Modern Journalism at the Sentinel & Enterprise

Modern Journalism at
The Sentinel & Enterprise,
Leominster/Fitchburg, Mass.

by: Ken Gagne

Sufficiency Course Sequence:

Course Number Course Title Term
HI 1331 Introduction to the History of Science A97
HI 1332 Introduction to the History of Technology B97
EN 2222 Theatre Workshop D98
EN 3215 Genres of Science Writing A99
EN 3223 Forms in Modern Drama C99

Presented to: Professor John O. Trimbur
Term E 2000
30371 SUFF JOT-5403

Submitted in Partial Fulfillment
of the Requirements of
the Humanities and Arts Sufficiency Program
Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Worcester, Massachusetts

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Newspaper Format
    1. Writing
    2. Pagination
  3. Office Communication
    1. Between Departments
    2. Within Departments
  4. Interviewing
    1. Man on the Street
    2. Public Officials
    3. Good Interviewing Practices
  5. People, Reporters, and the News
  6. Technology in the Workplace
    1. Software and Training
    2. Archiving
  7. Conclusion
  8. Bibliography

1.0 Introduction

From late May to early August 2000, I worked at the Sentinel & Enterprise. This daily paper serves several small-town communities, with a total circulation of about 19,593. Originally two separate papers, the Fitchburg Sentinel and the Leominster Enterprise, the paper maintains its original offices in the two largest towns in its district. The Leominster office is the smaller of the two, with a staff of two or three reporters and a receptionist, and covers Leominster, Lunenburg, and other small towns. The Fitchburg office is the home of the photography, pagination, circulation, advertising, and accounting departments, in addition to reporters and editors.

I have already been writing for the Sentinel for the past three years. In my weekly column, Gamebits, I review the latest video games, cover computer shows, and present the occasional opinion on the state of the electronic entertainment industry. Despite this experience working for the Sentinel, I had never worked at the Sentinel. I would email my column, and see it in print a few days later; I was unfamiliar with the process that occurred between those two events. I also had little experience writing any other kind of newspaper story.

This summer, I worked in Fitchburg on Monday nights laying out (paginating) the paper, and Tuesdays through Thursdays in Leominster as a reporter.

In both roles, I started off by being shown how to do things. I would observe experienced staff perform their job, and then they would watch me, ensuring I was doing things correctly. Rules and guidelines were given to ensure the work adhered to known standards, and as I became more experienced, the observation and guidelines became less strict, until I could be given an assignment and carry it out independently.

2.0 Newspaper Format

There are people who write stories (reporters) and people who lay them out (paginators). As part of my internship, I worked in both capacities, and got a glimpse of various style rules that constitute the design of the newspaper.

2.1 Writing

The format for writing a newspaper story is different from other media. The wording of phrases, placement of information, and sentence and paragraph structure are all factors that need to be changed for the format of a newspaper.

Even as basic an aspect as the number of sentences to a paragraph is different. Standard practice is that a paragraph is five to seven sentences, with such basic features as a topic sentence and transition. The human eye and mind prefer paragraphs to be broken up into more manageable chunks, which is one reason stories are divided into paragraphs at all. But newspaper type, unlike most other forms of printing, is divided into six columns (with the exceptions of pullquotes, headlines, etc). Seven sentences thus produce a vertically-lengthy paragraph. To make it more friendly to the reader's eye, a newspaper paragraph is often only a single sentence, or three at the most, with short bursts of information and few transitions.

The placement of data are also crucial, and, like the length of a paragraph, must consider the psychology of the reader. All news is old when it reaches print. Unlike with live television, the covered events have already happened, the quotes have already been said. Placing the time and date of the covered event in the lead of the story reminds the reader that the story is old, and may dissuade him from reading it. Such information should be placed several paragraphs later in the story.

The personality the reporter can inject into a story also depends on the type of story. News, features, columns, and editorials all have distinct styles. Even when avoiding the personal pronoun, comments that may be interpreted as a personal remark by the reporter must be avoided in news stories.

