Amador County News

How to report a news story online

Amador County News, California

Editor's Note:
In the interest of public good and education, I thought it important to do a series of articles examining the issues involved in "reporting the News."

For Me, The Online Journalism Review (OJR), was an exceptional influence on My forming a distinct view of a news cycle; What is news? How should certain subjects be brought up? Why is news reporting so important to democracy?

So, here is the intro to the series, it is an excellent place to begin for the 'cub reporter' or those readers interested in how their news is "created."


How to report a news story online
Updated: 2006-06-08 at 11:54 AM (MST) by Robert Niles

Be the first with the facts by trying some of these suggestions for uncovering news that others haven't.

The interactive nature of the Internet allows online writers to involve readers in news reporting in ways that print and broadcast journalists never could before. Online writers can solicit leads and advice from readers through open source reporting, or even ask readers to report a story themselves, through a distributed reporting project. Still, the vast majority of online reporting is done the old-fashioned way, through interviews, observations and record checks done by the writers themselves.

Open Source Reporting

Reporters traditionally don't tell readers in advance what stories they are working on. Reporters don't want to lose a potential scoop to a competitor by announcing what they are investigating before they have that story ready to go.

Open source reporting takes the opposite approach. A reporter announces the topic he or she wishes to investigate, and invites readers to submit leads, tips, sources and ideas. The potential for a "scoop" is lost, as other writers can do the same thing. But open source reporting is based on a collaborative model, emerging from the ideal that a community of readers knows more, and has access to more resources, than a single reporter or newsroom. Open up your reporting process to engage that community, and you can report with greater speed and depth than you could on your own. Open source techniques can prove valuable for solo bloggers and small newsrooms that lack the resources of major news organizations.

Simple open source reporting predates the Internet, as reporters and news organizations have run "tip lines" for years. But blogging and discussion forums now allow journalists to work with an unprecedented level of transparency throughout the reporting process.

Distributed Reporting

Distributed news reporting takes open source reporting one step further, by relying on readers to submit information themselves. In this model, readers become reporters, publishing information into a database of incident reports that is then coalesced for publication.

A distributed news reporting effort can involve sophisticated Web front-ends, merged with detailed databases, such as US Geological Survey's "Did You Feel It?" earthquake shakemaps. Or they can be as simple as a Flickr collection of reader-submitted photographs sharing the same tag.

The trick to good distributed reporting is to use this method for information about which a large number of readers are likely to have first-hand information, such as earthquake damage. Distributed reporting efforts also can effectively gather and sort published information, such as in's Katrina Timeline. Indeed, Wikipedia is perhaps the world's best-known example of a distributed online reporting project.

Handled poorly, a distributed reporting effort can degenerate into an anonymous bulletin board, with false reports and defamation. But if a journalist designs his or her distributed reporting effort responsibly, sourcing all information and requiring readers to verify their identity to post (such as verifying an e-mail address), distributed reporting can produce a massive quantity of well-organized information in a fraction of the time it would take a traditional newsroom to do the same work.

Traditional Reporting

The three traditional methods for gathering information for a news story are through interviews, observation and document searches.

1. Interviews

Want to know what's happening? Find people who know and talk to them. The best sources are folks who were or are directly involved in the incident or subject that you're covering.

Introduce yourself and say for whom you are writing. If you are recording the interview, be sure to ask permission first. It is illegal in many places to record someone without their consent. If you are unsure of your ability to take accurate notes, record the interview. Start by getting the source's name, and its spelling, as well as his or her official title, if it is revelant to the story.

Ask questions that cannot be answered with a 'yes' or a 'no.' Instead, ask people to describe the incident or situation. Listen as they respond and imagine what additional information a reader would want. Then ask follow-up questions to get that information.

