Thursday, February 3, 2011

Question from a former student -- A hole? - writing tip

Question: I took your tip on being a stringer and it resulted in an instant assignment with my local newspaper. :) But the editor warned me, just before he hung up, "I'm trusting you on this, so get a quote in the second paragraph and don't leave me with a hole here." What's he talking about?

Answer: A quote is whatever the subject of the story says to you. Baring profanity, whatEVER he says, write it down so you can quote him. A HOLE is the space the editor is saving for your story. If you, for some reason, don't turn in a story, then he's left with a "hole" and nothing to put there. Editors who haven't worked with writers before, don't know yet if they can deliver the story. Trust me, editors have nightmares about holes.

When I worked at the newspaper, we got a release that Willie Nelson was planning to play a local folk festival in Ocean City and would hold a press conference AFTER the concert (about 10 p.m.), answering questions from anyone who wanted to stick around and ask them.

Unfortunately, we didn't have a stringer, so we had to send a "real" reporter. That meant paying him for hours of waiting around. Even so, at great expense, we sent a reporter to cover Willie Nelson who, being very popular in our county, helps sell newspapers. We chose our youngest cub, and paid him 8 hours overtime to cover travel, etc. He got two tickets to the concert so he could take his girlfriend along. We even paid him mileage and covered his meals, warning him that the night would be a late one and asking that he file his story from his laptop, before going to bed. We were an "evening" paper, which meant we hit the street before noon. When I started to lay out the front page at 5 a.m. I found no story and called the reporter.
"Shawn," I said, "Where's your story on the folk festival?"
"Oh, I didn't write anything."
"Why not? Didn't you go?"
"Yeah, I went. But nothing happened."
"What d'you mean, nothing happened? I've got a 16 inch hole in the front page!"
"Well, see -- uh, Willie Nelson's bus got in a ditch up around Dover someplace, so, uh, he didn't show up, and he was the only big name. So, well, nothing happened. There's no story."

There certainly should have been a story! I can think of several headlines. "Performer not injured in bus mishap" was the one we went with, because it was easy to make Sean call the Delaware State Police and get quotes from their "spokesperson" and have the accident report faxed in. (He wrote the story in half an hour, on deadline, and you should have seen his commas! Not that I had time to fix them if the paper was to hit the street on time.

Now if Sean had been doing anything but stuffing himself and thinking about whether he was going to get anywhere with the girl he took along, we could have had, "Festival crowd disappointed when Nelson failed to make date," or "Promoters offer refund, but crowd waits for Nelson," or "Local performers do double duty when Nelson arrives late," or "The show goes on, about four hours late." How do I know? Because those were the headlines in the other local papers that covered the event. As you can see, at least one other reporter left early. Listen, if they show up, it's news. If they don't show up, it's still news.

Anyway, the moral of this long and boring story is, if they talk to you, that's a quote. Even if they say, "No comment," or "Get out of my face. I ain't got nothing to say!" That's still a quote. And whatever happens or doesn't happen, that's NEWS. Write something about it and turn it in.

Quote them, write your story, and don't leave your editor with a hole. He'll thank you for it and remember your name whenever he needs a stringer.

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