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What Makes a Good Story?

By William Wray Carney

The following is an edited excerpt from the recently published book, "In the News The Practice of Media Relations in Canada" by William Wray Carney.

Reporters - and readers - want a good story. The story should be interesting and relevant to the audience, and it must be written clearly enough that it can be quickly and easily understood. What makes a story interesting is often a combination of the interests of the audience, the interests and abilities of the reporter, and a long history of journalistic tradition.

The question "What is news?" is a primary philosophical issue in media relations. Many people are indifferent to sports, for example, yet it constitutes a major part of mainstream news. Every television and radio station devotes extensive time to weather, even though it is usually straightforward and it all comes from the same place. Nevertheless, without getting into that debate, we can identify a number of elements that characterize a good news story.

Drama and emotion. News is about people. When the driest statistical summary from Stats Can is released, reporters will look for people who either exemplify the statistics or are affected by them. This is backed up by a survey of 72 media professionals undertaken by Angus Reid in 1993. To the question of newsworthiness - that is, what makes something "news" - the greatest percentage of respondents (44 percent) found it in a subject that "affect people."

Odd or unusual. Second on the Angus Reid survey of newsworthiness, at 37 percent, was the "unusual/unexpected." This is the classic category of "man bites dog" journalism. That a plane landed safely is routine and expected; a plane crash is news. Third in the poll, at 33 percent, was "important", a concept that is difficult to describe. What is important to one person may not be to another.

Local angle. Local news ranked next in the survey, at 17 percent, which reflects the media's concern with its own audience and the issues that affect the audience directly. This angle, combined with an issue that affects people, makes front-page news. A plant closure that lays off thousands in Witchita, Kansas, for example, isn't newsworthy in St. John's; but if it happens in St. John's, it’s front page.

Topical, timely. When you're looking to get your story in the news, you must consider topicality and timeliness. Examples abound at every holiday season: Thanksgiving news comes complete with instructions on how to cook your turkey safely; Christmas comes with safety warnings regarding the dangers of Christmas tree fires. But local events, whether annual or irregular, can also lead to topical hooks. For example, a reporter might prepare a sidebar on fire insurance for rural homes to run alongside a story about a major forest fire; might interview a local cowboy poet during the Calgary Stampede; or might write a profile of a well-known local personality who has multiple sclerosis the weekend before the Super Cities Walk for MS.

Conflict. Disagreement is generally more newsworthy than agreement. This is why politics and sports make easy news: it is easy to find disagreement. As a practitioner, you need to give some thought to whether you want to expose yourself or your client to this phenomenon. Because the reporter wants a balanced story, he or she will often look for someone to disagree with the point of view you express, or at least to offer a different perspective.

Relevance to audience. Although stories sometimes run because of their sheer oddity, more times than not they run because editors know what their audience is interested in. A human-rights ruling extending retirement age, for example, will be of more interest to senior's media that to YTV or MuchMusic. As we discussed in Chapter 3, many media outlets have finely targeted audiences. Being sensitive to the market they are trying to reach, and demonstrating that your story idea is relevant to that audience, will increase your chances of getting coverage.

Universal appeal. Stories that affect, or have the potential to affect, everyone are also newsworthy. A story about a child with a rare disease is interesting because it is unusual. But it is also effective because all parents worry about the health of their children and are interested in children's health generally. Reporters like stories that their audience can relate to, no matter how unusual the topic may be. Universality is closely related to relevance to the audience.