A New York Times reporter’s techniques for writing human stories on deadline

Deadlines are the bane and lifeblood of reporting. New York Times reporter Sarah Mervosh has created several routines and checklists to help.

“I think we all want to tell stories about real people and the human element,” Mervosh said. “That’s probably why a lot of us got into journalism.”

Mervosh shared the techniques she uses while on deadline to determine whether a story is worthwhile, incorporate real people, beat creative blocks, and more.

This article is based on a talk given by Mervosh to a conference hosted by The Alaska Press Club, a nonprofit that provides continuing education, recognition and help to journalists across the 49th state. Become a member to support local journalism and attend the annual conference.

What’s in this article

  • A checklist for determining whether a story is worth reporting.
  • Focusing questions from Poynter to help you untangle a complicated story.
  • A daily writing system to help you beat deadlines.
  • A classic story structure to fall back on.
  • Questions to reframe your story around people instead of events.

Is this story worth reporting on? A checklist.

Early on in Mervosh’s career, she found she tended to run into writer’s block when she embarked on a story without a clear idea of what it was. Waiting for the point of the story to emerge in the course of her reporting meant that at the end of the day, with her deadline looming, she didn’t know where to begin. 

“Your story idea is actually how you prevent writer’s block, at the very beginning of the process,” Mervosh said.

Mervosh runs through this checklist before she starts reporting to make sure she knows what the story is:

  • Is there an inherent conflict or trend? If not, set aside or let go.
  • Is there something that is surprising, counterintuitive or opposite of expected? 
  • OR does this say something bigger about the city/state/region, or is it an example of what’s going on nationally? 
  • OR is it just a good tale about conflict, intrigue, and power?

If yes to one of the above three:

  • Do you have a hypothesis for a nut graf?

Now you can start reporting.

“Once you know what the bar is for a story at your organization, you can create your own checklist,” Mervosh said.

In case of emergency: What is your story REALLY about?

When Mervosh is truly lost as to what her story is about, these questions from Poynter help her focus.

  • Why does the story matter?
  • What’s the point?
  • Why is the story being told?
  • What does the story say about life, the world, the times we live in?
  • What’s my story really about, in one word?

A standard system for writing

Mervosh assembles stories out of feeds— story chunks with quotes and descriptions— that she writes throughout the day as she gathers interviews.

“You can create the system for yourself by writing feeds to yourself throughout the day,” Mervosh said. 

When on deadline, Mervosh immediately writes up her stories in feeds and collects them in a single document. Not only does this help minimize time crunches at the end of the day, but having a patchwork of grafs ready can help defeat the anxiety of staring at a blank screen.

Here’s Mervosh’s daily routine:

  • On a daily deadline, start writing early— even while reporting. 
  • Write a placeholder lede and nut graf as soon as possible, even if it’s just a hypothesis.
  • Write up each interview immediately in feeds and paste them into a document. Putting together the story in chunks will help avoid a time crunch later.
  • Just keep doing this — Report, write, revise, repeat.
  • Take short mental breaks.

A basic structure to fall back on

When in doubt, Mervosh recommends using this classic structure to write your story:

  • Lede: Often your best anecdote, or maybe a series of examples. If you have no example, then maybe go straight into the nut graf.
    • Coming up with a new lede can feel like trying to reinvent the wheel. Mervosh recommends studying the ledes of the outlet you’re working for to understand what they like.
  • Nut graf: What is the trend, conflict, major finding of the piece?
  • Nut quote: The best quote that sums up the thesis of your piece, often from an expert or real person.
  • Scope and sweep: How far reaching is this? Are there examples across the city/state/country?
  • To be sure: What does the other side say?
  • Other examples/chronology: When in doubt, write chronologically. Don’t jump around in time.

Think people, not power

Journalists need to write not just fast, but well. Politicians and other powerful figures often create news by announcing decisions in press releases. Reporters have the challenge of finding everyday people affected by these decisions and explaining what it all means.

“I honestly think sometimes we don’t know, because we’re on deadline, and our editors are like, ‘get it out, get it out,’” Mervosh said.

Mervosh uses these questions to reframe her stories around people:

  • How can you reframe your story to put the focus on everyday people vs politicians in power? Could your lede be a human anecdote? If not, can you quote a real person high in the story?
  • What are the consequences of this policy or news? Your story should be able to show this and explain.

How to find real people under deadline

  • Can you call a lawyer or advocate to connect you with a real person affected by this?
  • Is there a consumer/trade/association group for people affected?
  • Google is your friend. Look up past stories about this issue, and see who was willing to talk in the past about this issue. They may be willing to talk again.
  • Check social media. Look for Facebook groups that talk about this, or people tweeting about it.
  • Even one or two interviews can make the difference.

Want to know more?

Mervosh covered many more subjects in her talk at the 2021 Alaska Press Club Conference, including a system for enterprise reporting, tips on avoiding burnout, bad writing habits to avoid, and more. Watch her full talk here.

Written by Max Jungreis.

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