Deadlines: the ultimate “ally and enemy” of a writer’s success in reporting and storytelling for the public



Graphic by Mariah Posey

by Mariah Posey | Feb. 03, 2017

Fast, not formulaic is the key journalistic writing. Reporters come across several story ideas in a day, but the only way to cover them efficiently in a way that is meaningful to the public is to write on deadline. A deadline is a writer’s best friend as well as the annoying voice in the back of their mind pestering them to get a move on. It’s what inspires them to get things done, but also the one factor that can hold them back.

Because of this, Roy Peter Clark and Christopher Scanlan in chapter one of their “America’s Best Newspaper Writing” (ABNW) assert that all journalists must learn to write quickly. In order to best do this they must stay well prepared, turning the entire process of reporting into one continuous flow.

Below are some distinguished examples of reporting by journalists who tackled deadline writing while remaining superb narrative ability.

Richard Ben Cramer – “Shiva for a Child Slain in a Palestinian Raid” (1978)

cramer1“I can’t tell too much about how the story was structured,” Cramer said, “because it was written in a kind of white heat of frustration.”

Still, what he accomplished was a synthesis of stories from the Hadani family of the bus attack that had taken the life of their 9-year-old daughter, Na’ami. His in-depth coverage of the family’s shiva led him to hear about how a mother desperately tried to save her daughter while holding her family together, and how the family was reminded of their strength.

Because Cramer let the story lead him, he was able to let the story tell itself through the people who felt and witnessed it first-hand.

Leonora LaPeter – “Jury Sends Santa Claus Killer to Electric Chair” (1999)

leonora_10593977_8col1Her ability to cover an intense murder trial as a relatively new reporter relied on her attention to detail and drive to start early. LaPeter began conducting interviews even before the actual trial and arrived to the courthouse every morning ready to find her lead. By making use of exhaustive reporting, she avoided the deadline trap of waiting until the last minute to write.

“When court was out, I would go to the hotel, and it wasn’t, ‘How am I going to write this?’” LaPeter said. “It was, ‘What am I going to write? What details am I going to use?’”

Her variation in pacing allowed her to capture the courtroom drama while presenting the contrasting viewpoints without bias. According to ABNW, LaPeter used the “hallmarks of good narrative” to distinguish her trial coverage—“characters instead of sources, scenes instead of summaries, dialogue instead of disembodied quotes.”

LaPeter’s timely reporting of the murder trial paid off when it won her the 2000 Jesse Laventhol Prize for Deadline News Reporting by an Individual.

David Von Drehle – “Men of Steel Are Melting with Age” (1994)

f12von-drehlew-2jdntkd1Despite the shivers Von Drehle received when the minutes to deadline were ticking, he was able to write a powerful piece recounting the day of Richard Nixon’s funeral that encompassed all elements of a story: setting, weather, and a cast of characters all brilliantly illustrated through description.

And while the imagery present in Von Drehle’s piece was strong enough to stand on its own, it was his ability to make meaning of it all that set his writing apart. The article he wrote was one that focused on transition—the change from titans to weathered old men; the difference between what was once a frontier and now a run-of-the-mill suburb.

His colorful reporting of the dreary event led him to be runner-up for the first Jesse Laventhol Prize for Deadline News Reporting by an Individual in 1994.

Francis X. Clines – “In Belfast, Death, Too, Is Diminished by Death” (1988)

Portrait of the creatorsAfter four decades at The New York Times, Clines earned himself the reputation of being the most versatile and gifted writers known to the paper. As a reporter in an age before reporting from the desk was possible, Clines’ legacy is one that reminds reporters that reporting is best done on the scene.

“In Belfast, Death, To, Is Diminished by Death,” Clines wrote like an artist while staying true to his job as a reporter. And he decided skillfully which quotes and details were important to his story, a step that can challenge many new reporters.

“Don’t let a crowd in a story,” Clines advises. “You’re interviewing them for your telling of the story, and not for their telling of the story.”

According to Clines, the mastery of journalism and writing is tied to reading. It’s a self-taught learning process that is self-adjusting. As you learn what you like to read, it begins to rub off on your own writing. The mastery demonstrated in his 1988 Belfast piece was rewarded in 1989 with an ASNE award for deadline writing.

Other Examples of Deadline Writing

John Simerman “Watching Williams Die” (2006)

47_731192744b1From beginning to end, Simerman lets the narrative of his reporting take lead. Through his observations, he is able to retell the events leading up to Stanley Williams’ execution with precise detail such as how Williams’ body reacted to the drugs injected into his veins.

“Williams lifted his head,” Simerman wrote. “He held it there, tilted slightly left. It fell back and he raised it again, refusing to lay still. His breathing hitched. His stomach convulsed, lurching upward. Light shone across his damp temples.”

Though on-scene quotes are only used twice throughout the entire piece, the reader can wholly take on the weight of the minutes before this man’s death. This is only further enticed with Simerman’s addition of exact time marks.  He paints all the necessary characters and paces his writing so that it reads quick and suspenseful much like the reality it’s describing.

Kevin Simpson & Michael Booth ­­“What first seemed part of show turns to horrific, chaotic scene” (2016)

Denver Post Blogger portraits

Michael Booth


Kevin Simpson

Simpson and Booth in their covering of the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado show the power of interviewing. Through their speaking to many different people at the scene of the shooting in all age groups, they were able to synthesize how the shooting unfolded. They let their writing relive the horror their own eyes had not seen.

Clearly skilled, the duo didn’t allow themselves to get lost in the sea of interviews and recounts of the event. They even started and ended with the same interviewees, bringing their news story full circle. They employed a skill all great journalists should have: they made sense of the chaos.

Jennifer Brown “12 shot dead, 58 wounded in Aurora movie theater during Batman premier” (2016)

0dda188d0f5c058d553e9fa9bc5c0dc6_400x4001Brown in her piece on the theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado decided to go the more traditional route using the inverted pyramid style to lay out the immediate facts first and then getting to the details that helped bring the report depth. She made use of the facts to help her make sense of a situation many could not fathom reasonable. Through subheadings, Brown works her way from the immediate shooting, to immediate reaction, to interviewee analyses of the shooter.

Wisely, she ended on a quote that summed up the horrific shooting with a quote from a previous Batman movie that people had been throwing around in relation to the incident:

“Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

More importantly, she provided resources for those affected—all while working on a same-day deadline.

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