Don't get intimidated and feel afraid that you are asking "dumb" questions. If your source says something you do not understand, ask them to explain it in simpler terms. If something a source says does not make sense to you, say why and ask for an explanation. If you don't understand something, your readers likely will not as well. Always be polite and respectful when interviewing someone, but respect your readers as well. Don't allow a source to intimidate you into not asking tough, appropriate questions.

If you don't know whom to interview, offers a list of sites where you can find experts to interview on a wide range of subjects. If you end up dealing with a publicist, don't let them lead you by the nose. Let them help you set up interviews and obtain information, but come up with your own questions and own ideas for the story.

2. Observation

Your five senses can provide the details that help a make an otherwise dry story come to life for a reader. Even if you are "just" doing an interview, make note of the setting: What do you see? Hear? Smell? Feel? Drop those details into your story to help bring your reader into the place and the moment from where you are reporting.

Be careful, however, not to load your story with gratuitous detail that demeans or insults your subject. We don't need to know what color your interviewee's hair is, unless it is relevant to the story.

Try sitting someplace alone for 30 minutes, then write a story about what you saw, as practice in developing your observational skills.

3. Looking through documents

Online reporters can find thousands of stories lurking within public data. Government databases on crime, school test scores, population statistics, accident reports, environmental safety and more can keep a motivated writer busy for years. Web sites like The Smoking Gun attract thousands of readers a day simply by publishing fresh, interesting, quirky news found in public records. Documents also provide a great way to fact-check statements made by an interview subject.

Start with voting records. Go to the county courthouse and ask to see the registration records for some of your local officials. How often do they vote? Have they always been in the same party? If something is public record, any member of the public has the right to inspect it. You need not work for some major news organization. That said, manners go along way in getting people to help you. Ask nicely and be genuinely kind to the folks working in government offices who get records for you.

But you don't need to leave your home to start inspecting official data. Go online and look through some of the sites linked from to find documents on the topics that interest you.

Journalists often use computer-assisted reporting to find trends in large datasets, including budgets and crime reports. If you know how to use programs like Excel, Access and MapInfo, you can cross-check any number of interesting public databases, such as a list of school district employees with criminal convictions. Or you can use mapping software and police traffic reports to find the intersections with the most accidents. Or to find the most common speed traps.

No matter which method you use -- and you should try to use them all on each story -- you want to find information that illustrates and explains the issue or incident you are writing about. It's basic nature to start with an assumption of your own. But look for information that challenges or contradicts your assumptions. Don't just "cast" a story, looking for quotes and data that supports your opinion, while ignoring information that doesn't. Great reporters cycle through the process many times in pursuit of their stories. They go back and do more interviews, look for more documents and spend more time observing as their initial reporting leads them in different directions.

Check, check and double check your facts. Try not to make mistakes when transcribing an interview, copying data from official records or describing something you've seen. Everyone makes a mistake at some point, but that does not excuse carelessness.

How to find story ideas

An interview with an interesting expert, presented in a simple Q&A format, provides a great way to get started reporting. Beyond that, keep your eyes open when reading the newspapers, message boards and blogs you like to find issues that other people are talking about. Al's Morning Meeting on also offers fresh story tips each weekday. Check out Extra! Extra! put together by Investigative Reporters and Editors for good examples of investigative pieces.

Hit the mental "record" button as you go through life and keep asking yourself, "would my readers find this interesting?" You might be surprised how often the answer is "yes."

Finally, invest in a paper notebook and carry it and a pen with you everywhere. Take notes whenever you speak with someone or find something you think might make a good item for your website.


How to report a news story online


How the News is Created pt 1 -
How to report a news story online

How the News is Created pt 2 -
What are the ethics of online journalism

How the News is Created - pt 3
Reporter's Ethics Check list

How the News is created pt. 4 -
False Report Relied on Faulty Sourcing

How the News is created pt. 5 -
Producing news copy

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Amador County News
Copyright  2010 M. W. Boitano All rights reserved.
This page was Modified: 01-23-2012 9:00 a.m.