Overall, reporting a story seems more a function of rules than style; not what's good and bad, but what's right and wrong. Richard S. Salant, president of CBS News, was quoted in TV Guide as saying, "Our reporters do not cover stories from their point of view. They are presenting them from nobody's point of view." (Epstein, ix) There is little opportunity for self-expression, since the story is not about the self; consequently, most reporters with basic writing skills, given identical facts, would probably write any given story the same way.

2.2 Paginating

Laying out the paper was at first a more complicated procedure than I realized, but became simpler once the basic ideas were learned. The casual reader of a paper may not realize all the manipulating involved in fitting stories on a page, and may not even be consciously aware of formatting changes within a single story.

Draft sheets were handed out showing which stories to place on a page, and their approximate location. It was up to the paginator to turn the draft into a finished product. Fitting stories on a page that was the most common task of paginating.

A story that was too short left unsightly whitespace on the page. There wasn't much that could be done to stretch the story out. If the whitespace was sizable, a pullquote could be used. (a pullquote is a sentence, often a quote, which is copied, enlarged, and highlighted within a story.) Or a filler ad could be pasted in, reminding readers how to subscribe or how often a regular feature appeared. If the whitespace was small, items on a page could be adjusted to spread out the whitespace so that it was no longer noticeable. For example, instead of have a story at the top of the page with an inch of whitespace at the bottom, moving the story down a half-inch would make the whitespace less obvious. A line or two of whitespace could be corrected by using a crosshead, or a sub-headline within a story to separate sections.

But more often than not, a story was too large to fit into the given area. The most common procedure was to adjust the ledding, or amount of space between letters. This minuscule adjustment, almost invisible to the naked eye, can easily shorten a story by several lines, especially by fixing "widows" (short words or syllables which appear on a line by themselves). Headlines and pullquotes could be shortened, or crossheads deleted. In severe instances, an editor would need to trim the story. This was most easily done in a wire story that covered multiple aspects or events, so that a single part of the story could be eliminated without detriment to the rest.

Once laid out, a page would be given to a copy editor to ensure no mistakes were made or rules overlooked. The most common errors were minor ones, such as putting a small (half-point) frame around a picture, or giving a text inset or runaround to stories and pictures so that they did not run too closely together.

Occasionally, a draft sheet was handed out with no placement suggestions, or even a list of stories to place. In those cases, it was up to the paginator to browse the various news wires, select appropriate stories, and place them aptly.

Stories with either a local or national impact are obvious choices for news stories. Readers won't care about a man arrested in Skokie, Illinois, unless that man was originally from Fitchburg. Stories of advancement in science can have meaning for all humanity, and don't necessarily need a local angle.

Stories with associated pictures are generally placed at close to the top of the page as possible. The importance of the story should also be proportionately related to the size of its headline; for example, the lead story on a page gets the biggest headline, and should not be outdone by the next story down.

Pagination is primarily a computer skill, and a good one to have learned. As city editor Aimee Carrier said, "Anyone with a fifth grade education can write, but people who can write and paginate are invaluable."

3.0 Office Communication

One thing I was to learn as a reporter was the value of communication with the community. But for that function to be productive, the people producing the paper need to be talking to each other first.

3.1 Between Departments

Operating elsewhere than the main Fitchburg office had both its advantages and disadvantages. The Leominster bureau chief had fewer issues with which to deal, and was often available for personal, hands-on help in gathering information and putting together an article. But the increased communication within the office was offset by a decided lack of communication between the two offices.

The main office prepared a regular "budget," which in this instance is not a financial term, but refers to a schedule of what stories have been assigned, to whom, and when they are expected to run. There were times when this budget was not regularly shared between the offices, or was overlooked by a bureau chief. This oversight could result in a reporter spending a day researching a story that had already appeared in print several days earlier, which may not be discovered until after the second story had been submitted.

Other times, the directions of one bureau chief conflicted with those of the other. In the case of a five-part story on playgrounds assigned to several reporters, each person was basing his or her research on a set of guidelines provided to them by the Fitchburg bureau chief. The nature and origin of these guidelines was not provided. The Leominster chief suggested calling the Fitchburg chief to get this information; the latter simply said, "Finding those answers is part of your assignment." The confusion stalled the six reporters who did not know if one of them (and, if so, which) should research the guidelines and share the information.

