- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 5, 2003

Advice for interns

Every year around this time, one or two bright-eyed and enthusiastic students join The Washington Times’ foreign desk for summer internships.

I always try to take them to lunch the first day in the office to discuss their interests and explain in broad principles how we aspire to cover the news; it occurs to me that those principles may be of interest to our readers as well.

Indeed, the first principle governing our coverage is that we are here to serve the readers — not our senior editors nor the contacts who provide the information that goes into the articles. This is, after all, a commercial enterprise that aspires to boost sales and make money; it is akin to saying, “The customer is always right.”

Newspapers serve all sorts of readers with all sorts of products, including stock market tables, recipes and crossword puzzles. But on the foreign desk, at least, we have made a conscious decision to try to build up our readership among the people who make, study and debate foreign policy on a professional basis.

We stumbled onto this some years ago almost by accident, beginning with the introduction of James Morrison’s Embassy Row column.

Within weeks, we discovered we were developing a loyal following within the diplomatic community, whose members were delighted that a newspaper was finally paying close attention to their daily affairs.

With that realization came a decision to build on that beginning by making sure that the rest of the foreign section had stories the diplomats would read and, ideally, clip out and fax home to their respective foreign ministries.

Secondly, we decided to try to broaden that audience by looking for stories that would also appeal to the policy-makers at the State Department, Pentagon and on Capitol Hill; to the analysts at the think tanks and universities; and to the lobbyists who interact with all of the above.

These decisions have several implications for the way we report and craft our stories, I tell the interns.

First of all, we have the luxury of dealing with readers who are familiar with the issues we are writing about. This means we can deal with complex matters without having to “dumb down” the stories, though we try to make sure that even the most difficult issues are explained in language that is accessible at least to a high school student.

It also means we can dispense with at least some of the background and history that routinely appears in most wire agency stories. And that’s a good thing, because The Washington Times as a matter of policy keeps its stories shorter than do some of our competitors.

No words to waste

We assume our readers are very busy people and we don’t want to waste their time. We try to keep front-page stories to about 800 words at the most and inside stories to about 600, packaging four or five complete stories on the first World page every day. Stories starting in the section are self-contained, not jumping to another page.

This calls for a direct prose style that doesn’t waste words. It is fashionable in the news industry these days to start a news story with a subordinate clause, such as: “Ever eager to attract new readers, the foreign section of The Washington Times …”

We don’t do that here. We like stories that start with a straightforward subject-verb-predicate construction, as in: “The foreign section is always looking for new readers.”

We also eschew the highly fashionable practice of writing anecdotal leads, in which the writer spends five paragraphs describing the scene from farmer Jack Brown’s front porch before getting to the point that Kansas is suffering from its worst drought in a century.

That kind of lead is designed to draw in a reader who would not normally be interested in the story; we assume our readers are already interested and just want to find out what is new with the drought.

Always imagine, I tell the interns, that the headline writer will not read past your first paragraph before crafting the headline that goes into the paper. That isn’t true, of course, but it helps young writers to focus their stories.

All this seems to be appreciated. Several ambassadors have told me they like to read our paper first in the mornings because it allows them to quickly get a complete overview of the day’s news; only then do they turn to our competitors looking for exclusive stories.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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