James Crisp. Freelance journalist in Brussels.

Hire me for journalism, moderation, and sparkling copy

What’s the story?

What makes a good news story? More or less the same things that make a good book, play or film.

If you are trying to convince journalists to write about the latest tiny tweak to a piece of draft EU legislation – that idea probably fills you with a mix of despair and disbelief.

But whether you’re talking about landfill quotas or bloodthirsty aliens, the same broad rules do apply.

A good story needs to have a beginning, a middle and an end. The aliens arrive, disrupting the hero’s perfect life. The hero fights back to protect humanity and there is a struggle. Against all odds, good triumphs over evil.

The scene needs to be set, quickly and clearly. What is the situation? When and where is this happening? Who is involved? What has changed or could change? Why should people care?

Being able to explain why your target audience should care about your story is fundamental. The reason why probably is the story.


Aliens invading Earth – a very good story. [Claudia Heidelberger/Flickr]

Conflict and risk

Look at the basic ingredients of good story-telling. Steven Spielberg makes you care about Indiana Jones by introducing suspense, conflict and jeopardy.

Without risk – the idea that something bad has or is going to happen or something good could be lost– why should anyone give a hoot in the first place?

Actually why are you writing a press release or on the phone to me at all – shouldn’t you be concentrating on something important?

Obviously, not every story is going to be a matter of life or death. But it should matter to someone.

Changes to EU rules about accounting will bore most people but for the accountants reading Accountants Weekly, they are a big deal.

So tailoring the story to an audience is important but the basic rules I’ve outlined above always apply.

The most interesting, dramatic part of the story – why the reader should care – needs to go first. There’s no guarantee anyone will read past your first sentence.

The policy is not the star of the story

One common mistake is the idea that a trade association or NGO publishing a report is a story.

Associations and NGOs publish reports every day. There is no beginning, middle and certainly no end to the endless stream of reports. There is no drama or jeopardy in a report being printed out or put on a website.

The real story lies in what the report says, and what that means for people. If a report finds that orange juice causes cancer, the story is not that a new report has been published.

Similarly, there is a widespread assumption in Brussels that the policy or a specific piece of legislation is the star of the story.

This is completely wrong. The story is not the latest revision to the Capital Requirements Directive, it is what that will mean to people.

It’s the impact of what making banks hold more capital will have on lending to homeowners and businesses and what that means for the economy.

Find the buried story 

It’s not always easy to pick out the story buried in a position paper or report. But there is a trick I use.

Imagine meeting a man or woman you want to impress for a drink. He/she asks you what you are working on. It’s a report on plastic pollution in the sea.

You need to come up with a succinct, simple, answer that will spark his/her interest.  That is probably your story and the answer to the ‘who cares?’ question.

You could say you were working on a report on rules to stop people throwing away so much plastic.

Or you could say you were fighting to save sea turtles from being killed by pollution.

Obviously, the second option is a much better story.

>>Read: What journalists really think blogs


One comment on “What’s the story?

  1. Pingback: You can quote me on this | James Crisp. Freelance journalist in Brussels.

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