Sunday 26 January 2014

Social Media: Eight Things We Can Learn from Old Style Journalism

By Candy Gourlay

Well I say 'old-style' because I was a journalist in the eighties and the nineties. This post is about how journalism has taught me stuff I now apply to Social Media.

I beg you all not to get too caught up with the maths. I was a YOUNG journalist back in the eighties. Yup, the 1980s, when some of you were still foetuses. Or not.

Me in my press jacket in 1985. That's a
protest demo in the background.
Anyway, there were no 24 hour news channels, no mobile phones, no internet, no fax machines. Being a successful journalist meant actually being there to witness an event as it happened - and being the first to get the news out.

To file my copy, I had to make an overseas collect call to dictate it to a fast-typing 'copy-taker'. I had to physically deliver my photos to a wire agency to dispatch them by satellite to whichever newspaper in whatever country was buying. I wrote on a Tandy (an early laptop) which only had enough memory for about 650 words. I printed out my stories on dot matrix printers fed with fanfold paper. I had towers of newspapers in my office, from which I clipped and saved information for future reference - no Google searches or Wikipedia for me.

Many years later I am now a children's author and the world has changed. We live on the Planet of Instant Everything, audiences give as good as they receive, and information is everywhere.

As I try to be a good author and do my social media bit, I find that I am constantly digging into those journalism skills from my other existence. I thought I'd share a few.

When John F. Kennedy was assassinated there were dozens of newsmen at the scene. But the day was won by the first reporter to get to a telephone booth. Here's how the Associated Press scooped everyone else.

Bette Davis as Front Page Woman (1935)

Whatever you share in social media, be it a blog post or a tweet, time is of the essence. There's no point waiting a few weeks before announcing the publication of your new book or your winning of a prize. You have to get there first. 

Google will list you above everyone else if you get there first. And remember that what's hot today will be old poop tomorrow. When someone tells me, 'Oh I'll blog about it next week', the journalist in me clenches her teeth. Next week is too late. By then, the story will be cold, the conversation will be over.

When you write a news story, the very first paragraph is called the lead or lede. It's tells the WHO WHAT WHY WHERE WHEN of your story. It's the hook -- The Reason Why People Should Read This.

The lead is positioned at the very beginning of a story because in the olden days, when news articles were typed up in columns then pasted onto the page, the lay-out artist chopped off anything that didn't fit the space allotted to it.

So you had to make sure all your important facts were up at the top of the column. If you didn't, it was called 'burying your lead'. If you bury your lead, there was a danger that the whole point of your story might be chopped off in the paste up.

Will Ferrell as Anchorman - The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)

In Social Media, it's not the lay out artist's scissors we are afraid of but our audience's attention spans. So don't waffle. Tell me up front why I need to pay attention.

3.  SO WHAT?
The first paragraph is the lead and the second paragraph is the Nut Graph. The Nut Graph is the paragraph that tells you "in a nutshell" what the story means. It's the paragraph that answers the question "So what?"

Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant as reporters in His Girl Friday, 1940

In a tweet it will be that little nugget you tack on to the link. "Read this because ..." Posting a link without telling people why they should be interested is ho hum.

The twitterati don't have the time to figure it  out themselves. They like to be told why they're reading or sharing something at a glance.

In a blog post, if you take too much time working up to the so what, you are likely to lose your reader. So get it up there early.

If you can be witty or funny in the process, then that's a bonus.

One of the things I used to hate about being a reporter was ringing up newspapers and pitching a story to an editor.  When South Korea hosted the Olympics in 1987, I got into North Korea. I rang the Independent collect and offered them a story from Pyongyang. The deskman who answered said, 'But how do we know that you write in elegant English?' The memory still annoys me today but I suppose it was good practice for when I did my time being rejected by book publishers.

Bette Davis as Front Page Woman (1935)

Anyhoo ... when pitched, an editor will usually ask: "So what's your angle?" This is because there is a high likelihood that somewhere out there, another reporter is bashing out the exact same story.

The angle is what makes your story unique. Why people should RT your tweet over someone else's? Why your blog post deserves a comment over the other guy's.

Everyone on the internet may be sharing the same piece of social ... but can you give it a spin that can inspire new conversations, new engagements?

If you get the news out first ... when you are the ONLY one who's got the news, then you've got a scoop.  News is about selling papers and a scoop puts you beyond competiton.

Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman scooping the competition in All The President's Men (1976)

A good social media person would have their ear on the ground, watching for scoops. This might be something nobody's noticed before. This might be being the first to discover patterns and connections. This might be creating the thing that everyone shares.

Meryl Streep as the editor who became the story in The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

My first job was on a political opposition magazine that depended on the fury of our readers for sales. In the first year of our publication, we were selling 500k issues a week, riding on the public's thirst for information.

After the first year, readers calmed down and the sales relaxed. I was surprised when my publisher introduced a society column with photos of parties and cocktail receptions crammed into a two page spread. I got to caption these photos.

