Roy Peter Clark and Christopher Scanlan’s ‘America’s Best Newspaper Writing’ on Deadline Reporting

by Dalton Cox

Whether a reporter considers it to be a motivator or a necessary evil, the deadline is undying, even in a digital age of the 24-hour news cycle.

“All journalists must learn to write quickly, blending acts of thinking, reporting, planning and drafting into a single, continuous, efficient process,” Clark and Scanlan write. “The most important lesson . . . is that fast writing does not equate to formula writing. Fast writing can be powerful and exquisite, full of history, context, motive and meaning – but only if the writer is prepared.”

Infographic by Dalton Cox
Infographic by Dalton Cox

To illustrate such mastery mechanics at work, Clark and Scanlan provide five articles that have won the American Society of News Editors award for deadline writers. These include exemplary works by Richard Ben Cramer of The Philadelphia Inquirer, Leonora LaPeter of the Savannah Morning News, David Von Drehle of The Washington Post and Francis X. Clines of The New York Times.

Cramer’s 1978 piece “Shiva for a Child Slain in a Palestine Raid” begins this anthology by demonstrating how effective narrative writing can be in reporting, despite demanding deadlines and challenging complications. Written in what Cramer calls “the heat of frustration,” this article provides a human portrait of ethnic violence in the Middle East, framed by a family’s act of “sitting shiva” for a nine-year-old girl who was murdered in a random act of terroristic violence. Cramer’s humanizing portrayal of the child’s mother, embodying vigilant hope and strength for her family, is as moving as it is universally relatable.

Clark and Scanlan quote Cramer’s editor Jim Naughton.

“What Cramer did was to set out and consciously write about people, to find the people behind the institutions,” Naughton said.

Similarly, Leonora LaPeter’s 1999 “Jury Sends Santa Claus Killer to Electric Chair” offers readers a brief character study of a Jerry Scott Heidler, who murdered four members of a Georgia family in their beds on Christmas Eve and then kidnapped the family’s three surviving children; simultaneously, LaPeter weaves in the related trial coverage, which resulted in Heidler’s death sentence.

LaPeter offers an example of the effectiveness of preparing for stories in advance and not waiting until the last minute to begin a deadline story. She began writing her lead in the back of the courtroom with the court still in session.

David Von Drehle provides an example of the importance of theme in his 1994 “Men of Steel are Melting with Age,” in which the reporter covers the funeral of President Richard Nixon. Drehle relates the idea that the authoritative figures that defined the Nixion administration were by then fading caricatures of past political powers. For Example:

“And the junior men looked very senior: Nixon chief of staff Alexander M. Haig Jr., resembling a retiree at the yacht club; political legman Lyn Nofziger, still looking like an unmade bed but now your grandfather’s unmade bed; muscle man Charles W. Colson, his crew cut replaced by thinning gray thatch.”

This article is followed by Clark and Scanlan’s final selection, Francis X. Clines’ “In Belfast, Death, Too, Is Diminished by Death,” which covers a Northern Ireland rebel’s death during the time of the “Troubles” in 1988. The work demonstrates the importance of setting the scene and being on the scene to cover a story. Clines also cautions that it is important to do many interviews for the reporter’s own research, but to be selective when choosing which individuals to include in the story.

All of these articles offer varying techniques, showing how these methods may be effective, even in today’s digital age of incessantly breaking news.

“When news is available, instantly, from so many sources, making sense of the deluge is the newspaper’s most valuable contribution,” Clark and Scanlan write.


Other Great Examples of Deadline Writing

Medic Tends a Fallen Marine, With Skill, Prayer and Anger by C. J. Chivers of The New York Times

“12 shot dead, 58 wounded in Aurora movie theater during Batman premier” by Jennifer Brown of The Denver Post

“A hint of trouble, then tragedy: 3 dead, 46 hurt as explosion rips buildings to pieces at Falk Corp.” by Greg Borowski of The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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