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How to Talk Like a News Reporter

A professional career coach, Marcy has helped hundreds refine their resumes, improve their interviewing skills, and advance their careers.

Familiarize yourself with these words related to news and reporting.

Familiarize yourself with these words related to news and reporting.

Common Terms Used by Newspaper Reporters

Many people would love to write for a magazine or newspaper but haven’t a clue about the culture and what it takes to produce a publication. Newspapers are by no means dead; they're busily redoing their approach to publishing (and to a degree, their content), and they're putting content online. They are still the more accurate and premier source for news reporting in the written form.

Here are some basic terms you should know if you want to write for daily, weekly or monthly publications. This information will help you understand what happens in a newsroom or magazine editorial office—and help you decide where you can fit into the picture.

News reporters interview by phone these days: Here's a reporter interviewing by phone. Notice how tidy his desk is? This is normal in a newsroom!

News reporters interview by phone these days: Here's a reporter interviewing by phone. Notice how tidy his desk is? This is normal in a newsroom!

Editorial Department: Everything that’s written falls into this bracket. Newspapers often refer to this area with the general term of “editorial”—someone might say, “Let’s pass that along to editorial.” This is not to be confused with the word “editorial” when used for an opinion piece on the editorial page. It also doesn’t refer to the style of writing known as "editorializing."

Editor: The most senior editor in a publication will have the simple title of "editor." This person has oversight and ultimate responsibility for all editorial departments, all other editors, and all writers.

Managing Editor: This position might be called the COO in a corporate setting. As with the CEO and the COO in corporations, the editor (or editor in chief in some settings) oversees the entire department, and the managing editor makes it all happen.

Other Editors: In a large publication, an assortment of other editors will handle various sections or duties. Their titles might be: assignments editor, sports editor, features editor, state editor, city editor, entertainment editor or any other title related to the section they manage or what they do.

Copy: The general term used for an article or story. Also used to refer to the writing submitted by a reporter. An editor who is on deadline might ask a writer, “Where’s your copy?” This basically means, "Where’s that article that’s due?” An editor might also refer to a writer by saying, “She turns in clean copy.” This means the writer turns in stories that are "clean" and free from errors.

Copy Editor: This person edits the "copy" or text of a piece. They look for typos, grammar problems and other issues that can detract from the content and quality of what is published. Copy editors may or may not change sentence structure; if something is poorly written, their job is to catch it and either address it personally or send it back to the writer to be rewritten. Copy editors also check to see if facts mentioned in a piece are supported through proper citations.

Copyedit: The act of editing "copy."

Newsrooms are cluttered and busy, and can be noisy, loud, and hectic.

Newsrooms are cluttered and busy, and can be noisy, loud, and hectic.

News reporters have to learn to write quickly.

News reporters have to learn to write quickly.

The Writing Side: Who's Who in the Newsroom

One thing you should know if you have dreams of writing for a major newspaper is that newsrooms are generally very noisy workplaces. There are rarely any walls or even high cubicles to shield you from the ruckus. You will need to learn to write while filtering out the sounds of multiple phones ringing, shouts from across the room, and other intrusive noises.

Fortunately, everyone else in the room understands what you're doing. If you're interrupted at an inopportune time, the magic words "I'm on deadline" are all you need to say and you'll be left alone.

The players, and some common terms in the newsroom:

Reporter: Generally a staff position. The word reporter is usually used for writers who produce news stories.

Hard News: This type of writing involves original, investigative work about serious news of a timely nature. Reporters who can write hard news are highly regarded in the industry; they have a reputation for having inside sources and getting facts and quotes that others might have trouble researching. They often write under tight deadlines, and they can turn around well-written stories in a short time.

News Story: This can be routine news – something new that happened in an area in which the publication provides ongoing news coverage. A routine news story is not always a hard news story.

Feature Story: Features are interesting and sometimes entertaining stories about people, places, events, unusual happenings or anything else that might appeal to readers but not fall into the ‘news’ category.

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Investigative Reporter: A reporter who can do an in-depth investigation about an issue or a topic and can produce an accurate, well-written news story that often uncovers information not previously known.

General Assignments Reporter: These reporters are versatile and can write about almost any topic. They can be relied on to research a wide variety of topics and to learn and properly use terminology related to each topic. General assignment reporters are valuable because they can quickly grasp new information well enough to understand its salient points, ask appropriate questions and generate interesting news pieces.

Features Writer (or Features Reporter): These people write ‘human interest’ stories, such as interesting pieces about unique people, or detailed stories about unusual things that might interest readers.

Columnist: These writers can be staff or freelance. They write ongoing columns about specific topics or specific geographic areas (such as a column about news in your neighborhood). Some reporters who cover other stories will also write a regular column about a specific topic.

Stringer: A non-staff writer (freelancer) who writes regularly for a publication. They can also be called a columnist if they routinely cover a specific topic.

Freelancer: Non-staff writers who write for a variety of publications. A person who writes only now and then for a publication would be a freelancer rather than a stringer, who writes more regularly for the publication.

Deadline: What you need to meet if you hope to ever write for the publication again. Deadlines are serious business, because a lot of people will have to touch your work before it goes to press or gets published. It will be passed through various editors as well as the art department, and everyone is waiting for you. So get busy!