3.2 Within Departments

Even within a single department, the hierarchy could become convoluted, as demonstrated by the following example. The Fitchburg chief assigned one reporter to write a local version of an Associated Press story, then the two of them collectively passed the story to me. What I submitted was an original take on the story; what they wanted was the AP story with local angles. I re-added the AP material, which mostly described the situation outside New England; what they ran was my story with the AP material removed.

Perhaps a more experienced reporter would have a better sense of what sort of story was needed, but taking the time to clearly explain the goal of a story to an intern would have saved both the reporter and the editors much time and hassle. Such communication is essential to produce a story that is satisfactory for both the writer and the editor.

A reporter's job is primarily one of communication, with the public and city officials. But to efficiently execute his job, communication within the newspaper itself is vital for clear understanding of what a story is about and how to go about it.

4.0 Interviewing

The actual act of reporting can, in my opinion, be broken into two main acts: information gathering, and writing. The main form of information gathering I will discuss here is interviewing.

4.1 Man on the Street

In On Writing Well, William Zinsser wrote:

"Many beginning interviewers are crippled by the fear that they are imposing on other people and have no right to invade their privacy. This fear is almost wholly unfounded. The so-called man in the street is delighted that somebody wants to interview him. Most men and women lead lives, if not of quiet desperation, at least of desperate quietness, and they jump at a chance to talk about their work to an outsider who seems eager to listen." (Zinsser, 68)

Zinsser suggests that people love to have their story told, and are often willing to use the press as their outlet of expression.

My experience does not wholly endorse this theory. I have found that many people have the business to go about, and can't be bothered to take a moment to speak to a reporter. Those that do are wary and may meet inquiries with suspicion.

What I found most surprising was the number of people willing to talk to the press – which supports Zinsser's belief that people want to express themselves – but who refused to give any identification, which made my job difficult. These people were often those who didn't have strong opinions or background knowledge on the subject in question; perhaps they did not want to appear uninformed or unintelligent.

The most receptive individual I encountered was a gentleman who was irritated with a set of poles the city had installed in front of the post office sidewalk; after expressing his opinion, he thanked me for giving him the opportunity to voice himself.

My editor said that had I gotten more exposure to interviewing people on the street, eventually my experience would've upheld Zinsser's belief.

4.2 Public Officials

Interviewing people on the street was much different from dealing with public officials. I found that the general attitude to the press varied not between persons or departments, but between towns.

When a new Chief of Police was elected in Lunenburg, he happily sat down with me and answered all my questions verbosely, adding at the end that he was "looking forward to a strong relationship with the press." When a Lunenburg police officer didn't understand exactly what information I was looking for, he gave me everything he had that was related; I ended up with pages of useful information. Lunenburg's high school principal happily put up with a novice interviewer's multiple questions, spread across several days and phone calls. The Lunenburg Town Hall staff was always willing to redirect me to the appropriate person, or get me whatever information they could when that person was unavailable.

Police and fire departments in Leominster and Fitchburg were literally another story. They tended to give the shortest answers possible, and rarely volunteered information.

When talking with a Fitchburg police officer, all his answers were monosyllabic. After five minutes of this, I asked how to spell his name; he refused. He then told me nothing he had said could be used in the paper. He gave me the names of people I could talk to, but they wouldn't be available until after deadline.

There's a theory on why this interview was not an isolated experience. When the Fitchburg Chief of Police suspended several officers for falsifying reports – an incident which required the collaboration of many members of the police department – the Sentinel & Enterprise took an official stance siding with the chief. As a result, many officers harbor a grudge against the paper.

My theory is that towns like Leominster and especially Fitchburg have more problems than the small town of Lunenburg. Crime, drugs, and town issues are more commonplace and are bigger stories than they are in Lunenburg. Fitchburg officials may see reporters as adversarial, looking to cast the city in a bad light for a good story, and are unwilling to cooperate.

