Chapter 14: Copy presentation

Here we consider the importance of how you present your copy, and we suggest a good style for copy presentation. We also consider how to dictate copy by telephone.

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Most newspapers, radio and television stations today have computers for reporters to use to type their copy (stories). There are many different kinds of computer and many different programs used with them.

If you are using a computer, there will be certain rules which you must follow, to tell the computer who you are and what you are doing. The computer can perform the actions you need but you must make the decisions on how your copy is presented, filed and distributed.

Every piece of copy which you write - every news story, every feature - should follow some simple rules for presentation. These rules vary slightly from one newspaper or broadcasting station to another, but they all serve the same purposes - to improve the smooth management of lots of stories, from the reporter through the sub-editors to the printers – or website - and to avoid errors. While many newsroom systems now make it possible to take a story from through the production process from reporter to press room, studio or website designer without ever printing out paper copies, there will always be occasions when a paper copy of a story, page or bulletin is needed, so knowing how to handle paper copies is still important.

So all reporters typing copy need to follow certain rules, to make sure that difficulties do not arise.

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Basic rules for copy presentation

Your newsroom may already have a style for the way in which copy should be presented. If so, you should follow it. If your newsroom does not have a style, this is a good one to use. (Later in this chapter, we shall see an example of copy presented in this style.) These are the basic rules:

  • The first page of each story or feature should have three pieces of information in the top left-hand corner or – if your newsroom computer has a standard template for writing stories – in the appropriate field:

    a) your surname;
    b) the date;
    c) catchline and page number 1.

  • The catchlines is a key word of the story, chosen by you to identify this particular story. Keep the catchline short and simple, but avoid using general words such as "church" or "meeting", which might get used on another story by another reporter. Use distinctive words such as "methodist" or "revival".

  • These three pieces of information will not be published with your story. It is not necessary, therefore, to use initial capital letters for any of the words. Since it takes slightly longer to type a capital letter than a lower case letter (there are two keys to press instead of one), and since journalists are always in a hurry, you may type all this information in lower case letters if you wish.

  • Each subsequent page should have in the top left-hand corner the catchline and page number: "methodist ... 2", "methodist ... 3" and so on.

  • Use double or triple spacing so corrections can be made on printed copies or so the newsreader can read the text comfortably on air, either from the printed paper copy or the studio computer screen or teleprompt machine (often referred to as an Autocue).

  • Leave good margins on the sides and bottom of the page.

  • Never start a paragraph on one page and continue it on the next.

  • Write the word "more" or the letters "mf" (more follows) at the bottom of each page if the story is not finished.

  • Write the word "ends" at the end of the story or "###" depending on the house style of your organisation. [Traditionally in the United States, journalists typed the number "30" to signify the end, but this convention is seldom used today.]

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Radio style

For radio copy, the style must be slightly different.

  • Try to keep stories short, with the whole story on one sheet of paper if possible.
  • Every word must be spelled correctly and be grammatically correct, otherwise it may cause the newsreader to stumble.
  • Type proper names in capital letters.
  • Do not split phrases from one line to another.
  • Write the pronunciation of difficult or foreign words in brackets immediately after the word.

(See Chapters 48 and 49: Radio and Television.)

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Television style

For television cop, you need a special style, so that the script can synchronise with film reports, captions and other visual effects.

The copy must include details of timing, studio instructions and details of accompanying film or video clips.

This is a specialist field, and you are advised to consult a specialist book in this field, though for general advice you can check Chapters 48 and 49: Radio and Television.

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Phoning copy

It is not always convenient for reporters to write their stories in the newsroom. If they are at the scene of a news event, and if time is pressing, it is usually better for them to write the story where they are, and send it in to their newsroom by telephone.

The best way to do that is with a portable laptop or notebook computer and modem. The reporter uses the laptop computer in the same way as the desktop computer in the office. Then, when the story is written, the modem is used to connect the laptop to a telephone, and the story can be sent down the telephone line to the newsroom, where it can be received by the newsroom computer. There is no need for the story to be typed again.

This is very efficient, but it depends upon having the right equipment (which is quite expensive) and upon having dependable telephone lines. Very often, in developing countries the quality of the telephone lines is not good enough to allow successful use of computer modems.

The cheaper alternative is for the reporter to dictate his or her copy by telephone to a typist in the newsroom, who will type it as it is spoken.

This, too, requires some investment in equipment, though only on a small scale. The copy-taker (that is the typist who will take the copy) must have both hands free to type with; this means that he or she will need a headset instead of the usual telephone receiver. This is usually a pair of headphones with a microphone attached. This must be next to a computer terminal, or typewriter, which can be made available whenever it is needed.

