Newsroom experts

How to stop writing boring stories, a step-by-step guide

How many of you out there have more resources, more reporters, more time than ever? Show of hands?

Right, so we have to be even more selective about the stories we write and our resources in general. In short, we have to write interesting stories, or as we say here at GateHouse Media: #DoJournalismWithImpact.

But how do we get out of the rut and routine of covering beats the same way we did 100 years ago? The fact that we have less time and feel more overwhelmed probably leads us to continue to use the same approach to storytelling. We are fast at what we know. I’ve seen writers who are faster and better at writing a 30-inch story than a 3-inch brief.

What’s the solution?

Here are eight steps to shake things up and leave behind those old, boring stories.

Step 1: Stop and think
We need to be first, and we need to be fast because there’s so much to do. So, it seems counterintuitive to stop. But every step that follows is more purposeful if you start by stopping. Take a deep breath. When your mind is clear, make a quick list of five story ideas that will resonate with your readers. Make sure at least one on the list can be done quickly, and at least one cannot be done quickly (a weekend piece or a project).

Step 2: Find your focus
Crime is not a story idea. Homelessness is not a story idea. Those topics are way too broad. If you look at crime statistics, you might find patterns or trends that lead you to a story. Or if you want to find a story in the big topic of homelessness in your community, you can focus on demographics. Sometimes our assumptions are wrong. Perhaps more families are homeless now than ever before. What causes that? What services exist to help? How does your community’s situation compare to other similar communities in your region or state?

Step 3: Know your readers
Find topics readers find fascinating. Examine analytics and focus on users. What brings new people to your website? What keeps people coming back? Also, pay attention to the opposite: What stories do you post that don’t do well? What’s at the bottom of the list? Sometimes those are the boring stories that we need to ditch in the future. Be sure to examine analytics regularly, though, because there’s nuance in the numbers. Maybe a story didn’t do well because it had a boring headline.

Also, make a point of supplementing analytics with conversations with readers. Arrive at meetings early and stay late as often as you can. Sometimes the best story ideas come from the conversations you have that aren’t even on the agenda.

Step 4: Put readers first
Look at the stories you were working on before you read this. Be ruthless. Are these fascinating story ideas? Do they have an impact on your readers? If not, toss them. Or reframe them.

For example, if a business renovates a big hospital, that story can resonate with readers. But your approach is everything. If you rewrite the press release, you’ve missed an opportunity. What would readers want to know about the renovation? Does it make their lives easier in a stressful situation? How does the new hospital wing improve readers’ lives?

While many news organizations tell us what happened yesterday, Dallas Morning News often focuses on the “how” in its stories. Consider this story about a terminal at DFW that underwent a big renovation.

Here’s a headline for the usual, boring approach:
DFW completes renovations on Terminal E

Stop! And put your readers first.

Here’s what they did:
How DFW transformed its 43-year-old Terminal E into a passenger-friendly space

The headline starts with the word “how,” and tells me that passengers (that’s our readers) will find the space friendly. Which headline would you click on?

Step 5: Test
Find two honest people, and ask them if they would find your story ideas interesting. These can be readers, sales reps, your editor — anyone who will be brutally honest. If everyone in your newsroom is used to boring stories, you need to get out of there to find these two people. Vary the age, gender, race or religion of the people you ask. Diversity is like a magic multiplier. Listen and adjust your list.

Step 6: Consider an alternative story format
Maybe readers just need a “5 things to know” or a “Your Questions Answered” on a topic. Instead of writing 60 inches on a big city council decision, consider a tighter, 25-inch version that answers readers’ questions. Brainstorm the questions with anyone who is sitting near you. Find the answers. Then, put them together in a Q&A format. This technique helps readers feel smarter without having to work so hard at it.

Step 7: Share the fun in this headline exercise

Editor Tom Martin in Galesburg, Illinois, looked at his homepage and saw a bunch of boring headlines. He gathered them on an 11×17 piece of paper and asked reporters during a weekly meeting which ones they would click on.

A couple of the headlines emerged as worthy, but most people in the meeting acknowledged that these weren’t interesting stories.

Asked why they were writing boring stories, someone said: “An editor assigned it.” So, Tom empowered the reporters to suggest a better story or a better angle.

If your newsroom writes boring stories, let’s challenge them. There’s no time to lose.

Step 8: Start again
Our communities are changing, and our storytelling tools have expanded in the past five years. Some stories sing in traditional narratives, but others might be better told using an alternative approach. Think about video stories or podcasts. We are still learning about ways to reach our readers and grow our audience. We need to keep striving to find the topics that are indispensable and experiment with how we approach the stories within those topics. Our survival as an industry is at stake.

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