U.S. Postage stamp commemorating Freedom of the Press

U.S. Postage stamp commemorating Freedom of the Press

The Editorial Page

Editorial: These are staff-written pieces that appear on the editorial page and generally reflect the viewpoint or position of the publication. This is one area and style of writing where opinions are appropriately used.

Editorial Page Editor: This sounds redundant, but it’s not. This editor handles the pages that print the publications official positions and opinions, and letters that come in from readers. This editor also decides what guest viewpoints get published.

Guest Editorial or Guest Viewpoint: A large publication will often feature opinion pieces written by non-staff writers. These can be from politicians, community leaders, persons affiliated with organizations in the news, or just plain citizens who want to voice an opinion. These are generally not paid pieces in cases of viewpoints that represent elected officials or organizations. It is not unusual for publications to print dissenting viewpoints from people who disagree with a position the publication has taken on an issue.

Bob Woodward, with fellow reporter Carl Bernstein, carved a name for himself in journalism by uncovering the ethics issues surrounding the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s

Bob Woodward, with fellow reporter Carl Bernstein, carved a name for himself in journalism by uncovering the ethics issues surrounding the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s

Ethics Issues and Pointers

Let's look at three key components of the ethics of reporting the news: separation between editorial and reporting, separation between advertising and reporting, and ethics related to revealing sources.

Separation Between Editorial and Reporting

The standard ethics of major publications should distinguish between the freedom of reporters to cover all news stories in a balanced way, and the right of the editorial department to publish editorials and opinion pieces. The editorial page editor and writers are not supposed to tell reporters what to cover, and the reporting side is not supposed to drive editorial opinion. This is the way it should work in journalism. That doesn’t mean that all publications draw those boundaries and stick to them.

Separation Between Advertising and Reporting

As with the above, the ethics of a publication are supposed to keep advertisers out of the content side of things. Stories should not be written to drive ad revenue or to pump up high-paying advertisers. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen this way, especially in small markets where the loss of one major advertiser can cause a publication to fold.

Reporters are supposed to protect their sources, and this right is supposed to be honored. In recent years, there have been high-profile instances of efforts to get reporters to release the names of sources used in investigative pieces. You may recall that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein refused to release the real name of their Watergate source, Deep Throat until that source had died.

Other Terms You'll Hear

Headline: The main title of an article in a newspaper. Magazines refer to it as the ‘title’ of the story.

Subhead: Additional information put in bolded, smaller typeface under a headline that expands on the information given in the headline.

Head Bust: Not a good thing. This happens when an error appears in the actual headline of a story. Since it appears in large, bold-faced type, it is embarrassing to everyone concerned.

Story, Piece, Article, Copy: All can be used to refer to an individual story in a publication.

Cutline: Newspapers call the caption under a photo the ‘cutline.’

Photo Credit: The credit line under a photo that lists the specific photographer who took it, and may also list who has rights to the photo (such as Google Images or the AP).

Byline: The place under an article that indicates who wrote it. Writers also use the term to indicate they have publishing credits: “I have a byline.”

Sidebar: A small story or piece accompanying a larger story. This can be written by the person who wrote the larger piece, or by another writer. The term is borrowed from the courtroom, where it refers to the private conversations between the judge and lawyers at the side of the bench.

Column Inch: While word length is more commonly used today, another way publications track the space an article will need when published is through the column inches it will use. Ads are often sold by the column inch.

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Behind the Scenes at a Newspaper or Magazine

Publisher: This is the person who makes the business end of things happen. Generally, they make the nuts and bolts of the publication happen, such as the sales of ads, where and how the printing or publishing is done, the distribution of the publication and its business outlook and future plans. Rarely will this person do any actual writing. The publisher can have a voice in the editorial policies of the publication (or its tone or viewpoint), but managing how this is shown in content is usually left up to the editorial department.

Ad or Marketing Department and Classifieds: In large publications, departments that generate revenue can be split; classified ads are handled one group and another group handles display ads. Special ad sections (a real estate section, for example) can sometimes be handled by yet another department, which produces ad sections that have some editorial content.

Circulation, Fulfillment and Distribution: Not always the same group of people, even though it sounds the same! A publication relying on subscriptions will sometimes have a separate operation for ‘fulfilling’ those subscriptions. Distribution and circulation can also include door-to-door routes and placing the publication in news racks.

Others: There are many other behind-the-scenes people in a publication; a large newspaper will have a press room (I used to love to hear and feel the huge presses come to life when it was time for the print run). There may also be a photography department and a composing room where layout and design is done. Smaller publications will not have as large an operation, but each of these jobs needs to be done at some level.

Newspapers have been around for centuries. The pressroom is where newspapers finally go to print.

Newspapers have been around for centuries. The pressroom is where newspapers finally go to print.

Want to Work for a Publication? Go for It!

You'll need plenty of determination, and a good set of clips from smaller publications, but you can indeed find a job in the newspaper industry. It's true that there are fewer positions than in previous years, but there are indeed some openings.

Start small, and look for freelance work in regional or weekly publications. Try to write stories that will appeal to a larger publication, and work with your editor to cover news that's more timely and competitive than they might typically print.

Most of all—hone your writing skills and your speed until both are razor sharp. And believe in yourself! Everyone has to start somewhere!

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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