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Alternative story forms a clever way to handle routine news, Arkin says

April 30, 2011

David Arkin

David Arkin, executive director of the News & Interactive Division of GateHouse Media, says reporters should use alternative story forms to tell 30-35 percent of the stories they write each week.

He defined an alternative story form has anything outside the typical newspaper narrative. Alternative story forms are used to cover routine news and make them more interesting.

“This can help us to get some of our work done while we work on the things we want to do,” Arkin told MPI/APME NewsTrain workshop participants Saturday, April 30 in Madison, Wis., while leading a session on “Alternative Story Forms for Print.” “These are not big news.”

5 Reasons To Use Alternative Story Forms

1. They can support narrative stories or stand on their own.

2. They save time and are easy to do.

3. They transfer online easily.

4. You can create a library of formats for reporters to choose from to make writing them easy.

5. They ensure that readers aren’t left with a lack of depth on stories.

5 Alternative Story Forms

1. Question & Answer pieces can be done with people or issues or a major topic. To be effective, they should be anchored to certain pages – A1, A2, A3 – and be run on the same day of the week each week.

“You write the right form in the right situation and it will improve your layout,” Arkin said.

He also suggested having institutions that send in press releases regularly to turn their info into Q & A pieces. He said the newspaper has to write a letter to the hospital, community college or whoever and explain the process and give them a form. These pieces can be used on health pages and the like to give more info to readers.

2. People Profiles can be set up in a format with a photo, some bio, a brief narrative on the person and the job and then some quick answers to questions about the person being profiled.

A variation of these can done on topics and be “10 Questions” with a religious leader, a police chief, and others, Arkin said.

3. 5 Things To . . . . These can be used for: advances for events; ongoing news coverage; but shouldn’t be used for breaking news for the first time.

Arkin said reporters can do these on all subjects, such as five things that will shape the year, five things to do on the drive, five things going on in the city and five things we want to see happen on the editorial page. They can be well displayed, too.

4. Follow Up Format can be used to follow up stories. They give the past, the present and the future and include about eight inches of copy.

5. Public Service Journalism pieces can be done via an alternate story form.

Arkin says it is a way to consistently handle watchdog content; it’s an opportunity to brand watchdog journalism with the newspaper; and it creates more reader engagement.

Types of public service pieces: “What’s Your Problem?” Readers can come up with these and reporters can get answers and then put them in a format. Then follow with results.

To find out “What’s Going On” about construction or something else in a city a reporter would write a brief on and instead could just make it an alternative story form.

Budget breakdowns can be done with formats as can format such as “Your Government’s Numbers,” or “Your Questions Answered,” “Fact Checker” or “What’s New At.”

A form on “Your Town Government” can allow reporters to quickly discuss issues, what we know, what happened and what’s next, Arkin said. This is a good way to report on governmental meeting where not much took place.

“Am I saying to do this with all stories? No,” Arkin said. But it is a good way to handle those meetings stories where nothing much happened, he said.

Breakout Boxes

Another thing reporters can use to help readers are breakout boxes, Arkin said. They give quick information to readers and accompany the narrative story.

Breakout boxes can be used with controversial stories, with political stories when there are two viewpoints, with stories with numbers and with follow up stories.

A breakout box should be written in nine point type and not be longer than three inches, Arkin said.

Some breakout boxes GateHouse newspapers use timelines, for and against, by the numbers, follow ups, meeting glance, what they’re saying, what they mean, if you go, Arkin said.

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