Just the Facts, Ma’am?

Your hard news story lead answers the five W’s, yes, but without answering the “So what?” aspect, your story will read just like an item from the police blotter. What makes a news item go beyond just reporting the facts to become an actual news story?

You must find and focus on the angle that makes your crime, accident, or fire relevant to your readers. Otherwise, we could just read the police blotter to find out about the latest accidents at our local gas station or the fires that took place in the next town over.

Ask your news item to meet several of the following criteria to determine its newsworthiness:

a) Impact—How many people does the event affect? How seriously does it affect them?

b) Proximity—An event will be more important if is closer to the readers. An earthquake in a far-off land is not as interesting as one that is close to home.

c) Timeliness—Is the event fresh? Is it new? The news must be timely to be of use to readers.

d) Prominence—Names make news, and big names make big news. Ordinary people are intrigued by the doings of the rich and famous.

e) Novelty—This is the new in news, the unusual. The “firsts,” “lasts” and “onlys” have been the staples of the news business for many years.

f) Conflict—Conflict has been the currency of great literature, drama and movies for all time. From the stories of Shakespeare to those of Disney, conflict has played a crucial role. Newspapers are no different.

g) Audience—Who is the audience? The answer to that question helps determine whether an event is news at all, and if it is, where it will be played in the paper.


And a little more to think about from Cerritos:

Timeliness — Something that just happened tends to be more newsworthy than something that happened some time ago. In today’s fast-paced communications environment you want to give the reader a sense that this is news NOW. In fact, when you write a news story you want to make sure it has a news peg. Think of a peg on the wall that you might hang a hat on. The news peg is the element that you hang your story on. It is the element that makes the story news NOW, as opposed to last week or next week. Timeliness is often the news peg.

Impact — How many people are impacted by the story. The more the merrier. This might also be called the “Who Cares?” element I talked about earlier. The greater the impact, even if it is an old story, the more likely that it is newsworthy.

Prominence — Like it or not, prominent people make more news. When spousal abuse leads to one partner injuring or killing the other, it is sad. When one of those partners is O.J. Simpson, you have an international news story. When a married man has an extra-marital sexual relationship with a woman half his age, it is bad for a marriage. But if the man is Bill Clinton, president of the United States, it can affect the world’s economy. If the who of a story is someone well known, you might have a story in the most common place of events.

Proximity — The closer to home a story takes place, the more newsworthy it is. The local politics of a small town in New York probably would not affect or interest our readers, but certainly the local politics of our hometown would. Even if you have a major story break half way around the world look for a local angle. For instance, if a plane crashes and kills 200 people, it certainly is news. But if one of the passengers was local, or used to be local, or has local relatives, you have a new story angle. Even if you don’t have that kind of connection to the story, you can ask, “How safe are planes that fly out of the local airport? Could what happened there happen here?” It will bring the story home for the reader, who is more likely to read it and say “Gee Whiz!”

Conflict — Sad to say, but bad news is often more newsworthy than good news. When war breaks out, it is more newsworthy than when neighbors get along. Even stories about peace are more stories about war, or a lack of it. A car driving down the street is not news until it comes into conflict with a telephone pole or a pedestrian.

The Unusual — Pulitzer, Dana and others had the right idea about news, too. Something that is out of the ordinary is news. A pumpkin is not news, unless it is as big as a small car. We are obsessed with records, too, that indicate, the biggest, longest, shortest, smallest, tallest, shortest, etc. something. There are thousands of news stories in the Guinness Book of World Records because of our obsession. A major league baseball player hitting a lot of homeruns is interesting, but is international news when a mark McGwire closes in on and surpasses a 37-year-old record for the most homeruns in a season.

Currency — News can create itself, too. Currency is similar to timeliness. But currency grows from other news elements. Something maintains newsworthiness over time because it first was deemed newsworthy for some other reason. While the fall of the stock market and its impact on world economy may have been newsworthy for several of the reasons listed above, its effects remain newsworthy over time because now they are current events.


So What? SO WHAT!

The main idea of a news story and lead is called the “angle.”

It is also referred to in newsrooms as the “hook” because the angle is used to grab, or hook, the reader’s attention to make them want to read the rest of the student’s story.

Simply, it is the main point a student learned from their reporting and that the rest of their story will try to support.

Finding the angle of a news story forces a newswriter to be critical of a story idea and the reporting. A news writer will discover if there’s no angle in an idea or the facts that have been gathered before an editor, teacher or reader will.

Writing the lead and angle involves making some difficult decisions. A news writer must sort through the facts that were gathered from the reporting and decide what the theme is. There may be several different themes, but the writer must decide what the central theme of the story will be in the lead.

Then students must consider what form their story will take.

In sorting through a mass of material, Carman Cumming and Catherine McKercher of Carleton University tell reporters to think about “S-I-N” — which stands for Significant, Interesting and New. Students should look for either of those three things from their research and interviews and they will be able to find a compelling angle for their lead.


The late Walter Steigleman, a journalism teacher in Iowa, told his students to look for the WHAMMY. He explained that the whammy is the single fact that makes your story unique.

Consider the following example, based on a radio interview with Vern Walters of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia with CBC’s As It Happens in early March 1996:

Vern Walters, a third-generation blacksmith from Lunenburg, has decided to retire and has put his shop up for sale, closing a 120-year-old family-owned business.

That lead has all the required elements. But a “whammy” is provided when it is learned that Mr. Walters is probably Canada’s only working maritime blacksmith — a blacksmith trained to do special blacksmithing to build and repair boats:

Vern Walters, one of Canada’s last remaining maritime blacksmiths, has put his shop in Lunenburg up for sale, closing a family- owned business begun 120 years ago by his grandfather.

That story also illustrates the human interest story, which focuses on an interesting or unique person.

The only way to really understand leads and angles is to try writing one. News writing is like learning to play a musical instrument — the more you practice, the easier it gets and the better you become.

“Angle” and “Whammy” taken from Journalism Toolbox.