Tell me a story.
That edict drives journalism, a craft I chose to pursue when I entered USC in the fall of 1982.
Good writing is the backbone of the storytelling done in journalism, along with the good reporting that separates journalists from other writers. Every writer has a purpose and strives for meaning in the words that they choose. But the writing that makes journalism stand out is supported by the gathering of facts and the verification of those details.
The New York Times — the Gray Lady of newspapers — lives by the motto “All the news that’s fit to print.” At one time, such a motto suggested text is about the printed word on a page. Today, text is about characters flashing on a screen — whether it’s on a computer, cell phone or a “smart phone” that is a cross between the two.
Web experts say writing in the age of the Internet has changed. But the way stories are told — the point of all the text — really hasn’t changed all that much since I learned the inverted pyramid style in my first news writing class. Breaking news on the Internet is much like the days of the telegraph: A bulletin containing the most important news comes out first. Then more information is learned and related in updated dispatches.
The journalist who writes for the Web has to figure out the most important facts at hand, write them in a way that grabs the reader and, hopefully, compels that person to keep scrolling and checking back for more. The inverted pyramid is just as relevant today as it was back then.
People think that writing for the Internet is boundless because digital space has no limits. But who has the time to scroll to the bottom of a story that goes on and on? It’s no different than reading a newspaper story that — gasp — jumps inside for a solid page or two of text. Writing on the Web still has to feature clear subjects and active verbs, free of cluttering phrases and digressions.
Those are the concepts that I try to instill in my team at USA TODAY, where we produce The Oval, a blog about President Obama and his administration. The Oval is the tip of our news spear: a place where our lead blogger breaks news from the White House beat and where we follow up with more context elsewhere on www.usatoday.com or in the daily newspaper.
Twitter, with its ceiling of 140 characters, shows us that we can write news in shorter, digestible bites. But imagine this tweet, circa March 19, 2003: U.S. bombs@Iraq to find WMD. Hunt 4 Saddam begins. OMG.
It may tell you that the United States has bombed Iraq, hoping to find weapons of mass destruction that dictator Saddam Hussein has used to terrorize his people. A war has begun. But the tweet doesn’t do justice in conveying the origins of war or the justification for it by President Bush. That’s where writing for newspapers comes in — by providing context and a verification of facts.
Much has been written about the newspaper industry’s free fall and the search for a viable business model to compete for readers and advertisers. What will distinguish newspapers — including what we produce for the Web — is good storytelling that starts with good writing, especially writing that has voice and nuance backed up by the depth and texture provided by reporting. Technology may have changed since I graduated from USC, but the reason for writing and storytelling has not.
Catalina Camia '86 is a Washington assignment editor for USA TODAY, overseeing a team covering the White House and national politics. She has reported for The Dallas Morning News, Congressional Quarterly and the Dallas Times Herald. Camia earned a B.A. in international relations and print journalism from USC.