Either way, interviewing public officials can be a diverse experience that can either make or break a story.

My favorite experience was when I interviewed Robert Whitney, the husband of the mayor of Fitchburg. Other reporters told me he was not a pleasant person to talk to, but my interview went fabulously; he was a pleasure to speak with. I think that may be because other reporters have only met him on occasions as "the mayor's husband." My story had nothing to do with her: I was calling him to speak to him, and in a capacity that had nothing to do with his spouse. Making a person feel important can result in miracles.

4.3 Good Interviewing Practices

This enforces the idea that the most important rule of interviewing is the same as good customer service: the customer is always right. The reporter should do everything in his power to make the interviewee feel unthreatened and, when possible, correct. I experienced two such situations.

When writing the Arnie's Donuts story, I wanted to get a "human" quote from the gentleman responsible for their closing. The story was not about him, and I had no interest in making him out to be the villain. My questions were aimed at getting him to say something sympathetic to Arnie's situation, but he apparently interpreted them differently. He told me to not write down what he was about to say, and he went through all the math dictating why he had to close the doughnut shop, as though attempting to persuade me to his way of thinking. That was unnecessary; I was already aware of his perspective. I should have perhaps phrased my questions a bit more openly, though.

Another difficult "customer" was Philip Cote. I went with the Leominster bureau chief to observe her interview with Mr. Cote, who seemed to be an opinionated, almost abrasive, fellow. When we exchanged business cards after the interview, it came up that I was related to Clarence Gagne – another opinionated, abrasive fellow, and my grandfather. "Ah, I didn't get along with him too well," Mr. Cote said, continuing to say how he used to be a lifeguard at a pool that my grandfather dynamited and never replaced with a playground as he promised. I just nodded and smiled, acknowledging that that's the kind of man my grandfather was.

I checked the facts later, and learned that the pool had been abandoned for six years before my grandfather purchased it. Further, he donated six acres of land to the city of Leominster, which failed to build a playground on it. Had I known this at the time, I may have felt compelled to correct Mr. Cote's version of the story. It's better that I did not, as such disagreement would not have led to good relations between Mr. Cote and this reporter (and possibly the entire Leominster bureau).

More time was spent dealing with the public than in writing the stories that came of the interviews. Reporting is not simply writing stories about people; it's about creating the stories, knowing the people, and getting them to talk. If a person says "no" to an interview, the story doesn't die. Reporters are more than just good writers; they're negotiators, always looking for the right people to talk to and the right things to say.

5.0 People, Reporters, and the News

I was checking a book out of the library when the librarian said, "Ain't that the truth." It took me a moment to realize she was commenting on the subtitle of the book: "A Candid Look at How the News is Made." "You think the news is fabricated?" I asked. She replied, "If it ain't blown all out of proportion, it ain't news."

Such response is representative of an unfortunate public image reporters have. We were the ones who caused Princess Diana's death. We are the ones that get in the way of military operations. We're the ones out to find blame, to unearth dirt, to ruin people. There is little distinction between a major metropolitan paper's finest and Jerry Springer, who're both in the business of selling stories.

Secretary of State George P. Schultz said, "These days, in the adversary journalism that's been developed, it seems as though the reporters are always against us and so they're always seeking to report something that's going to screw things up." (Broder, 305) If journalism is "adversarial," then journalists must be the bad guys.

The librarian was not alone in her distrust. "Man on the street"-type interviews were a frustrating experience for me. One person thought I would mangle his words; another thought I was trying to sell her a subscription.

The worst experience was when one gentleman – who approached me, not vice versa – accused me of quoting his wife in a story when he distinctly ordered me not to (I don't recall him ever making such a request clear), of publicizing an opinion he wished kept private (even though he was willing to talk to me about it), and of creating an uncomfortable situation between him and his business neighbor. All this, because I put a single quote in a story. It never once occurred to me that I was doing anything wrong. Yet the gentleman accused me of lying and having a selective memory in order to pursue a juicy story.

There are only a few severe instances in which I would agree with the librarian. Stories such as O.J. Simpson are better examples of sensationalism than of journalism at its finest.

