin crew yesterday voted massively in favour of strikes which may drag on into the SUMMER.”

Nicely done: there’s the interpretation and the threat to summer flights.

Better

But look at this from the Daily Mail:

“British Airways passengers could face a series of strikes starting as soon as next week after cabin crew yesterday voted overwhelmingly for industrial action.”

Yes, longer because it’s the Mail. But also better than the Sun because we are more likely to be a BA passenger than a member of the cabin crew and because the threat is closer.

The Daily Telegraph had something between the two. Perhaps because many of the senior editors of the Telegraph now come from the Mail.

Energy

In the same editions the Sun said about energy prices:

“The energy watchdog is demanding that struggling customers’ bills should be slashed after a fall in the wholesale price of power.”

OK, but a bit distant from you and me. The Daily Mail ran much the same story as its lead and here’s the intro:

“Energy suppliers are making more than £100 out of every customer refusing to cut bills during the record freeze.”

It’s that “£100” that makes it work. The Mail has interpreted the news and made it specific to every customer, doing a simple piece of maths to drive the story home to each reader.

In short, interpreted what the story means for each reader.

These differences in intros are subtle. But they show how far the publication has gone to make the news important to each reader. In both cases the Mail has not left it to the reader to work out the impact on them: it has shown what the impact it.

Change definition of news

So, perhaps we can change the classic definition to: a fact or event interpreted for the reader not made public before.

We can use this approach in any news writing: in magazines, newspapers, online, on radio and TV. We news writers need to ask ourselves: what do we want the readers/listeners/viewers to do or think as a result of reading this. And then start there.

There are dangers. We may be including “should” or “could” too many times in story intros. “Passengers could face…”. Only if we can honestly write “will” and be assured of our predication should be use it. But if we want to keep our readers/listeners/viewers we need to work for them and interpret the news.

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