• Top five books every student journalist should own

    The best way to learn journalism is by doing it. But some journalism books so deftly explain the nuts and bolts of the craft, they should be read by every student, and re-read every few years when those students become working journalists. Here are my top picks:

    The Art and Craft of Feature Writing,” by William E. Blundell (Amazon $10.17 new)

    Organizing and writing long, in-depth stories in a way that keeps readers engaged is a challenge. And it’s a challenge writers of the Wall Street Journal consistently overcome.

    Blundell, who worked at the journal, shows you how they do it. He breaks down compelling stories to their raw elements like a scientist, analyzing what approaches work and don’t work. It’s a great how-to manual.

    The Word,” by Rene J. Cappon (Amazon $4 used copy)

    Find telling details … weed clutter from your prose … grab readers and never let go … these are the simple messages preached by Cappon, a retired editor for the Associated Press. Students should read this wonderful book to learn how to get a story right. Journalists should read this book as a refresher course to break any bad habits they’ve picked up.

    On Writing Well,” by William Zinsser (Amazon $10.17 new)

    Similar to Cappon, Zinsser preaches the value of the concise sentence and the precise word. Zinsser is a nonfiction author but his message still rings true for all writers: Make the reader’s job easy, or lose the reader.

    Super Searchers in the News” by Paula J. Hane (Amazon 50 cents used)

    A great book for journalists in the Internet age. Hane interviews journalists who adeptly navigate the Web to find sources, information and documents to strengthen their stories. It’s a Q&A format with tons of references to useful sites.

    The Reporter’s Handbook” ($48 or $58, new)

    When I was cutting my teeth at the school newspaper in college, I got to know the education writer at the daily newspaper, the San Antonio Express-News, and he suggested this book. He said it helped him learn about digging up records and finding sources.

    Man, was he right.

    I can’t think of any other book that affected the way I approach news stories. “The Reporter’s Handbook” is a lesson in the power of documents — where to find them, how to get them, and what to do with them. Public documents help you circumvent the many spin doctors you’ll encounter throughout your career. They help you find out what’s really going on.

    Right after I devoured this book, we got a tip that laboratories in the Science Building on campus were in such disarray, the San Antonio bomb squad had been called in a few times to clean up some dangerous chemicals — the kind of stuff that goes boom if bumped.

    Instead of calling up a dean and asking whether this was true, I sought out former employees, police reports and other records to write an in-depth story about a hidden problem almost no one on campus knew about — all thanks to “The Reporter’s Handbook.” By the time I called the dean, I already knew the tip was true. I just needed his comment for a fully documented story.

    “The Reporter’s Handbook” has gone through many revisions to keep it up-to-date. The most recent edition is called “The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook,” by Len Bruzzese, Brant Houston, and Steve Weinberg.

    Those are my picks for the best journalism books. What are yours?

  • Learning the craft

    Learning the craft of journalism

    If you’re a journalism student, the best way to learn the craft is by doing it. But the next best way is to voraciously read the best of the best.

    Look at how the pros handle complex, difficult stories. How did they get the information? What approach did they take in presenting the story to readers? How did they structure the story? There’s nothing wrong in studying the methods of a master to try to become one yourself.

    Some great web sites offer links to powerful stories. The most obvious one is, which offers links to the full text of Pulitzer prize-winning stories dating back to the 1990s.

    Check out this lede from a prize-winning story in the Seattle Times in 1997:

    At the end of a long, bending driveway, it appears: a sprawling new house in the middle of an acre and a half of trees.

    At nearly 5,300 square feet, it’s three times the size of the average American home. The front features a two-story decorative column bordered on one side by cedar decking and on the other by tall, arched windows and a two-car garage. In the back, a raised deck wraps around the gabled structure from end to end, with rows of view windows lining the first and second floors.

    The house can’t be seen from the road. And there are some who wish it wouldn’t be seen at all – namely, those responsible for building it and the couple living there, who earn more than $90,000 a year.

    Why? Because this secluded manor was built with tax dollars intended to help needy Native Americans.

    The reporters spent months on this investigative story and could have very easily written a lede that was complicated and mind-numbing. But they took an approach that draws readers into the article.

    Another web site is Extra! Extra!, a site maintained by Investigative Reporters and Editors. It showcases watchdog stories from around the country.

    Another site I like to check is News Gems, a blog by journalism professor Jon Marshall. He highlights good investigative and narrative journalism.

    Whenever you start reading a story and can’t put it down, save it and study it. Figure out how that reporter got you to keep reading. Learn those reporting and writing techniques and use them for your next big story.