Low-tech resource helps reporters focus on the story at hand

To all of you DIY reporters out there — and really, aren’t we all? — here’s a project that takes just 60 seconds to assemble and a lifetime to perfect.

Like all DIY projects, you need some tools:

  • A reporters’ notebook.
  • Glue or tape.
  • A printer and paper.

Directions: Open a new Microsoft Word document and set the layout to two columns. Scroll to the middle of this post and copy the text for the Pocket Checklist for Reporting. Paste the text into the Word document and print the page. Glue the checklist to the inside cover of your notebook, and refer to it at least once a day. I say checklist, but it’s really a series of questions to help you focus while broadening possibilities for more reporting.

It’s easy enough for even the most technically challenged. No app to download. No analytics to decipher.

It’s useful enough for the most veteran journalist fighting against writing the same story with the same sources year after year.

I give this checklist to my advanced reporting students at the Missouri School of Journalism each semester. I don’t know whether a single one has actually used this handy tool. Maybe I should turn the list into a digital game, with avatars of impossibly fit men and women in skin-fitting uniforms earning points for every stakeholder or fault line listed.


Note the times for each item. Your clock may vary. I put them there to show students that they can practice little things, every day, with just a small investment of time. A minute here, a minute there, adds up. It’s all about practice in our reporting and writing.

Lots of people like to cite Malcolm Gladwell’s notion that it takes 10,000 hours to become expert at anything. I rarely hear anyone talk about what comes next.

More practice.

Reporting — and especially its joined-at-the-hip sister, writing — are creative pursuits requiring as much imagination and inspiration as practiced craft. I don’t mean to reduce our work to assembly-line drudgery. But practicing components rather than just diving into the next story allows me to think about my tendencies and then either embrace or fix them.

That’s why I built the checklist, why I give students a list of 25 tips, and why I assign Roy Peter Clark’s “Writing Tools” with its 50 lessons.


Los Angeles Angels first baseman Albert Pujols has hit 614 home runs, the most among active players. He still takes batting practice. I’d bet the house that cellist Yo-Yo Ma still plays the scales.


Pocket checklist for reporting

2-Minute Check: Fault lines

Fault lines: race, class, gender, generation and geography.

Group my sources. Do other fault lines need to be represented?

2-Minute Check: Stakeholders

Stakeholders are the people affected by or who can affect the issue/event/problem/solution you’re working on.

  • Who are the stakeholders?
  • What are their stakes?
  • Who and what am I missing?

2-Minute Check: Framing and positioning

Framing is the way we see the story. It determines the details we leave in or take out and the people we interview.

  • How am I framing my article (such as conflict, horse race, informational, winners/losers, explanatory and narrative)?
  • How am I positioning my sources?
  • Are there alternative frames?

10-Second Prep for the Interview

Two questions to make every interview better:

  • What do you mean? Tell me more.
  • How do you know that?

5-Minute Check: Review your notes

You lose significant memory within 20 minutes of an interview.

  • Have I spent at least 5 minutes immediately after my interview reviewing and adding details?
  • Have I included what I saw and felt and not just what I heard?

2-Minute Check: Organizing for more reporting

  • What’s your roadmap for organizing the information you just learned?
  • What’s the outline?
  • What’s next?

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