Writing Lessons from the Newsroom

From Jeff: This is a guest post by Tor Constantino. Tor is a former journalist, current PR guy, and author of the book, A Question of Faith. He blogs regularly at The Daily Retort, and you can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

During my decade-long career as a print and broadcast reporter, I had the opportunity to work in several different newsrooms where decisions were made about how and what gets coverage on any given day.

Newsroom Photo
Photo credit: David Sim (Creative Commons)

Every day in those newsrooms, editors, reporters, producers and assignment desk personnel gathered in the morning to decide what we believed to be relevant for our respective audiences and stakeholders.

Through those meetings, I took part in literally hundreds of different editorial discussions to evaluate the “newsworthiness” of stories. As a result of those decisions, I wrote thousands of pages of news copy over the years to meet multiple deadlines each and every day.

As part of that newsroom experience, I learned five lessons about writing that might be useful to others:

Listen twice as much as you talk

Early on in my journalism career, I had a respected mentor who said,

You’ve got two ears and one mouth – great reporters use them proportionately.

That’s good advice, because it requires you to listen to the responses of the person you’re communicating with, rather than focusing on what you’ll be saying next.

Active listening is an underutilized tool to help clarify complex concepts or focus on core issues. It’s a great life skill that builds relationships and transcends the newsroom.

There’s something interesting about everyone…

I’ll never forget something my first news director told me the first week I was on the job. He said,

There’s something interesting about everyone – it’s a reporter’s job to try and find out what it is!

That snippet of wisdom inspired me on many occasions as I struggled to find an angle on a story, yet it helped produce some of my best work.

Your credibility is critically important, yet incredibly fragile

Whether you’re trying to persuade someone to share their story with you or convince a person to read a story you’ve written, your credibility is a key influencer of others.

Credibility takes a long time to build, but it can be destroyed instantly.

No matter how daunting a pending deadline might be, never forsake accuracy for expediency because the risk to your credibility is too great.

Why should the audience care?

Every writer who wants to create something great or memorable needs to keep and answer this question every time they work their craft.

Too many writers focus on what they want to express with little thought to the audience who may (or may not) consume it. Actually, the audience dictates key components of our writing such as message, distribution methods, tonality and format.

Great writers are mindful of the benefit of their work to the reader.

Show the “macro” through the “micro”

Large trends and major news events can impact large geographic regions, cities or nations.

Think of an earthquake in Haiti, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the currency devaluation in Greece. These are each “macro” events, but they’re difficult for people to understand until they’re distilled to the personal or “micro” level.

Great writers are able to put a personal face on a major happening, which enables a more meaningful connection with the audience – meaningful connection should be a goal for every writer.

How might you apply any of these lessons to your own writing? What similar lessons have your learned from the craft? Share in the comments.

*Photo credit: David Sim (Creative Commons)

Disclosure: Some of the above links were affiliate links.

54 thoughts on “Writing Lessons from the Newsroom

  1. Wow.  So much to chew on.  I love your last point about showing the macro through the micro.  This is a  little different, but I love sharing lessons  I learn from reading Scripture.  And often, that takes looking at a big concept and making it applicable and personal to each of us.    Great stuff.  Thanks.

  2. Cool ideas! Especially the macro-micro thing! I think it’s the kind of thing I might do intuitively sometimes and appreciate it  without being able to explain why… thanks for the insight!

    1. I appreciate the kind words Arthur – you’re right, these ideas are intuitive and many writers do them automatically but it helps to tease them out a bit. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  3. The credibility issue is huge!
    Being Greek, I live in a country that right now feels like a waking volcano. Propaganda from many sides spreads like wildfire and I see people reproducing so many false news and claims, that it makes my head spin!
    Being a writer, one has to be very careful about double-, triple-, multi-checking facts and interpretations!

    1. I completely agree with you about credibility – it is the single most important asset a writer has. Once you lose it, you can’t get people to trust you again. Consider the outright lies that “reporters” such as Jayson Blair wrote at the NY Times or Janet Cooke at the Washington Post. There are dozens of others who never recovered their credibility….

  4. Tor, this is awesome. Thank you SO MUCH for this valuable insight. I’d say the way I can use this is to LISTEN MORE and talk much less. Don’t jump to conclusions. Let people tell you their story. 

    1. Jim, personally – that’s my biggest issue as well, particularly with people close to me. I tend to fall into the trap of “false attribution error” where I’ll assign motive or intent to others that’s simply not there. It’s an ongoing challenge but awareness is the key to change. Thanks for the supportive feedback!

      1. You bet! You were such a pleasure to talk with at the Quitter conference in Feb by the way. Ladies and gentlemen- Tor is one cool cat. 

