NPR Training
Storytelling tips and best practices

If you do holiday service journalism, do this (not that)

despairing editorial calendar on top of a box of tree ornaments

A 100% realistic holiday editorial calendar. (Holly J. Morris/NPR)

’Tis the season to stop using “ ’tis the season” to start the consumer-oriented stories that glut the internet between Halloween and New Year’s! Few local or regional outlets are spared the annual toy safety, holiday travel or charity round-up piece: not the NBC affiliate, not the newspaper of record, not the public radio station.

Here are some other things you should stop (and start) doing, in the classically bossy “do this/not that” format, as you embark on your regularly scheduled “where to get a pre-cooked Thanksgiving turkey” listicle. Because if you have to do it, why not do it well?

Do this: Find a new angle on a well-worn topic.
Not that: Write the same story as last year — see the next tip.

Look for a hook, local or national. A report of a recent conflagration can sit atop the standard fire safety content at a fresh URL (like so). The latest local James Beard Award winner probably has thoughts on whether boxed stuffing counts as food. And you can make anything into a gift-guide theme. Like Brexit. Or impeachment.

a facebook resurfacing of a thanksgiving recipe

A good example of Thanksgiving resurfacing or a thing not to serve vegans.

Do this: Repurpose and resurface older stuff with minor updates.
Not that: Do something rushed and subpar because you think Google wants you to.

Dust off last year’s Thanksgiving charities piece and update it as needed; change the headline if it makes sense to do so. Add some “This content was updated on …” text (as on this enduring Halloween favorite). Then resurface on social and homepages/landing pages.

Do this: Communicate directly with humans via speech.
Not that: Write a story entirely with information you found online, even from reputable sources.

Humans will reveal surprising facts and details when prodded. Websites reveal only what their creators want you to see. Use email only if it can’t be avoided, as it lacks spontaneity.

Here are some possible questions to ask in pursuit of a non-generic quote:

  • What’s something people don’t know/would never guess about your [product/service/business]?
  • What’s the weirdest question you’ve gotten about your [product/service/business] and what was the answer?
  • What has surprised you most as the owner/provider of your [product/service/business]?
  • What’s the most popular [whatever] you [sell/offer]?
  • What’s your favorite [whatever] you [sell/offer]?
  • What are your plans for [next year/month/Oktoberfest]?

Do this: Make sure your sources are legit unbiased.
Not that: Assume someone is unbiased just because they’re a “real” person.

It’s time for your annual tree-choice story. Before you call JoJo of the Just Fir Fun blog, ask: Is JoJo supported by tree growers? If you can get $20 off a Sara’s Tree Farm Premium Douglas Fir with a promo code from Jojo, then Sara is giving Jojo something, even if it’s just a free tree. (For a harrowing tale of reviewer corruption, read The War To Sell You A Mattress Is An Internet Nightmare.)

Do this: Choose a format that fits the content.
Not that: Make everything a listicle.

Is the listicle dead? Opinion fluctuates as rapidly and mysteriously as a quantum field. If you’re going to use one, the content should naturally break into disparate elements. Don’t use a list format just to avoid writing paragraph transitions. If the best advice comes from one person, consider some form of Q&A.

Do this: Start your story with something directly from your reporting.
Not that: Lead with a broad statement, an inane rhetorical question (“Are you overwhelmed by gift giving?”) or anything about the weather/time of year.

If you’ve got good material, you should be able to pluck out something unique — an anecdote, a detail, a quote. No one needs reminding that the holidays are stressful, snow is cold and pies taste good.

factbox describing obvious things, like how mind control is bad

In case you forgot that mind control is to be avoided.

Do this: Assume readers are intelligent.
Not that: Patronize readers, or explain the obvious.

To quote Avery Comarow’s Ten Commandments of Good Service Journalism (go read them!), “Aunt Sally isn’t dumb and she doesn’t like being ordered around.” See the Most Unnecessary Factbox Ever Created, left.

Do this: Use objective details to explain or describe.
Not that: Use even mildly biased language and/or highly subjective adjectives.

Readers don’t need to be told something is delicious or scrumptious or beautiful (opinions vary), or that “luckily, charities exist.” When writing about something, call it what it is (“towering pile of grease-oozing onions” or whatever). This will help readers make informed decisions.

Do this: Use words and phrases you haven’t read a million times.
Not that: Use any of the following:

’Tis the season
Fear not
Don’t fret
So and so is not alone
If you … you should …
Be sure to
Shop around
Time will tell
Help is on the way
Do good and look good, too
Gifts that give back


Holly J. Morris is the NPR Training team’s Writing and Reporting Specialist.