2‧Be punctual or you could miss the bus

2‧Be punctual or you could miss the bus

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SCMP/Brian
Our fictional student reporter Jason Yip learns the hard way why it is important to arrive on time for an interview. This week: Top tips from professionals on how to write a balanced story.

John Brennan

Last night Jason Yip was so excited he could hardly sleep. After Young Post had invited him to come up with a story for the paper's front page, his first three ideas were rejected. But, once he had received lots of advice from the paper's staff, his fourth attempt got the thumbs-up.

So what was his idea and why was it approved? Jason discovered one of the reasons a very rare type of tree was being chopped down was to provide an important ingredient in a new treatment for spots, or acne. News of the destruction of this tree had featured in the main paper before, but its link to the ointment gives his story an original angle. Plus many of Young Post's readers are potential buyers of this medication.

But this morning Jason is pacing up and down in front of his computer. Although it's been turned on for more than an hour, the screen is still blank. Jason hasn't got a clue where to begin.

Who should he talk to? What does he need to know? And the more he thinks about it the more he wonders: what is his story really about?

Time to seek some help from the professionals. Young Post editor Susan Ramsay says she always asks her journalists to first give her the headline for the piece they are writing.

'This gives it a structure and focus, and the journalist will then know where they're aiming,' she says.

Ok, thinks Jason, how can I sum up what my story is about? Sitting at his computer he comes up with seven or eight possible headlines. None are right. Then he starts to type ... 'A clear skin but not a clear conscience'. That's it!

Now he's got his idea and he knows how he's going to write about it. Once more Jason's buzzing with enthusiasm. So, what's the next step?

'You need to brainstorm and research the arguments on both sides,' says Young Post reporter Zoe Mak. 'Then you need to find the right people to talk to. The internet can help you identify experts and the spokesmen for most organisations.'

Zoe says you usually need to interview at least two or three people for a story. Remember, even if you believe passionately in one side of an argument, you still need to present both sides' versions of the facts to create a balanced report. The Young Post doesn't want to print propaganda and most readers don't want to read it.

If there are a number of people willing to talk to you, you should choose those who are most likely to give you the key arguments and the best quotes.

'Ideally you want people who are talkative, have strong views and who are brave enough to speak out,' Zoe advises.

Even though all this is really helpful, Jason doesn't look happy. He's realised how nervous he is about talking to powerful businessmen and important campaigners.

Zoe reassures him this is one of the best bits of the job. If reporter Jason Yip rings one of these people they're much more likely to find time to talk than if plain Jason Yip calls.

'As a journalist there's a chance to meet almost anybody,' says Zoe.

She's right, Jason thinks, and if I want to do this I need to overcome my fears. He goes online and identifies the people he needs to talk to. Then he takes a deep breath and calls their offices. He explains who he is, the story he's planning to write and that it's for Young Post.

Thirty minutes later he puts down the phone. He's arranged interviews with Wong, the deputy chairman of the company manufacturing the ointment, and with So, the head of the environmental group campaigning against the destruction of the endangered trees. Maybe this isn't going to be so difficult after all.

Jason's first interview is tomorrow but there's plenty to do between now and then.

Zoe tells him he needs to start planning the questions he's going to ask. 'The key is to be prepared and know what you want to find out,' she explains.

If you can't write very fast, you'll have to use a recorder, she advises. But you don't need to buy an expensive model - tape ones are cheaper and you can record on many MP3 players and mobile phones.

'And make sure you're on time, better still get there a little early,' she adds. This is not only out of respect for your interviewee, you also want to make sure you are as calm and composed as possible. 'Is that it?' asks Jason, who can't wait to get started.

No. 'The journalist should always have a picture in their mind of how the front page will look,' says Susan.

Jason had forgotten he'll also be taking photographs. And these pictures have to be more than just clear and sharp; they also have to be visually interesting. 'Photographs for the cover of Young Post can be more creative than those used with news stories,' says Yves Sieur, the photo editor for South China Morning Post. 'They still have to match the story, but you can have more fun with them. They can be more like magazine shots.'

Jason's arranged to meet Wong at 11am in his offices on an industrial estate near Chai Wan. The next morning he gets off the MTR at 10.30am, feeling fully prepared for his interview.

However, outside the station Jason finds that none of the buses go anywhere near Wong's building and there are no taxis available. Oh, no. After waiting 15 minutes, Jason is now becoming very anxious. He gets directions from a passer-by and starts to walk, then run, along the road.

Only now does he remember some other words of advice from Zoe: 'Always double-check the address you're going to, your route there and your mode of transport.'

At 11.10am, Jason is almost at Wong's offices. As he races towards the entrance, he has to stop for a moment as a chauffeur-driven car pulls out of the car park.

'I've come to see Mr Wong,' a red-faced Jason tells the receptionist. She shakes her head, 'I'm sorry, you just missed him'. She points down the road: 'That was his car.'

Jason sinks into a chair and puts his head in his hands. Surely he's blown his big chance.

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