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Solve a Reporter's Six Basic Problems

By Rusty Cawley
Posted Saturday, October 23, 2004

Every day, a journalist must solve six problems to remain employed. Solve those problems and you will make news.
Like anyone at any job, every journalist faces the same basic set of challenges every day. For the journalist, there are six of these fundamental problems.

They are:

1. Finding a Story – The reporter’s job is to uncover stories, preferably ones that the competition is missing. Most reporters must meet an unwritten quota of stories within a given period.

At a daily newspaper, the reporter may be required to turn in one 800-word story, plus a handful of briefs, every day. At a business journal, the quota may be three 800-word stories per week, plus an industry column, plus a brief. At a television station, the quota may be five news segments per week, plus a weekend feature.

The formula changes from outlet to outlet, from medium to medium. But be assured, every reporter has to meet certain expectations to keep any job, and this includes producing a given number of stories during a certain period of time.

2. Gathering the Facts – It’s not enough to have a story to tell. The reporter must also have the facts that support the story.

This is known as the 5W’s and the H: who, what, when, where, why and how. Without the facts, it becomes impossible to tell the story.

By nature and by training, reporters are generalists. Few have specialized knowledge, other than how to convert a set of facts into an interesting, intriguing news story.

As a result, every reporter is like a graduate student who is cramming for a new exam every day. Reporters must learn the essential facts, arrange them into a coherent stream and master them long enough to sound as if they are experts.

3. Choosing the Angle – Once reporters have the story and the facts, they must make a crucial decision. What is the angle they will take to writing the story?

The angle is simply the format that the reporter will use to arrange the story into something the audience can recognize and understand.

Is this a hard news story for the front page? Is it a feature for the Sunday family section? Is it a brief? Is it a six-part investigation?

These are just a few of the angles that the reporter might take to any story.

The most common angle is the hard news angle. Something important has happened and here are the facts, arranged in order of importance. The vast majority of stories you will read, see or hear are told with the hard news angle.

The hard news story is based in immediacy. It must be told now, or it will lose its value to audience.

The second most common angle is the feature, which tends to de-emphasize the timeliness of the story, preferring to focus on some other interesting aspect, such a human-interest angle. A feature is not based in immediacy. It can hold for a few days or even weeks without losing its impact.

Then there are the many, many minor angles, such as the interpretive piece or the consumer investigation. Don’t worry about these. Just learn to recognize a hard news story from a feature story.

4. Identifying the Peg – A news story is different from an entry in an encyclopaedia. Both contain facts. But the news requires a reason for the facts to be told.

That reason is the peg.

Don’t confuse the peg with the angle. The angle is the reporter’s approach to the story. The peg is the reporter’s excuse for telling the story.

For example, virtually any encyclopaedia contains an entry about tobacco. But the reporter can’t pick up this entry and report it as news. The facts are there, but not the peg.

However, if this morning a star athlete announces he has developed a cancer from using chewing tobacco, suddenly the reporter has a peg – a reason – to write about tobacco.

Every news story, no matter the angle, must have a peg. Without it, there is no reason to write the story.

5. Making the Deadline – Every journalist is racing against time. The TV news reporter is fighting a 3 p.m. deadline for the 6 p.m. broadcast. The magazine reporter must meet a deadline three months from now. The Web reporter faces a new deadline every few minutes.

The deadline is just that: The last possible moment when the reporter is allowed to file a story for print, broadcast or transmission.

Reporters who miss their deadlines lose their jobs.

6. Satisfying the Boss – Every story must interest at least two people before it sees light. Those people are the reporter and his editor.

If either one rejects the story, it is dead.

The Boss also sets the criteria for the reporters: What they can cover, what they can pursue, how they can write their stories, what angles they can take, which pegs are acceptable and when the deadline is due.

Make no mistake. You may never see The Boss. But the world of journalism is ruled by the editor, not the reporter.

These are the problems that face every reporter: Story, facts, angle, peg, deadline and editors.

The PR Rainmaker knows: If you can help reporters solve their problems, you can become their best friend. And therein lies great opportunity.

Copyright 2003 by W.O. Cawley Jr.

About the Author
Rusty Cawley is a veteran journalist who now coaches executives. For your free copy of the ebook “PR Rainmaker: Three Simple Rules for Using the News Media to Attract Customers and Clients,” visit (


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