Make sure you put down all the names, someone told me. Every person mentioned will buy at least five copies.

So. This is the 'social' in Social Media. Everyone loves a namecheck. Engaging with people is the best way to spread the word - that's why we've got memes and follow fridays and guest blogging.


Jim Carrey filing a story in Bruce Almighty (2003)

My editor used to sit at her desk mumbling, 'Lists, boxes, lists, boxes.' She explained that readers found it easier to read facts when they were boxed off in separate sections, rather than embedded in interminable paragraphs. And readers loved lists.

That's when I learned that form has function.

  • Write short paragraphs because long paragraphs are hard to read in narrow newspaper columns. 
  • Arrange facts so that the most important appears at the beginning (it means being okay about the reader not reading the whole thing). 
  • Create bold headlines designed to hook, using words that catch the eye of the reader.
  • Present facts in ways that are easy to understand - boxes, lists, diagrams, caption stories.

I think of function when I blog. Short paragraphs are easier to read on a screen (especially on a smartphone). Using infographics, slideshares, box quotes, lists. Using key words in the titles of my  posts.

In Twitter you can now stand out on a twitter feed by inserting a line space before your link. Sure, you're sacrificing a few characters but look at it. It jumps out of the madding crowd. In Facebook, use images to get people to read your status update. In websites and blogs, you craft your headlines to turn up on Google.

Form is never accidental. Form has function.

Sacha Baron Cohen as the gormless
Borat (2006)
Journalism is ephemeral, that's the first thing I learned on the job. You're only as good as your last good story.

Woo hoo, your story appeared on the front page. The next day ... everybody will have forgotten that front page story. There will be another person going woo hoo. Old news is not news anymore.

So it is in Social Media. Your readers are fickle. They only hang around if you're serving the juicy stuff.

If you stop, they won't miss you. There are plenty of other people serving the juicy stuff out there.

So what? What's the nut graph, as an old fashioned editor would say?


Nobody will notice.

You might also want to read:

Just Because Social Media is a Tool Doesn't Mean You've Got to Be a Tool Too

I recently had a go at Jane Heinrichs' One Picture, Three Stories over on my author blog. If you'd like to join, check out Jane's guidelines.


  1. Good advice from one who knows :)

    1. Heh nobody knows. The rules change all the time.

  2. Great post, Candy. Informative, inspiring and slightly soul-destroying in equal measure. Such is the fickle world of social media. Love the longer hair, BTW!

    1. Ha ha - we should all take a social media break! (I hated my hair! Still can't figure out what to do with it!)

  3. Really good, especially the bit about the dot matrix printers...not that I remember them, of course! There's a lot here that could apply to fiction writing, too. Thanks!

    1. When I started writing long form fiction, I had to unlearn all the rules of journalism and learn how to unfold the story instead of getting to the goods right away!

  4. Really good, especially the bit about the dot matrix printers...not that I remember them, of course! There's a lot here that could apply to fiction writing, too. Thanks!

  5. Delightful! I've tweeted this post. And I do remember dot matrix printers. And typewriters and there's this to be said for them, they don't crash and wipe out your work. ;-) I once did a short adult education course in freelance journalism. I thought it seemed a good idea to try my luck with writing a piece on a major stop work meeting I was attending and called the freelance journo teacher for his opinion. "Too late," he said, and I was AT the meeting! Another time, I found myself being interviewed via email by a local paper journalist while I was at another stop work meeting. Talk about scoops -she didn't even have to BE there! I am familiar with some of te stuff you mention, as reverse-pyramid, ie important stuff first. And you're right about the short attention span of readers, especially kids. You don't grab them immediately, they don't read on. Mind you, some have told me they will finish a book, even if they don't like it, and my niece tells me she will finish even a TRILOGY she didn't care for.

    1. Thanks for this, Sue. One of the big culture shifts i experienced moving from East to West as a journalist was that a lot of reportage was conducted over the phone. You couldn't just be a witness. I listened avidly to the Today programme every morning to learn interview style and tactics because my vocabulary came from a different culture.

  6. This is a great post - applies to novel writing too...printing out....

    1. I had to unlearn this training when I started writing long fiction. My husband used to say: "You don't have to get to the point so quickly, where's the suspense?"

  7. From a former 1980s journalists (who still does features) to another, nice work. Our education continues to serve us well.

    1. It really does! But I for one could never have imagined this always connected world we live in now!

  8. Some really good info there, Candy. Thanks!

  9. Thanks, Candy. Loved the analogy from journalism to book authoring. And thanks for the stand out ideas.

  10. Really useful guidance Candy. Thank you.
    Political opposition is serious stuff but love sales can depend on readers' fury.

  11. I know this if off topic but I'm looking into starting my own weblog and was curious what all is required to get set up? I'm
    assuming having a blog like yours would cost a pretty penny?
    I'm not very web smart so I'm not 100% sure. Any recommendations or advice would be greatly appreciated. Cheers
    social media.


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