But for day-to-day reporting, especially in fairly small towns such as Fitchburg and Leominster, I found the news to be honest and accurate accounts of actual events.

Whether or not a story is "blown out of proportion" is a matter of perspective, dependent on the people who are affected by the story. My story about parking posts outside the post office may seem a minor parking issue to most people. But for frequent visitors to the post office and especially for businesses operating in the area, the poles were a major issue. The pizza parlor's business was endangered by the poles' placement; the clothing store next door enjoyed the increased visibility the limited parking produced. The poles impacted them greatly, and, for the most part, they appreciated the opportunity to voice their opinions in a public way.

Are most people affected by these parking posts? No. Are there any serious or long-lasting side effects to their existence? Doubtful. Did the Sentinel blow it out of proportion? Absolutely not.

Taken in a less critical way, the librarian's observation that "news is made" can be accurate. It is the responsibility of the editors, reporters, and paginators to decide what is news and what's not: what stories should be covered, in what way, and if they should appear in print and, if so, where and how.

Bureau chief Jennifer Lucarelli told me that anything can be made into a story by examining how it affects people. I once made the observation that quotes are an important part of a story. Her reply:

"Quotes aren't just an important part of a story; they're the most important part of a story. Our stories are about people. We may write about things or events, but if it weren't for people, we wouldn't be here."

A sample report of a town meeting covered two aspects: funds for town construction, and speed limit signs on a street where people have complained of dangerous traffic. The reporter filed the story with the funds aspect as the lead; the editor changed the story to focus on the traffic.

As important as people are to a reporter and his stories, they must always be a distinction between the reporter and the people. Lucarelli told me, "I'll talk to these people – I may even like some of them. But they're not my friends. I can't let them be my friends." The more involved the reporter becomes in a story, the less likely he is able to present the story in a dispassionate, unbiased manner.

6.0 Technology in the Workplace

In today's modern age, the layout of the newspaper is heavily dependent on computers, scanners, and other technological devices. I found that the software and training relevant to layout were minimal, with little interest in developing either, and that the computers were underused in areas that could stand some modernization.

6.1 Software and Training

For example, the Sentinel switched to an entirely Macintosh-based computer system several years ago. Though this system works well, computer crashes are commonplace, and have become an accepted part of the layout process.

Yet a closer examination of the systems reveal that the software has not been updated since their initial install years ago. Enhancements and, more important, bug fixes have been released since then, often at no cost. Time spent installing these upgrades, instead of writing or paginating, was often frowned upon, though they'd ultimately be time-savers.

Certain terminals were designated for specific functions, such as obtaining weather maps or Associated Press photos, because only those terminals had the necessary passwords to access those web sites. Passwords are often stored in a web browser's cookie or preference files, and can easily be saved and shared among computers. Forcing a paginator to leave his terminal to get necessary material from another terminal seems like wasted effort.

Other people seemed unsure of how to execute certain functions on their computer. After years of using IBM clone machines, they had adapted their old routines to the new computers, but were unaware of the new computers' other capabilities. For example, one chief editor was unfamiliar with the term "desktop," which is a basic feature of the Macintosh operating system. Launching multiple applications simultaneously, switching between them via the keyboard, or converting files from one filetype to another were other unfamiliar-yet-useful functions.

6.2 Archiving

"Clippings" was another process that could have benefitted from technological familiarity. In the Leominster office, each article written about a town we covered (Leominster, Lunenburg, etc.) or by a reporter in the Leominster office had to be clipped. This entailed photocopying the original article, clipping it so that no unrelated material appeared on the same page, photocopying it again, then dating and filing it by story type.

The benefits of this method were that hard copies of the stories were archived, separate from a computer, which is susceptible to breakdowns, virii, etc. Also, hard copies preserve the original formatting and appearance of the story as it was laid out in the paper, which is often desirable when showing stories to prospective clients or employers.