  5. Hi Tor, great to connect with you here. I wish I had this type of training and discipline behind me. I like to think I’m building it up myself through blogging but deadlines and editors are the best motivation:) 

    1. Annabel, Jeff makes the point all the time that the best way to become a better writer is simply to write. Deadlines and editors can drive that but the best reporters I’ve ever worked with were self-directed individuals like you – you’re definitely on the right track with your blogging discipline. Thanks for the comment!

  6. Excellent thoughts.  I totally enjoyed reading them and I plan to review them.  You asked how I might use them now?  Honestly, not sure: that is why I plan to review them later.  

    I can say that I immediately identified with the importance of active listening.  Of course, within these thoughts lie the reality of the importance of people: always a valuable thought.  

    All the best to you and those you love, 


    1. Thanks for the great comment Lee! I think all of us can do a better job of active listening in every area of life. The lessons I’ve listed I have to continually re-learn myself! Thanks for the affirmation!

  7. These tips can be used by any type of writer. It helps to have a road map to understand how to get the story on paper and shared with others. 

  8. “Show the ‘macro’ through the ‘micro’.”  Great advice!  It is so easy to try to write about something big and just end up with a bunch of vague words.  Make it concrete and put a face on it.  Thanks for the advice.

  9. Caring about my readers, active listening, and guarding and building my credibility are working very well for me–and I learn more and more each day, through posts such as this one, how to fine-tune these practices.  Thanks SO MUCH for this guest post.

  10. I love that this article implies there is a lot more to the news room, than what we assume it to be. Everyone in the news room knows how to connect with humans and have their work read. I especially like the point about listening twice as much as you speak; and the concise way that your mentors put it. Great post.

    1. Josh, I really appreciate your comment and kind words. A lot does go into the news decision process, but it’s also becoming a 24-hour non-stop news cycle. There’s now a much higher risk and need to be first on a story, rather than being accurate – so credibility is actually becoming an even more important distinction for writers such as us.

  11. I love your point on Listen More Than You Talk. I have been practicing that in my daily life and even as imperfectly I do it, it changes so much about the conversation.  First, the person wants to tell me something as opposed to giving up and feeling defeated.  Second, it reminds me that I don’t know it all, I really don’t have that much to say if I don’t get new information.   Thanks. 

    1. Meg, you make a great point that none of us “know it all” and that we have to come to grips with the fact that teams make better decisions than individuals! Great point!

  12. I currently work in a tv newsroom, and your advice is spot on!  I am fortunate to work in a shop that still champions feature storytelling, which is unfortunately a dying art in the biz.  Listening more than you talk is the best advice to give, because everybody truly has a story, you just have to listen for it.  And more often than not, you’ll come back with something bigger and better than what you originally set out for.  Thank you for your thoughts.   Cheers!

    1. Audra, I completely agree that storytelling is a dying art within the 24-hour news cycle. There’s so much pressure to be first with a story that the reporter’s creativity, credibility and sources all become secondary concerns. Keep fighting the good fight or rather writing the good write 😉

  13. Hi, Tor. As a former print journalist for seven years (back when computer-assisted reporting was a new concept!) I can attest that your lessons are spot-on. In addition, I learned two things about doing good interviews:

    * There is no such thing as a stupid question. Ask, don’t assume.

    * Don’t waste a quote on facts. (You can put those in the narrative.) Quote a person to reveal their heart. That’s how the story gets more interesting.

    Eg. When I was interviewing a therapist on what makes a successful relationship, she shared many tips, which I put in bullet form. Then I quoted her as she talked about her teary reaction to something her husband had done: “I leaked all over the place.” It caught my ear because it was so quirky. An editor later told me it’s what made the story come alive.

    1.  I totally agree with both your points and appreciate your perspective!
      The first newsroom I worked in was in the late 1980s and it completely
      operated by electronic Smith Corona  typewriters….(Lord that makes me
      feel old)….

      1. Haha! At least they were electronic. I typed my baby thesis on a manual in 1983. Thanks for the big grin you put on my face.

  14. I tend to write all about ME. I think listening more than I talk and considering if my audience cares would be really beneficial to my writing.

    1.  I think your writing is very good and you do a nice job relating it to your readers – however, we can all do better with a bit more external focus I think!

  15. Definitely agree with and appreciate your point about showing the “macro” through the “micro.” I’m a historian and that is one of the best methods for putting a personality onto a broad historical period. Focusing on individual people and their stories is key. Livens things up as well! Thanks for the great tips.

