Thinking like a journalist

Bill Reader | Ohio University

One of the challenges I have constantly struggled with in editing classes is to get students interested in thinking about the news. This exercise seems to resonate with students and accomplish my goals.

I used to give current-events quizzes and was always profoundly disappointed with how students performed. It turns out that most students weren’t reading the news as much as they were studying it, looking for factoids and names/titles and the like that seemed “quiz worthy.”

Then I thought back to how I got most of my news when I was working on a copy desk, and, of course, remembered spending my first hour of each shift reading the wires. So I replaced the news quizzes with budget-building exercises using the AP and KRT wires (limited access to both is free to J-schools via the Web, if you make arrangements with the wire services).

Once a week, I give students 15 minutes to build 4-5 item budgets, each week changing the audience, the topic, and the parameters of the budgets. For example, the first week I have them pick just three stories that would be of interest to students on our campus.

The next week I have them pick four stories that would be of interest to our part of the state. After that, I’ll have them do a business budget, a sports budget, and A&E budget, etc. As the term continues, I have them include available photos/infographics in their budgets.

Finally, by the end of the term when we get into page design and editing units, they actually use their budgets to build wire pages. Not only does the exercise seem to appeal to students because of its “real” aspects, but I noticed many of my students browsing the wires during open-lab hours and referring to articles they read on the wires over the weekends.

Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin | Columbia College Chicago

Coming up with good story ideas is one of the hardest things for my students. And since writing is such a collaborative process, the editors bear some responsibility for helping their writers hone good story ideas. I've been trying to bring into the classroom some of the ways editors think about story ideas.

The most notable one is, “Why this? Why now?” I encourage my editing students to ask this of every story proposal.

Why is this topic uniquely interesting? Why is it appropriate for this magazine? What is timely about it?

If the writer doesn't have convincing answers, then it's up to the writer and editor to work together to find a varation on the original idea for which convincing answers exist.

Gene Allen | Ohio University

The goal of this exercise is to get students thinking creatively about the elements of news judgment, an essential attribute for any good editor.

The exercise takes advantage of the fact that Toronto has four daily newspapers. I divide the class into groups of four or five, and give each group the front pages of that day’s three broadsheet dailies (Globe, Post and Star – the tabloid Sun, with its single front-page headline and picture, doesn’t work well here).

About a dozen stories appear on the three front pages (with some overlap). Each group gets 10 or 15 minutes to a) choose the four or five stories among these 12 that would go on its ideal front page, b) rank the stories selected in order of news value, and, crucially, c) state how it was decided that story 1 was better than story 2 and story 3, etc.

As the students explain their reasoning, I urge them to look for specific, generalizable criteria in each case, and write these down on the board as we go along. We end up with a quite comprehensive list of news-judgment criteria, which the students have in effect generated themselves. It makes news judgment seem real and practical (as it is in good newsrooms), rather than an exercise in memorizing an abstract-sounding list (proximity, etc.).

It also leads to good discussions among the students. Last year, my third-year editing students ended up arguing for the merits of their preferred stories in a way that wouldn’t have been out if place in the afternoon news meeting at the Globe and Mail (where I worked for about 10 years). Thus they also learn that editing involves give and take with your colleagues, as well as the effort to put forward your own point of view persuasively.

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