Journalism is about telling people what they didn't know, says today's tutor Peter Cole, and making them want to know it.
Journalists usually refer to what they write as stories. Not articles or reports, occasionally pieces, but stories. This does not apply only to reporters but to everybody in the editorial chain, from desk editors, copy editors, specialist and sports writers to the editor him or herself. Words published in newspapers, on air or online are stories.
Stories sound interesting; reports sound dull. To some, stories mean fiction: "Tell me a story, mummy". Stories are tall and short, made up and true. True stories are about what happened. We tell stories in conversation, recounting experiences and events in which we took part or observed. The crucial thing about a story is that other people want to hear it, because it is interesting or entertaining. Otherwise the storyteller is a bore.
So journalists write stories for their readers to tell them what is going on, to inform them, engage them, entertain them, shock them, amuse them, disturb them, uplift them. The subject matter will vary according to the nature of the publication and the intended audience. The good newspaper editor will have a clear idea of the sort of people who are reading it, and cater to their interests and preoccupations, sometimes their prejudices. And the paper will include that vital ingredient serendipity - the story you didn't expect, the "just fancy that", the absurdities as well as the travails of the human condition.
Journalism is basically a simple game. It is about finding things out and telling other people about them. The finding out requires a variety of skills because those in power often prefer that we know only so much. Journalism is about holding such people to account, exposing their humbug and hypocrisy, the abuse of their power. This includes the control it gives them over the flow of information, the ability to bury the bad news, to spin and obfuscate. Good journalists must ask the awkward questions and question the answers, must dig to unearth and then explain, making comprehensible that which authority, by intent or verbal inadequacy, has left confused, incomplete or plain mendacious. Incomprehensible journalism is quite simply bad journalism, and therefore pointless.
Ultimately there is only one purpose: to make the reader read the story. If they don't, what was the point of finding it out and telling it? This booklet picks up the story when the reader has reached the stage of deciding to address the story. That is not the same as reading it, or even reading a certain amount of it. They have just reached the first word, perhaps attracted by the picture, the extracted quote, or any of the other presentational devices used to drag the reader to the story. We have reached the stage where the reader is going to subject the story to the final test, reading some or all of it. This is about writing.
Newspaper reading is different from reading a book. It is selective, does not involve commitment to the whole. Relatively little time is spent reading a daily newspaper. The newspaper reader, unlike the reader of the more literary novel, does not expect to invest effort in the endeavour. He or she will not read a sentence or paragraph a second time to be clear about what is being said. Confusion, more often than not, will mean abandoning the story altogether and moving on. Many newspaper readers skim, sample or get a flavour of a story rather than reading it through.
So journalistic writing is different from creative writing. Many young people think they would like to be journalists because they have "always loved writing" or started writing poems when they were eight. It is certainly not enough and may well be a barrier to success in journalism. The late Nicholas Tomalin famously wrote that "the only qualities essential for real success in journalism are rat-like cunning, a plausible manner, and a little literary ability." He included writing, but he placed it third and prefaced it with a diminutive. The writing matters; but don't think of it as art. Think of it as working writing, writing doing a job, writing that puts across information in a way that makes readers want to absorb it.
At a time when the vast majority of entrants to journalism have degrees - welcome because journalism in a complex world is an intellectual pursuit - it is worth pointing out that writing for newspapers is also very different from the academic writing of student essays. No time to produce a route map for the essay and reach the point somewhere near the end; the journalist must grab the attention at once.
It is difficult to write simply and engagingly, so that readers will keep reading; to explain so that all the readers understand, and want to. This is the task the writing journalist has.