November 19, 2003

We live in an age when readers, viewers and listeners can get the news 24-7 from a variety of sources. The thinking we do as journalists is our only hope to get them to look to us.

Unfortunately,  thinking is the “great unappreciated and understated part of being” a journalist, as David Maraniss, the Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for The Washington Post and best-selling biographer, argued in Best Newspaper Writing 1997.

There are many ways to think smarter about stories, to make critical thinking a regular part of the process of reporting and writing.

Four questions suggested by another Washington Post reporter, David Von Drehle, are the single best tools I know to apply the power of focus to a story.

1. Why does the story matter?
2. What’s the point?
3. Why is the story being told?
4. What does the story say about life, the world, the times we live in?

To these, I’d add a final question:

5. What’s my story really about—in one word?

Answer those five questions as soon as you get your next assignment,  preferably in writing, and keep asking them as you move toward deadline. You will emerge from the process with a handle on the essential element of story: a single dominant meaning, aka theme or, in newsroom speak, the focus.

But how do we make focusing an early, essential and ongoing element of the reporting and writing process?

Twice this month, I’ve had the good fortune to do just that with line editors at the Dallas Morning News and the Detroit News, the men and women who are the indispensable bridge between reporters and the copy desk, helping to shape stories from vision to reality.

In both newsrooms,  I led this influential group through an exercise I regularly use with reporters.

First, I asked them to give me a “slug”one-or-two word news shorthand— for a story that’s still in process—and use their answers to build a news budget on a chart pad.


Then I asked them for two minutes and twenty seconds of their time.

I posed Von Drehle’s first three questions—”why does this story matter,” “what’s the point,” “why is the story being told?”—and gave them 30 seconds to write an answer as quickly as possible without stopping.

His fourth question—”what does this story say about life, about the world, about the times we live in?”—is my favorite. If more newspapers or news broadcasts furnished audiences with answers to those questions, I’m convinced we wouldn’t be worried about our economic survival.

“People come to a newspaper craving a unifying human presence–the narrator in a piece of fiction, the guide who knows the way, or the colleague whose view one values,” Jack Fuller, president of Tribune Publishing, argues in “News Values: Ideas For An information Age.” “Readers don’t just want random snatches of information flying at them from out of the ether. They want information that hangs together, makes sense, has some degree of order to it. They want knowledge rather than facts, perhaps even a little wisdom.”

Knowledge and wisdom requires reporters and editors to think.

That’s why I gave the editors 40 seconds for the fourth question.

For the fifth and final question–“what’s this story really about?” they only get 10 seconds, but hey,  I’m only asking for one word. Besides, after those 130 seconds of thinking with their fingers, they’re a lot smarter than they were before they started.

I record their answers next to the column of slugs, and now a different budget appears, one with words like:


We discuss the differences between Column 1 and Column 2?

1 is concrete. 2 is abstract.
1 is specific, 2 is universal.
1 is rational, 2 is emotional.
1 is thinking, the other is feeling
1 is the news, 2 is the story.
1 is the facts, 2 is the meaning
1 is the information, 2 is the theme.
1 is what happened, 2 is why it matters

Whatever you call the words in column 2—theme, focus, take, angle—they are a powerful tool for anyone trying to use language to make meaning and a metaphor for that process. A compass that leads the reporter out of the tangled woods of fact and opinion. The focusing ring on a camera lens that you adjust until the image is clear. An  acorn that contains the promise of an oak tree. It’s the way to answer all the other questions that a story poses: Where do I start? Where do I end? What do I leave in? Take out?

After the first day of our two-day  workshops in Dallas and Detroit, I asked the editors to ask a reporter for two minutes and twenty seconds to write answers to the five focusing questions about their story and compare the one-word themes.

I figured there’d be some skepticism (at one paper where I worked we used to joke that editors were sent to training sessions “to have the tapes in their heads changed”), but there was less than I imagined, although a few editors did say they felt they were being humored. But in several cases, the exchange produced a useful story discussion.

In Detroit, I took the experiment a step further.  I put the editors in small groups and asked them brainstorm ways to address questions they and their Dallas counterparts had raised about ways to persuade reporters about the value of early focusing work.

Here’s what they suggested:

1. How do you sell it to reporters? What are the arguments for focusing early?

• It focuses the budget line, ensuring editor and reporter are on the same page and eliminate surprises

• It gives reporters more ownership. making the reporter more involved, excited. Without 
ownership, reporters generally feel less enthusiastic.

• It saves time, particularly on deadline. If you’re clear on what the story is about the reporter 
won’t have to make needless calls and the editor isn’t presented with a big surprise at a news 
meeting which is where stories get sold.

• We’re going to do it as a team. Veteran reporters could provide role models for younger 

•  Avoids the discovery of last minute glaring holes.

• Adds confidence, improves morale.

2. How do you make this routine and habitual and not just a seminar exercise?

• Set it up as an experiment, with a time frame and scheduled feedback. Let resisters be the  control group.

• Put it on save get or macro string with byline so the questions pop up when the reporter starst the story.

• Build an acronym. (I call it asking DVD’s 4 questions plus 1).

• Make it a part of the budgeting process.

•  Incorporate it in the budget meeting report.

3. How to make it personal and applicable to our struggle every day to put out a good 

• Make the budget line process more meaningful… a new form that raises these themes and 
overarching points.

• Have one last brief meeting between reporters and editors late in the day but early enough 
for change to occur to talk about whether we’re really getting at the point of the story. Call it a  
Focus Meeting.

[What ways do you make focusing early and often standard operating practice?]

Thanks to the following editors at the Dallas Morning News: Tyra Damm, Kamrhan Farwell,Paul Foutch, Dennis Hall, Dave Hiott, Laura Jacobus, Cameron Maun, Michael Merschel, Jennifer Okamoto, John O’Rourke, Mizanur Rahman, David Renbarger, Michael Rychlik,Vernon Smith, Leslie Snyder, Nancy Visser, Valerie Wigglesworth, and at the Detroit News: Ruben Luna, Gary Miles, Marti  Davenport, Mark Truby, Susan Carney, Dave Spratt, Mary Ann Struman, Joanna Firestone, Rita Holt, Leslie Green, Rod Hicks, Brian Handley, Felecia Henderson, John Schultz and Tarek Hamada.



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Christopher “Chip” Scanlan (@chipscanlan) is a writer and writing coach who formerly directed the writing programs and the National Writer’s Workshops at Poynter where he…
Chip Scanlan

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