How to phone copy

The reporter who has to phone copy to the newsroom will first need to write the story. This can be done with a pen and paper, in longhand or shorthand, so long as the reporter can read it clearly.

Once the story has been written, the reporter must find a telephone, call the newsroom and ask for someone to take the copy. Once this person is ready, they can begin.

It is very important that the reporter speaks slowly and clearly, spelling all proper names. Even punctuation should be spoken clearly, so that the copy which is typed in the newsroom is precisely what the reporter wants.

For example, let us imagine that you have to phone the following copy:

Police have warned the public about three men who escaped from Bomana Jail yesterday.

"These men are ruthless and dangerous," said Superintendent Walter Geno, who is leading the hunt.

"The public should not try to tackle them. If anybody sees them, they should contact the police at once."

You should read it as follows (read it out loud yourself now, pausing for a few seconds at every set of three dots):

Police have warned ... the public ... about three men ... who escaped ... from  Bomana ... that's capital B, O, M, A, N, A ... Jail capital J ... yesterday point new par. Open quotes ... These men ... are ruthless ... and dangerous comma close quotes ... said superintendent capital S all one word ... Walter ... capital W, A, L, T, E, R ... Geno ... capital G, E, N, O comma ... who is leading the hunt point new par. Open quotes ... The public ... should not try ... to tackle them point. If anybody ... sees them comma ... they should ... contact the police ... at once point close quotes new par.

How fast you can read this will depend on how fast your copy-taker can type. You and the copy-taker will also have to get to know each other, in order to make this exercise as quick and as efficient as possible.

When you have finished dictating the whole story, the copy-taker should read it all back to you. Whenever you hear a mistake, jump in and correct it. The copy-taker can then make the correction.

There will probably still be some mistakes, at least until both the reporter and the copy-taker have had plenty of practice. This is especially true if you are working in a second language.

When the reporter gets back into the newsroom, and when there is a quiet moment, the reporter and copy-taker should sit down together and compare the reporter's version of the story with the copy-taker's version. Whenever there is a mistake, they should discuss how it happened - perhaps it was the reporter's pronunciation, or the copy-taker's language error - and then they can find ways to stop it happening again. For instance, if the copy-taker is not sure when to use "there" and when to use "their", the reporter may have to spell the word each time. This will make the exercise slower, of course, but it will get the right results.

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Advanced copy phoning

When you become good at phoning copy, and if there is an occasion when time is extremely limited, you can try to phone copy without writing it all down first.

This sounds very difficult, but like any skill it becomes easier with practice.

The important thing is to structure the story on paper first. This means that you will write a list of the things to be covered in the story, in the order you want to cover them, but without writing the story itself.

Many reporters like to write the intro, and perhaps the second and third paragraphs, too, and then compose the rest as they go along.

If you were doing this, your story structure which you write down might look like this:

Police have warned the public about three men who escaped from Bomana Jail yesterday.

Geno quote.

Search details.

Escape details.

3 men details.

You would then read the intro, as we already discussed; and then construct the story from your notes as you phone it in.

Seeing "Geno quote", you would find the Supt Geno quote in your notebook, and read the next two paragraphs as they are written in our earlier example.

Then, seeing "Search details", you would turn to your notes where Supt Geno was telling you about the search for the escaped men, and dictate two or three paragraphs telling that part of the story.

In other words, it is exactly the same as writing a story, but is done by speaking it out loud instead of writing it down.

The main difficulty in this technique is to remember what you have already said, and how you said it. You may need to ask the copy-taker occasionally to read back to you the last sentence or two, so that the next bit can flow on smoothly.

This is not an easy technique, but it is essential whenever time is precious. Newspaper reporters should try to master the technique, in order to give the best possible service to their readers.

Broadcasters often need to send a voice report by telephone in this way, in order to bring important news to the public as quickly as possible, although it is always better to write a script first if possible. If you do not have time to write a script before phoning a story, remember to keep sentences short. Many experienced radio reporters close their eyes after looking at each line of their notes, so that they can concentrate fully on what they are saying and how it sounds.

TO SUMMARISE:

Write your copy in a way which makes it easy for other people to understand and to work with.

If your newspaper, radio or television station has its own copy presentation style, use it; otherwise use the one suggested in this chapter.

When phoning copy, do it in a way which makes it difficult for mistakes to happen.

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>>go to next chapter

 

 
Index to Chapter 14
  1. The importance of good copy presentation
  2. Basic rules for copy presentation
  3. Radio style
  4. Television style
  5. Phoning copy
  6. Advanced copy phoning
  7. To summarise
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