  16. Thank you Tor for this great post and timeless advice. I was reading a piece in our local   newspaper here in Fiji and found myself wondering how I could write the piece better. While the reporter was trying to show the “macro through the micro” it failed to connect. While a face was being painted the “why should your audience care” wasn’t being asked and I believe the piece would have made a bigger impact if the audience could read it and say “hey this could happen to me” I am of course learning and continually strive to be a better writer so I could be wrong. Appreciate your thoughts on this.


  17. This is a great post. I love what you have brought out here and how it all comes through your journalism experience. To me, these seem like important lessons not just for writing, but for LIVING. Another thing I have learned from both reading and writing is that it is very powerful for people not to feel alone in their life struggles, so if we can offer them the comfort of someone being “in it” with them, they bond and come back for more. 

  18. I totally agree with both your points and appreciate your perspective! The first newsroom I worked in was in the late 1980s and it completely operated by electronic Smith Corona  typewriters….(Lord that makes me feel old)….

  19. Hi Tor, Thanks for a great post. I can relate to all of that from my time as a Wall Street Journal reporter. One thing I’d add, personally, is the importance of editing – it was great to get used to having my precious words chopped mercilessly, and also amazing how often the piece was better for being shorter. Did you find the same, and does this help you as a writer now?

    1. Andrew, apologies for the delayed reply. I completely agree that the only way to achieve great writing is via great editing and reediting.
      It’s funny you brought up editors because while they definitely help focus a story and tighten the copy – I still consider them “Frienemies.”

      I’m planning a blog post on this but here are a couple grumbles I’ve got against news editors or TV producers (which are the broadcast equivalent):

      -sometimes they can cut a “hinge fact” that’s crucial to the backend structure leaving the piece uneven;

      -on numerous occasions, headline editors have completely misrepresented the piece I actually wrote; 

      -the cynic in me knows that print editors excise words toward a column inch number while TV producers cull to a time spec – either way both modes are biased against storytelling…

      Or maybe I’m overly biased toward my own words in excess 😉  Do you have a blog or write somewhere currently? I’d love to check out your stuff….

  20. Thank God for  “real” Journo’s (that’s journalists in Aussie speak)

    True story. Years ago, thirty to be exact, I found myself in a telemarketing department.  Yech…another story.  In the next booth to my battery hen booth was a young man who had a story to tell.  Lunchtime after lunchtime he would tell me about a particular guerilla war, in a country close to Australia.  He would tell me things that made my hair stand on end.  I cried into my sandwiches many a time.  He told me that no newspaper would “touch” the story, citing reasons such as government and bureacratic alliances,  ya da ya da.  The story was not being told. As usual, with bureacracy and such…some stories are just too “hot”.  But people die just the same. 

                 He was telemarketing to get enough money to go “over there”.  I had been a publicist in the music business.  I was taking time out by numbing my mind with a repetitive brain strain job.  He was passionate, caring and bloody brave and was a fledgling journo.  In the Christmas break, whilst I was opening presents and such, he had used his tele- money to get to this country, he told me when he got back. He had talked his way into a “guerilla” camp, deep in the jungle.  Could have been killed any time.  
           So he gets a better story. Picture us. In this mundane and very “shitty” job.  I read the story.  No one was listening.   It was real and raw and true.  I still had publicity contacts.  I urged him to go for it.   He wrote and refined. I talked on the phone. We sat together in my cubicle, and we reread the story again, and again,  before I connected him to a friend.   Talk about macro!!!  

    The story came out, first in a Paris newspaper, and only then  followed by the Australian papers.  It was an expose and a half. 

        My journo friend went on to report in  all the war torn countries.  I take my hat off to him.  Years later we met and had a coffee.  He filled in this detail.  Whilst he was in the jungle, fearing for his life, he was sweating profusely.  Weeks in the jungle.  Fear you say?  Sure.  The locals had asked him… “you have Malaria?”  No answer.  

    Truth be told he was used to having a beer every lunchtime- perhaps a few too many…  

    Two weeks without an Aussie beer. 

    We laughed.  

    Blessed are the peacemaker journo’s, they deserve a nice cold beer… and a truckload of respect.  

    From telemarketing to facing men with machine guns and back again.   

    I raise my glass to ye. 


    1. It sounds like your friend was a driven, brave idealist who didn’t buckle to pressure!

      The truth is, EVERY traditional media outlet is first a business.

      They censure reporters all the time to avoid issues that might be politically incorrect, put the organization in a compromising position, or piss off an advertiser. It happens.

      I read a great book on this topic called – Killed: Great Journalism Too Hot To Print. I highly recommend it and thanks for your great comment!

  21. Showing the macro through the micro is a wonderful principle to follow, not just for journalists either.

Comments are closed.