Saturday, March 9, 2013

LIRQS: A formula for news

Journalism, a craft that can arguably include everything from "25 signs your boyfriend is going to dump you" to "How Wal-Mart used bribery to get what it wanted in Mexico" does not seem prone to sweeping generalizations about the "right way" to write a story.

But the news business looks for trends, and that includes trends in the news business itself. That's where LIRQS comes in.

The way I heard it told, from a New York Times veteran, was that a long time ago (maybe in the 70s), Times reporter Lawrence Van Gelder spent a long weekend analyzing the paper's most successful stories - front-page features, award winners, etc - to pull out what, if anything, they had in common.

LIRQS was the result of that effort. If not a formula then a structure, a framework to guide young (or just bad) writers in crafting a successful story, at least the critical first half of one. 

Here's how it works:

1. LEDE: There are a few ways to begin a story (factual lede vs. anecdotal lede, for two), but it should grip the reader and give them something to latch onto. To reference a good movie, your opening scene is your best footage. When writing for the Web, the lede needs to be quick and factual, and include the juiciest bits of your story, or nobody will continue reading.

2. IMPACT: Your 'nut graf' - the nut at the core of the fruit. Why this story matters and who it matters to. Basically answer the question "who cares?"

3. REACT: The other side(s) of the issue from that of your main character, or the reaction of those impacted by the issue. This section defines the tension, the drama of the story - the sides struggling against each other over the issue.

4. QUOTE: Your money quote. What is your money quote? Well it goes back to why you quote people in the first place - because they say something better than you could write it. Or because they have the authority to say something that you, as the neutral observer, do not. 

5. SCENE: Context. Now you can get into where this story takes place, with a brief history of the issue, statistics to back up different arguments made over it, etc. This is the rest of the article. Tell the characters' stories, give the facts, and write your article. Give us the scene where all of this is taking place.

With this kind of approach, you do have the bare bones of a news story that establishes some of the players and gives them a voice, illustrates the tension inherent in the issue and identifies the action-reaction of people impacted by an issue and those responsible for that impact.

It my not be a formula for journalism, but it's certainly a decent way to get some of the most important elements up at the top, which will give your readers a reason to keep reading. And that is what good journalism is all about, right?

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Review: Boomerang by Michael Lewis

Photo courtesy of W W Norton & Co

BOOMERANG: Travels in the New Third World (2011)
by Michael Lewis

As a longtime reader of Michael Lewis's features in Vanity Fair, I found 80% of 'Boomerang' to be redundant, since it's based on his reporting on the global economic collapse in countries around the world. 

His reporting on Iceland, Greece, Ireland and the U.S. is fascinating and intelligent stuff - a great chronicle of how the world got itself so turned upside-down - but when you've read it before you find yourself disappointed that he seemingly didn't add much to his original reporting.

But for anyone who hasn't read much of Michael Lewis's features in Vanity Fair for the past 8 years, it is an essential and well-written chronicle of how the global economy can suffer such a complete meltdown in so many places at once. 

Lewis's writing style is casual and honest, smart in a way that sometimes reads as the personal musings and stream of consciousness of an expert in economics. Very readable, and there are even swear words! His journalism mixes personal experiences of visits to these other countries, but he gets the interviews with the people that matter and is able to tell the story through a multitude of credible voices.

Overall it's top-notch journalism, very readable, and useful for anyone who wants to understand more about how we got into this economic mess we are still living in. Despite the fact that I felt I had read it all before, it's an essential part of the economic history of the modern world.

4 Stars