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editor: The top-ranking individual in the news department of a newspaper, also known as the editor in chief. The term may refer as well to those at any level who edit copy. News Reporting & Writing (Eighth Edition) by the Missouri Group. Copyright 2005. Reproduced by permission of Bedford/St. Martins.

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Asimov’s Dirty Dozen Elements of a Standard News Story

Asimov’s Dirty Dozen Elements Of a Standard News Story

By Nanette Asimov, San Francisco Chronicle

Their order is somewhat flexible. Some of the elements may be augmented. Some may be dropped—but never the “lede” or the “nut graf.”*  These are not firm rules, but the ingredients of a successful story.

* Note some strange spellings, such as “lede” (the first sentence) and “graf” (paragraph). Certain code words date back to the days of hot lead type, when intentional misspellings were used to communicate with printers in the backshop. This way, printers could recognize instructions meant for them, and would know not to print them in the newspaper.

  1. First sentence ("lede") Make the first sentence the NEWS. News is the newest thing—or the most urgent thing. Was there a vote? Did someone die? Was someone appointed? Are police searching for a suspect? Is big money being offered? Wasted? The lede should be SHORT, yet provide the who, what, when and where. Don’t overload it with details.

    EXAMPLE: The San Francisco school board voted unanimously last night to add more mandatory math and science classes, raising the hurdle for high school graduation. 

    IMPORTANT: Sometimes the news is more than one thing. If the teachers’ union had also threatened to sue the board, then your lede should include that key fact in a single, tight sentence: Despite the threat of a lawsuit by teachers, the San Francisco school board voted unanimously last night to require more math and science classes in high school.

  2. Second graf illuminates the first. You can avoid packing details into the lede by saving them for graf #2.
  3. EXAMPLE: The board voted 7 to 0 on the proposal by Superintendent Jill Rojas to require high school students to take a third year of math and science. Rojas’ plan makes room for the new classes by offering students fewer electives, such as wood shop.

  4. Sexy quote Choose the quote that best illustrates the points made in the lede and second graf. That’s what’s sexy about the quote – it’s on point. So when you’re out reporting, it helps to recognize as soon as possible where your story’s going so you can listen for the comment you’ll need, or ask the question that is likely to produce it.
  5. EXAMPLE: "It’s shameful to think that in the 21st century, a student can graduate from a California high school after completing only two years of math and two years of science," school board President Hi Roffiss told the audience of parents, teachers and some students who filled the auditorium at 555 Van Gogh Ave. "Four-year colleges do not seek to admit students with such minimal requirements. Doors are closed to some students before they are 18 years old."

  6. The "nut graf” In this essential paragraph–or paragraphs–the writer steps back from the immediate events to provide context. This graf tells how the new news fits into the existing scenario. It tells what’s been happening lately or elsewhere, so the reader knows why story matters.
  7. EXAMPLE:  The school board’s action is similar to other efforts around the country to raise academic standards. Embarrassed by American students’ poor performance on international achievement tests in recent years, and pressured by colleges to produce better-prepared graduates, public schools across the country are turning back to basics. And that means students everywhere are facing more lessons in reading, writing and arithmetic–and less art, music and perennial favorites like wood shop.

  8. Summary of what’s to come in the story: Here the writer lays out the varying points of view, foreshadowing the details of the rest of the story. This summary is key to fairness: No one’s point of view is paramount if all are summarized toward the beginning of the story.  It also helps with clarity by helping readers understand what’s going on as soon as possible.
  9. EXAMPLE: At the school board meeting in San Francisco, several teachers – and even a student — said the plan was long overdue. But most who showed up to address the board were furious. Many who teach the highest levels of math and science predicted that the quality of their rigorous courses would be watered down if students of all skill levels were forced to take them. A number of teachers also warned that more students would drop out if art and shop classes were neglected.

  10. Quote supporting the summary This begins the section of your story that proves – through real examples—your earlier summary. The first quote generally supports the last opinion summarized in the previous graf.
  11. EXAMPLE: "I’m very worried," said Bill Bard, a tenth-grade English teacher. "You board members don’t realize that wood shop keeps kids coming to school."

  12. Transition, then another quote supporting the summary Avoid placing quotes from different people back to back. If you do, readers will have trouble knowing who’s talking. Instead, write a transition to bridge the two ideas, then add the next quote. Each part – quote, transition, quote—should be a separate paragraph.
  13. EXAMPLE: For months, several of the district’s most experienced teachers have spoken out against the superintendent’s plan to toughen graduation requirements. At school board meetings, those teachers have said the plan looks better on paper than it would in reality because many students are ill- prepared to do well in higher-level math and science classes.

    “This won’t help poor students do better," said Ellie Ment, a chemistry teacher. "It will just hurt the students who do well."

  14. Transition, then final quote or quotes supporting the summary Notice that the supporting quotes go in reverse order from the way they were laid out in #5, the summary graf. It’s no firm rule, just seems natural to connect the first quote to the last idea of the summary, and work your way backwards. Also, one quote is generally enough to illustrate the point. But if there’s something newsworthy about a secondary quote—in this case, because it comes from a student–it’s fine to add that, too. Just remember to write a transition between them so they’re not back to back.

    EXAMPLE: Not all teachers opposed the plan, and some were downright enthusiastic.

    "I teach in middle school," said Idy Listick, "and I think the new requirements will give students a reason to study harder in the earlier grades."

    But when a student stood up to back the superintendent’s plan, other students in the audience booed.

    “I just wanted to say I think it’s a really good idea to add more math and science classes because there’s a lot of competition out there, and I’d rather have a good head start,” 15-year-old Stu Deis, a Washington High sophomore, told the board members as other students hooted their disapproval.


  15. Real-time color, anecdotes, examples. This need not be confined to this section. "Color" means brief descriptions of sights, sounds and mood—such as the observation in the previous graf about the students hooting. Here’s more:
  16. EXAMPLE: Board President Roffiss banged his gavel and said that students who didn’t “observe decorum” would be escorted from the meeting. The board debated the graduation plan for almost 90 minutes, as students, teachers and parents grew restless waiting for the vote. The sound of their private conversations rose with their impatience, and board members again called for quiet. No one was ejected from the auditorium.

  17. The past Is there additional history that can help the reader understand more about the subject? Has this sort of thing happened before? How is this time different or similar?
  18. EXAMPLE: The last time the San Francisco school board raised high school graduation requirements was 20 years ago – then lowered them again a decade later. The explanation at the time was so that students would be able to take a wider variety of classes, including wood shop and home economics. Under the new plan, those electives will be offered after school only.

  19. The future Wind up the story by looking toward the future. What’s the next step?
  20. EXAMPLE: After the vote, a delighted Superintendent Rojas said she plans to propose new academic requirements in the lower grades, too.

  21. The kicker Usually a short, high-impact sentence. It may be a poignant or telling quote. In some stories, the kicker can be something that brings the reader back to an idea or anecdote told at the beginning. Or it may be a surprising bit of information that works best at the end.

    EXAMPLE: Turning to a group of supportive teachers who lingered to chat, Rojas suggested that calculus be taught as early as the fourth grade. The teachers frowned.

     “Well,” said Rojas. “It’s just an idea.”


“Asimov’s Dirty Dozen” (2007)
Use with permission of Nanette Asimov,
San Francisco Chronicle
(800) 499-5700 x7127