The process of reporting
Reporters get a lot of the credit (and blame) for what appears in the newspaper, but many people contribute to the process of turning a story idea into a printed article.
To show you what I mean, I’m going to take you through the process of a fairly simple article I wrote recently.
Step 1: Story idea.
Every article starts with an idea, and as often as not, those ideas come from people outside the newsroom, such as readers and organization leaders.
The Gazette was contacted weeks ago by Rock County Youth2Youth, a group that trains teens to educate younger students about the dangers of tobacco, alcohol and illegal drugs. The group sent us a schedule of upcoming events and told us about a group of Rock County teens traveling to the Madison to advocate for anti-smoking laws and programs.
An upcoming presentation at Milton Middle School seemed a good way to cover the story and preview the trip to Madison. Because I’m the Milton reporter, the story fell to me.
Step 2: Preparation.
There’s always some preparation required before reporting a story. In this case, I contacted Rock County Youth2Youth and staff at Milton Middle School to let them know we’d be coming. I also filled out a photo request form to make sure a photographer would be there.
Step 3: Reporting.
Some stories take weeks (or even months) of reporting. You track down leads, learn the background and talk to everyone you possibly can.
This story was a little simpler. I met the high school students leading the presentation 15 minutes before it was scheduled to take place Wednesday, Oct. 3. I asked them questions about why they got involved in the group and what they hoped to achieve.
Next, photographer Dan Lassiter and I watched the presentation. Dan took photos of the presenters while I took notes. Afterward, I interviewed a few middle school students to find out what they thought of the presentation. I didn’t end up using their comments, but it’s much better to have too much information than too little.
Step 4: Writing.
When I got back to the office, I started writing my article right away. We wanted the article for the next day’s paper so the information would be as fresh as possible.
Still, I had plenty of time that afternoon to write the story because it wouldn’t come out until the following afternoon. That won’t be the case with the Gazette’s new Web site, which will require us to post news as soon as we can.
While I wrote the story, Dan searched through the dozens of photos he took to find one to submit for the next day’s paper. He cropped the photo to show the essential elements and made sure the colors were balanced. He also wrote caption information to go with it. He went through the same process over again to produce a headshot of the woman leading the high school students, DeeDee Williams.
Step 5: Editing.
The editing process starts with the reporter. I always check my stories one last time before turning them in to make sure every name is spelled right and every fact is correct. Sometimes mistakes slip through, but we do everything we can to avoid them.
Next, the story moves on to the copy desk. This often happens the morning the story will run. At least two editors—usually local editor Sid Schwartz, editor Scott Angus or local copy editor Greg Little—comb the story looking for unanswered questions, awkward wording or inaccuracies.
For this story, only minor changes were needed. At other times, editors call the reporter over to look at something that could be changed, cut or expanded. Rarely, if ever, do editors make a major change to a story without consulting the reporter first.
Step 6: Design.
Here’s the moment the story turns from a collection of text and photos to a newspaper page. For this story, copy editor/page designer Shawn Sensiba fit the story and photo onto the center of Page 1B, the local section. At the same time, he was putting all the other stories for that day’s section on the page and making sure they all fit. When stories ran longer than the space allotted, he “jumped” the rest of the story onto another page in the section.
Shawn also wrote the headline for the story and made sure the caption under the photo was correct.
Editors check a draft of the page one last time before sending it to the press. They make sure the headlines match the stories and the articles jump from one page to the next without gaps.
Step 7: Press.
With the old press, workers went through a manual process to turn a page on a computer screen into the real thing. First, an image-setter in the plate room produced a negative image of the page on a sheet of film (four sheets for color pages).
Press workers then lined up two pieces of film on an unexposed metal plate. Next, they exposed the sheets to an intense light, similar to developing a photograph, to create a press plate.
Finally, workers punched and bent the plate in the proper places, then mounted it on the press to print the newspaper. On Thursday, Oct. 4, the press produced the paper with the Youth2Youth article in it.
With the new press, much of the process now is automated. Computer software automatically pairs up the pages and adds color bars and register marks. Next, a high-intensity laser “burns” the image directly onto a press plate, eliminating the need for film.
The plate runs down a conveyer belt that automatically processes, punches and bends it, making it ready for the press. The press uses the plates to transfer ink to the paper.
And voilà, you have a news story from idea to finished product, ready for delivery to your front door.