News writing assignments

Assignment 1: What grabs you?

Description of Assignment: Basic news writing focuses on figuring out what is important and then giving that information to your readers. It sounds simple, and with a lot of practice, it can be. Problems tend to crop up when writers try to do too much, ignore some basic tenets of journalism and generally don’t think about the audience before writing.

Here's your chance to rate your local newspaper or online news site. Find today’s edition, set aside 40 min, and read it. Just read. Then, make a list of stories, then rank them from the story that interests you the most to that which interests you the least.

Consider what it is about each story that caught your fancy. Was it the writing style? Was it the subject matter? Did the story tell you something you didn’t know? Did it answer your questions?

And consider each story that you didn’t like. Was it poorly written or organized? Did it contain errors? Was it useless to you? Did it leave you with more questions than when you started reading it? Could you even get through it?

Be prepared to discuss these findings in class. Understanding what you value in a story will make it easier for you to write and report your own stories.

Public Domain Source Material: Your daily newspaper.

Assignment 2: What happened at work today?

Description of Assignment: The core of any good news story is the lead, which is where you try to give people as much of the most important information as possible. A good place to start is the 5W’s and 1H: who, what, when, where, why and how.

Now apply this to any variation of the age-old question asked in every household: How was your day? What happened at work today? What did you study at school today?

Think about starting with a core, and then add layer after layer of information as you move outward. Answer each of the 5W’s and 1H. Then start with a simple “noun-verb-object” structure that answers the question “Who did what to whom/what?”

Here’s an example: The owner and head chef of the restaurant where you work part-time as a server learned today that he was nominated for a national award. Even though it did not involve you directly, it was still one of the most exciting days you have experienced on the job, and you want to share it. So, break it down:

Who: The owner and head chef of Dante’s Café, Dante Gardot

What: Nominated for the prestigious “Outstanding Chef” award by the James Beard Foundation

When: About 3:05 p.m. today

Where: In the kitchen at Dante’s Café, in downtown Hallsville.

Why: For setting high culinary standards and serving as a positive example for other food professionals.

How: He learned by a text message from his wife that he was nominated when the list was published online at 3 p.m.

What are the most important elements of the 5W’s and 1H? In this case, it’s the “who” and the “what,” followed by the “where” and “why.”

Now, write it out: Dante Gardot, head chef at Dante’s Café, was nominated today for the prestigious “Outstanding Chef” award from the James Beard Foundation for setting high culinary standards and serving as a positive example for other food professionals.

Try it out with something that happened during your workday.

Assignment 3: Spoiler alert! Learning the inverted pyramid.

Description of Assignment: This drill will ask students to think of their three favorite movies or novels, and report them as news stories using summary leads and an inverted pyramid style. Please write at least four paragraphs per film or book. Don’t worry about giving away the ending! News stories generally require the writer to give up the goods at the start of the story. That way, the reader doesn’t get bored and miss the point of the story before moving on to the next one.

For example, here is a news story of Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White:

Charlotte A. Cavatica, a barn spider who helped save Wilbur the pig from slaughter by extolling him with English words spun into her web at Zuckerman’s farm, died Friday at the county fair. She was 1.

Charlotte is survived by Wilbur, who rose to regional fame thanks to his dear friend’s cunning, and dozens of babies who emerged from her egg sac thereafter and departed before Wilbur could name them. The spiderlings who stayed with Wilbur were named Joy, Nellie, and Aranea.

Assignment 4: Birthday assignment

Description of Assignment: You may not remember it, but the day of your birth was very special for your parents. Interview your mother or father (or both) and ask them to recall what they experienced on the day you came into the world. At what time did your mother go into labor? Was it a natural birth, or did she have a C-section?

Shape their answers into the 5Ws and 1H format, and write a story reporting the events of your own birthday, using the inverted pyramid structure, as if it had been published in a family newsletter the day after your birth.

Assignment 5: Take note

Description of Assignment: Note-taking is an essential skill in reporting. There is no such thing (yet) as real-time transcription of every conversation. Even if there were, it would only be a record of what was said. It would not tell you anything about the way it was said. It would not remind you of the insights you had during the conversation.

Your notes represent your understanding of the material you are covering. Yes, it is important to get some colorful quotes, but it’s also important to make a record of the surroundings, what you see, feel, hear, and understand.

Every writer must develop their own note-taking style. Try writing as concisely--and as fast--as you can while still capturing the information you will understand later. Take time after an interview or event to review your notes and improve them while the memories are fresh in your mind.

Your assignment: Watch tonight’s evening news and take notes. Watch the first 15 min of the broadcast, just once through, without pausing.

Then recreate the broadcast from your notes--with direct quotes, nuance, and your own writing style. Describe the clips in as vivid detail as you can muster. Remember to get accurate spellings of names.

Public Domain Source Material: Watch live on TV or choose a past newscast:

If you are watching from 8 to 11 p.m. EDT, check out the new national broadcast on WGN America: NewsNation, which promises opinion-free reporting.


NBC News:

CBS News: