Strong writing makes for good story (and other lessons)

By John Vitti

What student reporters do in schools across America is the same things professional reporters do at The New York Times.

No, really.

That is one of the journalism mini-lessons and students, teachers and administrators have a hard time getting their heads around. There’s got to be something more. Some trick. But there isn’t.

Informative interviews, good questions, key research, and competent fact-checking, combined with strong writing makes for a good story whether the name in the byline also appears on a White House press pass or a SpongeBob backpack.

I have volunteered in the Watertown, Mass., public schools for seven years now, shepherding the Cunniff Kids News, Watertown Splashand Raider Times. At night, I work in the Boston Globe newsroom, spending the last 15 years helping put out the Sports section.

Here are a few lessons I have learned in my time in classrooms and newsrooms.

THE JOB IS THE SAME. The five W’s, some description, some quotes, strong writing, a good lead — done. It’s the same at every level. A middle school baseball field is the same as Wrigley Field, with the bases 90 feet away, and a 400-foot fly ball clearing the fence no matter who hits it. Although perhaps the sports comparison is off. Instead, maybe student reporters should think of it as a fishing derby: You don’t need an expensive boat to land the catch of the day.

EVERYONE NEEDS AN EDITOR. The stories submitted by Pulitzer Prize winners are full of typos and mistakes, too. Not everyoone runs spelllcheck or can spell Barrack Obama’s name correctly or understands, points; of Grammar. Still, the copy should be as clean as possible. You are fighting for the readers’ time, so don’t give them a reason to be distracted.

 KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE. With the Web, the potential readership is limitless and tantalizing. That is all the more reason to serve your readers first. For many schools, they are the kids, parents, teachers and the people around the corner. If your paper doesn’t tell them what’s going on, nobody else will.

INVOLVE THE STUDENTS. The more kids who participate in the newspaper, the more readers it will have. If the student body thinks the newspaper staff is a clique that only takes care of its friends, then it won’t matter how good the stories are. Run lots of pictures. Ask teachers to pass along print-worthy assignments for publication (Doesn’t every English teacher assign an Op/Ed writing assignment?). Hold contests for students to design the banner on the top of the Front Page. If the students have school-assigned email addresses, make sure each one of them gets an email alert each time a story is published. Good things happen when the kids are involved.

INVOLVE THE COMMUNITY. There are tons of stories for kids to cover outside of school. Each community has new stores, interesting residents, city projects and visiting celebrities of one caliber or another. Those moms and dads and neighbors are readers, too. Every year, the Watertown Splash runs Splash of Flavor, a food poll/contest spotlighting the best food experiences in the area. In educational terms, the unit is being spent on students writing a review, but, at the same time, the community gets real-world  information about the world around them while building relationships with the school and the newspaper.

YOU CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE. Just because you are a school newspaper don’t for a second think you can’t affect change in the community. Four examples:

  • In a winter with lots of snow and cancelled days, the Cunniff Kids News — an elementary school paper staffed by kids in K through fifth — polled students, teachers, and parents about the best way to make up lost snow days in the district, a story that prompted the school committee into action;
  • A few years back, the town built a new police station, and reporters from the Cunniff Kids News visited the site every few months for a tour and to update the public on the process of the project;
  • During a recent election for a vacant state rep seat, the three newspapers held a public debate with the student reporters asking the questions of all the candidate;
  • Currently, a story in the Watertown Splash about the inconsistencies in the policing of the middle school’s dress code  prompted the school to rework the language and the enforcement.

AUDIO/VIDEO. Take advantage of the medium. A story about the talent show is even better with an accompanying 30-second clip of the principal playing “Carry On My Wayward Son” on the kazoo.

MARKETING/PROMOTION. This is important to understand on two levels:

  • From a school’s point of view: There are all sorts of events that nobody outside of the classroom ever knows about. There are field trips, projects, guest speakers, labs, new courses of study, new classes and all-school initiatives. This goes for many of the extracurriculars, too, like the afterschool clubs and many of the sports teams. Most parents only know as much as their kids tell them and, even then, only know about their current grade, but there is usually really exciting stuff happening throughout the school that you should promote and tell the world about. Not enough people will knows the Model UN competed last weekend, or the Robotics team has a fund-raiser, or the Science Department got a grant from NASA unless the school paper tell them.
  • From the community’s point of view: Let’s not kid ourselves: A lot of news coverage serves as publicity and marketing. Press coverage helps sell tickets, fill seats, and get people to buy things. As such, the vast majority of businesses, restaurants, artists, sports teams, colleges, charities, authors, singers, scientists, and politicians LOVE any attention and publicity. A school newspaper provides a built-in audience and demographic.

NOT EVERYONE TALKS WITH THE WASHINGTON POST EITHER. Ask for an interview. Ask for a school visit. Ask to Skype. Ask to go to a practice, or to talk with the president or the chef or the candidate. Practically everyone and every organization has a community service element to it. Make it easy for them, and your newspaper will have better stories because of it. Sure, the people might say no thank you, but they can’t say yes unless you ask them.

QUALITY CONTROL (or, DON’T WASTE YOUR READERS’ TIME). Students should write what they know. A kid writing about Coachella from what he sees on TV: no. A kid writing about Coachella from his day there: absolutely. Just because a story is written doesn’t mean it deserves to be published. Please respect your readers’ time.

THERE’S NO MAGIC BULLET. Really. There’s no magic behind teaching journalism. Good interpersonal skills. Solid reporting. Excellent writing. Practice. It a kid can write about the American Revolution, then a kid can write for a newspaper — except you get to talk with General Washington.

John Vitti is a reporter and editor for the Boston Globe. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeVitti.