Six ways to cover all your story’s bases

Craft Lessons
Keith Johnston courtesy of

There’s nothing worse than turning in a story and then being summoned by your editor who peppers you with questions you failed to answer. What hospital were the victims sent to ? What are their conditions? Did police lodge any charges? What was the name of the school principal? What was the name of the dog?

As a rookie reporter covering fires and accidents, I carried a checklist to make sure I got all the information I needed, or at least could answer the questions my editor might have. Over time, they became second nature, although I still jotted questions down before I headed out to a crime scene or accident? Better safe than sorry.

When a story was more complicated than a two-alarm fire or a car crash with injuries, I needed more than ever to make sure my story was complete. To cover all the bases.

Recently, I interviewed David Margolick about a story he wrote about a loud and noxious building project in his Manhattan neighborhood. The reporting was meticulously and richly detailed, from the health effects on neighbors — human, canine and feline — to the construction process and the description of the owners’ plans for an ostentatious underground entertainment center.

I was astounded by the lengths he went to to report the story. Given his history as a longtime contributor to Vanity Fair, former legal affairs writer for The New York Times and six-time book author, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Still, the lengths he went to were remarkably thorough. They display a consummate professional at work.

David Margolick

I sought out the presidents of the block associations on West 69th St., where the mansion will go, and West 68th St., where I live. I asked them for the names of residents closest to the construction site. To make sure I got diverse points of view, I asked those people for additional names, and also spoke to random people on the street. I went to several block association events. I also needed to identify the husband and wife who are responsible for the project, since they are hiding behind a corporate shell. This was something that virtually no one in the neighborhood had yet managed to do, but I did in surprisingly short order.

Because the man in the couple is a French businessman, I hired a French-speaking researcher to check the French and Belgian papers for information about him. Because she is a jazz singer, I checked out various musical websites, including a podcast in which she expressed great concern for rocks, trees, animals, air and various other entities her vanity project has disrupted. I never spoke to them, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Apart from contacting publicists, I reached out to all three architects who’d worked on the project; the owners’ lawyer; their representative on the construction site; one of their fellow investors in various cultural productions they’ve backed; and the Juilliard School, where he’d been a trustee, and set up a scholarship for struggling jazz musicians. (The violinist forced to flee because of the disruption — a move that set her back $5,000 — might have appreciated some of that largesse.)

Margolick’s remarkably comprehensive approach brought to mind a reporting rubric, one far more complete and sophisticated than the checklist from my cub reporter days. They are six elements that William E. Blundell devised for himself when he was writing and editing page one stories for the Wall Street Journal  and later shared as an influential writing coach in his classic guide, “The Art and Craft of Feature Writing.”

He described them in “Best Newspaper Writing 1982,” the year he won the award for best non-deadline writing. Blundell said he used these six areas to organize his material. “A few of these things are of interest, and others may not be, but I always consider all six of them,” he said.

1.      History. When did this start? Who started it? What are the pivotal events on a timeline? Does my main theme development have roots in the past? What are they?

2.      Scope. What is the extent of the problem? How many people are affected? How much money is at stake?

3.      Central reasons. Why is this happening? What are the economic, social or political forces that created it, influence it, threaten it?

4.      Impacts.“Who is helped or hurt by this,” Blundell said, “and to what extent and what’s their emotional response to it?”

5.      Gathering and action of contrary forces. “If this is going on, is somebody trying to do anything about it, and how is that working out?” Blundell said.

6.      The future. “If this stuff keeps up,” he said, “what are things going to look like five or 10 years from now, in the eyes of the people who are directly involved?”

Blundell used the six points to organize his reporting before he wrote. I think they can be equally valuable earlier in the process; Margolick demonstrates the value of going the extra mile in your reporting.

Blundell’s six points provide a roadmap for this kind of comprehensive research, reporting, and interviews.

Whether you’re on a daily deadline or working on a longer project like a magazine article or nonfiction book, they offer powerful assistance with the reporter’s never-ending challenge: developing expertise needed to write with clarity, completeness, accuracy and, above all, authority.

May the writing go well,

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