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What Is News?
April 30, 2015

A free press is often called the oxygen of democracy. That’s because one cannot survive without the other. Democracies — established or emerging — depend on the consent of an informed citizenry. And to keep these citizens informed, journalists must provide information that is fair, accurate and independent from outside influence.

What Is News? is the first in a series on media development.

What is News?

News is what is new — what’s happening. What makes a story newsworthy depends on these things:

  • Timeliness: Did something happen recently?
  • Impact: Are many people affected? Does your audience have an emotional response to the story?
  • Proximity: Did something happen close to home or involve people from home?
  • Controversy: Do people disagree about this? Does the store involve conflict, tension or public debate?
  • Prominence: Is a well-known person involved?
  • Currency: Are people talking about this?
  • Oddity: Is what happened unusual?
  • Intended audience: Who is reading or listening to the story? Different groups of people have different concerns, which make them interested in different types of news.
  • Need to know: Do people need to know about this to go about their daily lives?

Types of News

  • Hard news: This is what is on the front page of the newspaper, at the top of a Web page or at the start of a news broadcast. It may be politics, war, business, crime or a natural disaster. It is timely, controversial and has a wide impact. Hard news stories place the most important information first.
  • Soft news or feature: This is a human-interest story involving a prominent person or someone with an unusual story. It covers lifestyles, the arts, entertainment, sports, food, health and education. Features often begin with an anecdote to draw the audience’s interest.

Where News Comes From

  • Unplanned, naturally occurring events, like disasters and accidents.
  • Planned activities, like government and business meetings and news conferences listed in what is called a “daybook.” Staged events, such as demonstrations. Journalists must be wary of organizers who want to tell only their side of the story.
  • Press releases.
  • Documents, data and public records.
  • Reporters’ enterprise — Journalists find stories by looking around and listening to what people are talking about. Ask the people you meet what is going on in their lives or their neighborhoods. Ask what has happened since the last time a story was in the paper or on the air. Follow-ups often lead to more newsworthy stories than the original report.

Other parts in this series include Getting the Story, Telling the Story, Ethics and Law and Taking Good Photographs.

(Adapted from an article by Deborah Potter published in the Handbook of Independent Journalism. Potter is executive director of NewsLab, an online resource for journalists in Washington. Download the complete Handbook of Independent Journalism [PDF 834kB].)