Writing Stories that Readers Will Read to the End

Convener:  Lance Johnson, The Day


  • Tom Heslon, Providence Journal
  • Lisa M. Pane, Associated Press
  • Mark Peters, Record Journal
  • Margaret Walter, Portland Press Herald
  • Giselle Goodman, Portland Press Herald
  • Terry Ryan, Patriot Ledger
  • David J. Kessler, consultant
  • Lisa Arsenault, student, UNH
  • Wayne Phaneuf, Springfield Union News

Others who stopped by at various points


“Put a face on the story.  People want to read stories about other people, people like them.” Other similar comments were:  “We need stories about real people” … and “make new friends” … in other words, don’t go back to the same sources time and time again.  Develop new contacts — new faces — to write about.  Margaret Walter: “Every once in a while, throw the old Rolodex away and start over.” “Value real people’s ideas” … instead of always depending on the same “official sources.”

We must learn to think outside the box:  Lisa Payne, AP

To really impact writing or storytelling at a newspaper, the message must come from the top.  The culture of the whole newsroom must change.  This takes a lot of conversation within the newsroom: Tom Heslin.

Wayne Phaneuf of the Union News said that it’s important to pick the right form for the story.  Some stories deserve storytelling, and some are simply articles that carry facts that readers want.  Both are to be valued, but a decision needs to be made on what the story is, and the effort required.

David J. Kessler said people want the same things from our stories that they want from the books that they read:  Characters that you care about, and a plot that interests you.

Phaneuf said that reporters and editors need to look at the fruit of research in the same way they do a kaleidoscope, letting the results drive what the story will be, and not the initial assignment.

The art of interviewing is essential to good story development, and probably most important is the ability to listen, to hear: Lance Johnson.

Create stories that people will talk about, the “Hey Mildred!” stories:  Margaret Walter.

Capture the conflict and complexity of stories. What does the story mean?  Make it clear. Write in plain English.

Editors should encourage reporters to take risks, and to support the reporters when they do. Trust between reporters and editors needs to be developed and nurtured.  Editors also need to help reporters make decisions about stories, so the stories can be shaped — so that a newspaper’s stories become so good so often that they create a demand among the newspaper’s readership.  Making no decision is making one nonetheless, and often it’s a bad one because the story suffers.

Stories, according to Heslin, should be parables.  “Set the scene” with great, telling details.

Mark Peters asked about developing contacts within the Hispanic community, where the “leaders” are not as obvious.  He was advised to seek out the community organizations, such as the churches, and to stop by some front porches, or the equivalent, for chats with residents.  This will develop trust and a network of sources for stories.

“Satisfy the reader’s need for information.”

The key to getting access to the people who can make a story come alive is to not give up.  Be persistent..

Find the right reporter for the assignment.  Take ownership of the assignment.

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