Don Fry

Represents the Poynter Institute at journalism organization meetings and conferences, National Writers' Workshops, and the Institute for Advancement of Journalism in South Africa. Helps writers to write better, editors to edit better, and managers to organize better through coaching. Directed the Institute's writing program from 1988-1994.


How to Handle Quotes from Inarticulate People

Writers love quotes because they add human interest and immediacy, but most people you want to quote don’t talk clearly. You have several options: don’t quote them, paraphrase, use a partial quote, ask the question again or sharpen the answer.

You use a quote because it’s the best way to explain something or to capture character. But quotes require a lot of apparatus (attribution, identifying speakers and context), so you should use them sparingly. Don’t quote just to quote. And apply even more rigor to poorly-phrased quotes. So first, just leave them out.

You can always paraphrase a quote. If you can write it better than the source said it, you probably should. Some paraphrases include short bits of quoted material, what we call a “partial” or “fragmentary” quote.… Read more

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Reinvent Yourself after a Buyout

So they bought you out, and now you’re out of work. Wrong. You’re not unemployed; you have a new job: reinventing yourself.

Here’s how.

First of all, it’s not your fault that your newspaper’s owners did not figure out early enough that when readers change their reading habits, the paper has to change with them. And then they failed to figure out that cutting the newsroom staff lowers the quality of the product they’re trying to sell.

Next, convince yourself that the buyout probably had nothing to do with deficiencies in your skills or performance. Newspaper managers generally buy out people with high salaries. You probably earned that salary by years of solid work. Ironically, a buyout may be a compliment.

Now inventory your skills. Never say things like, “I’m just a journalist.” Your skills are not confined to your former beats, such as writing game stories and occasional columns about the Tampa Bay Bucs.… Read more

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White Space for Writers

Ever wished you had a private office to write in, right in your newsroom? Big stars have them, but most of us aren’t big stars. Even most editors don’t have such a sanctuary, although they may need one for discreet conferences and their own writing.

Lisa Belkin writes in The New York Times about “white space,” not the blank shapes on the page so beloved by our graphics colleagues, but a getaway at work where you can actually get something done. She describes people who hide in a huge sculpture or a church pew, or tiny conference rooms, or a spa hotel room. You probably don’t have any of these hideouts, so here’s how to get a little privacy in your newsroom.

Write Elsewhere

First, there’s no reason you have to write in the newsroom itself.… Read more

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The Perils of the Plateau: Helping Stuck Journalists

By Don Fry

Journalists, particularly very good ones, tend to plateau at some point in their careers. They report, write, produce or design at perfectly competent levels, even star levels, but they don’t get any better. Some remain satisfied with the quality they’ve reached, while others view the plateau as a plight, as a problem they want to solve. As their editor or manager, you may remain satisfied, or want to lift them above that plateau. Here’s how to help them and perhaps raise the performance of your whole newsroom.

Why Journalists Plateau

Getting stuck can have many causes, including lack of skill, fear of failure, peer pressure, low expectations and the commonest: boredom and burnout. Editors tend to leave star reporters on the same beat forever, because they perform well and win prizes.… Read more

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Want to Live Forever? Write Your Own Obit

Journalists traditionally earn a valuable fringe benefit: They always get an obituary when they croak, either by their paper’s obit writer or by someone else in the newsroom. Now think about your colleagues. Do you really trust those louts to write such an intimate piece about you?

Of course not — so here’s how to write your own obituary.

Obituaries have changed a lot in the last quarter of a century, mostly because of Jim Nicholson of the Philadelpha Daily News, who wrote feature obits on ordinary people chosen at random. Nicholson interviewed family and friends to extract telling details, rich anecdotes and character quotes. In an interview for “Best Newspaper Writing 1987,” I asked him how often he failed with such chancy and unlikely material.… Read more

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Bigfoot in the Newsroom

Bigfoot stalks your newsroom late in the day. He (or she) marches in and takes a look at the top stories, usually the front page, and says something like this: “This is a good story, but it would be a great one if…” And the editors scramble to supply the “if,” which usually requires more reporting.

Unfortunately, the reporter has gone home, and so have the sources, so the editors do a “writing job,” making a mess of what had been a good story two hours before. In the morning critique, Bigfoot wonders why his good ideas never get carried out.
 
Bigfeet are high-ranking editors who spend their day in meetings, and like to end the day with the real fun: news and stories. They achieved high rank by having good ideas as reporters and line editors, but now their skills disrupt the editorial process.… Read more

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What Makes Local News Really Local?

The question top editors ask me most, especially those at larger papers, is how to make their papers local, or more local. Most of what I suggest gets dismissed out of hand.


I’ve just concluded a series of workshops and coaching for the nine papers of the Schurz group, all medium to small papers. Eight of the nine are intensely local in their practices, in very different ways, and I’ve learned a lot from reading and observing them. Here are some practices and attitudes that make these papers ferociously local.


What Makes Local Local?


First, all really local papers write stories about ordinary people doing ordinary things in their communities. A citizen does not have to win an award or get elected or get arrested to get into the paper.… Read more

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Unmuddling Middles

Many reporters write strong leads, back them up, and finish their story with an ending. But the middle “has no recognizable sequence of ideas, no flow of cause and effect, and no narrative, just puddles of information,” as Roy Peter Clark and I complained in our latest edition of “Coaching Writers,” on page 107. Many editors struggle to bring some structure to their writers’ middles, or just give up and publish these sagging arches. How can reporters create strong middles, and how can editors help them by coaching?

Reporters fail to write organized middles for two reasons: j-schools and lack of know-how. Many journalism schools still teach the inverted pyramid as “THE form” despite all the evidence showing readers cannot understand them. Few journalism schools teach the most effective form of explaining things in words, the stack of blocks.… Read more

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Do-It-Yourself Journalism

Most editors find it hard to get their staffs to produce the kind of stories they want. They teach and nag and remind, but the reporters just don’t seem to get it, and neither does the editor. What’s the problem? Our limited newsroom vocabulary makes it hard to describe what you want, or for writers to imagine it.

So create an anthology of what you want to read in your own paper.

COLLECTING GOOD STUFF

Such an anthology would include examples of the kind of stories or treatments you have in mind. Just photocopy examples and staple them together. Writers and editors can have more helpful conversations about improving stories if they have such booklets of examples in front of them. But, by definition, your own paper does not print the kind of stories you want.… Read more

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Start at the Copy Desk

Every newly-hired reporter should spend the first month on the copy desk, working as a fledgling copy editor to get firsthand experience in everything copy editors do and know.

Your copy desk knows everything going on in your newspaper. When I visit a newsroom to solve problems, I always spend several nights on the copy desk. Figuratively speaking, copy editors sit in the basement with transparent floors above them. From there, they can see everything, and it ain’t all pretty.

Knowing the warts

 After one month on the copy desk, a writer will know how the whole system works. The visitor will experience that great shocker for the new editor: raw copy. We assume all reporters can spell, explain complex issues, follow the stylebook, and write to length.… Read more

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