There are also many drawbacks to this system. The first is the immense waste of paper, as stories are photocopies, clipped, and photocopied again. It wasn't until recently that a recycling bin was made available in the Leominster branch. Also, hard copies are not "searchable," meaning they cannot be indexed and accessed by subject headline, content, or other criteria. It is also difficult to maintain and preserve hard copy backups at multiple storage sites, should a natural disaster destroy one.

A computer preservation method would be more efficient and accessible. As is, all stories are initially saved as text files, with final page layouts saved as QuarkXPress files. The paper is already stored digitally; it would not be too difficult to preserve this format. QuarkXPress files can be several megabytes in size, but are only half a meg each once converted to JPEG, a common graphical format. This format is not searchable, but is easily preserved. Most computers are equipped with hard drives several gigabytes in size, with a single gigabyte being the equivalent of 1,024 megabytes. Given an average of 20 pages per daily newspaper, 100 daily newspapers could be archived in JPEG format in just a single gigabyte, with hard copies able to be produced upon demand.

Stories could also be saved in text format. I found that most reporters type their stories directly into NewsEdit Pro IQue, the database program used by paginators to access and layout stories. Files in NewsEdit are deleted within two weeks of their layout and printing, so reporters who do not write or save their stories elsewhere will be unable to reference them later. A single story is usually eight kilobytes at most, with 1,024 kilobytes comprising a megabyte; a single gigabyte could hold 131,072 stories. Saved in text format, these stories could be categorized and searched on any number of criteria. Electronic copies of stories are also easily transmitted and backed up.

Lucarelli informed me that such an archive is maintained at the headquarters of MediaNews Group, the Sentinel's parent company, in Denver, Colorado, but that it is unavailable half the time. Dividing the archives among the 40 papers under MediaNews' publishing wing would be more efficient than one gigantic archive for all of them.

Overall, computers were a vastly under-utilized resource at the Sentinel. Although everything from writing to paginating to printing is dependent on the machines, many personnel lacked the knowledge and software to use the computers efficiently.

7.0 Conclusion

The job of reporting was not what I imagined. As a student majoring in technical writing, I would like to pursue a career in writing, spending most of my time putting thoughts to paper and exploring the English language.

Reporting limits a writer's ability to make such creative ventures, both in time and style. Timewise, a reporter is more occupied with communicating with people, hunting down facts and opinions, and, in my opinion, badgering people, than in putting all that down on paper. And in style, a reporter's skill is more in the communication necessary to prepare a story, than in the actual writing. Fairly little experience is necessary to be able to write a newspaper story, since the less of the reporter that can be seen in the story, the better.

As someone who has been presenting his opinions in the paper every week for the past several years, distancing myself from the stories was an exercise, and ultimately one that partially has helped me decide not to pursue journalism. It is not enough to be a simple observer and present facts to the public. Be it in fiction or nonfiction, I want to write stories that are original and creative, and I want to be a part of those stories.

The following simple statement is exactly what I want to avoid.

"Most important of all, journalists are always inherently outsiders. When an individual or team or nation has a great moment of achievement, we are observers, not celebrants. When tragedies happen, when a child drowns, when a President is killed, when a whole city goes up in flames, instead of sharing the emotions, we record them." (Broder, 343)

As important as it is to document world events and present them to the public, I would rather be a part of those events than be an observer.

I enjoyed reporting in Leominster because it is not a big city, like New York or Worcester. Many Leominster stories are human interest, about regular people who have done extraordinary things. It's a town where you can get a front page story without someone dying.

But reporting generally involves too little of the reporter personally. It sets him apart from the community, makes a distinction between the public and the press, with things that one group can do that the other cannot.

I learned a lot about writing, paginating, and communicating this summer. I met, talked to, and learned from many people I would otherwise not have encountered.

But primarily, I learned that print journalism is too impersonal a field for me.

8.0 Bibliography

Arnold, Edmund C. (1969) Modern Newspaper Design. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers

Broder, David S. (1987) Behind the Front Page: A Candid Look at How the News is Made. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Epstein, Edward Jay (1973). News From Nowhere: Television and the News. New York: Random House.

Zinsser, William (1994). On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction. Fifth edition. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.