Lessons from On-site Critiques at the CSPA Summer Journalism Workshop

David Wiegand, Contributor

During the CSPA Summer Workshop, several newspaper staffs have one-on-one critiques of their publications. There were a few common weaknesses that showed up in a majority of the papers. In most cases, attention to these areas would have a profound impact on the readers’ reaction to the newspapers.

This list of problems and solutions could be a guide for most papers to self evaluate their work and will provide some goals for the next year’s production.



Problem 1: Most papers use the same design for nearly all headlines (most often just a single deck). This leads to a lack of visual differences between stories and tends to “gray” the pages by filling the page with type (except for some unplanned white space when a headline does not fill the line).

Solution: Contemporary design uses several techniques to add variety. Use of Hammers, Kickers, Tripods, Umbrellas and other approaches will give each story its own personality. A staff might create a bulletin board or booklet of examples from the professional press (USA Today uses many creative headline designs). This gives the students a visual reference of different designs to use to break up the monotony on each page.

Problem 2: In many cases, headlines are little more than a label or noun phrase. In those cases, a reader has a difficult time determining what the story is actually about. To simply state “Boys Soccer” is not enough to draw in the readers.

Solution: Every headline must contain a subject and a verb. A headline serves two purposes: it must entice the reader to want to read the story, and it must explain the essence of the story. Quite often the lead of the story will give the reader an idea of the contents of the article, but if the headline is lacking, the reader will never even get to the first paragraph before moving on to other “more interesting” items.

Problem 3: Too many headlines are all the same point size and have identical intensities.

Solution: When a page is set up, the most important story is put at the top of the page. As one moves down the page, the value of the stores goes down as well, with the least important article at the bottom. The size and boldness of each head should reflect this arrangement by graduating the headlines. Thus, the most important piece will have the largest and strongest head as well as the most prominent position. The rest of the stories’ headlines will be smaller (in steps of 6 points) to reflect their relative importance.



Problem 1: The computer and the Internet have made it quite simple to copy a photo or image and reproduce it in the paper. In most cases, this is illegal use of someone else’s property. Many schools mistakenly believe that adding an attribution below the image such as “Photo Courtesy of www.picturecompany.com” is enough to deal with this issue.

Solution: Even though the likelihood of a school paper being taken to court over these copyright infringements is small, it is an ethical problem as well. To give a photo credit as in the example above simply tells the reader from where the image was stolen! Except for a limited “fair use” provision in the laws, all photos and art must never be used without obtaining formal permission from the true owner. A school must find material that is available for republication (fema.gov and altavista.com have some pictures that may be used) or must be granted written permission from the person who owns the copyrighted image. A school may also consider buying ($100 per year) services from places like http://www.highschooljournalism.org. When in doubt, contact the Student Press Law Center (splc.org) for a legal opinion.

Problem 2: Since many papers are printed on newsprint, the final product results are not what are desired. Since newsprint is a soft paper, the dots of ink tend to spread out or bleed together. The photos often are very dark or muddy.

Solution: Using PhotoShop, adjust the image on the computer screen to a lighter, less intense picture. If possible, do a series of test images that your printer can run on newsprint as a test print. Using this system, the picture that is seen on the computer as too light, will be of better quality when it is printed in the paper. It may take some time to develop a feeling of how much adjustment is needed, but it is worth the time to hone this skill.

Problem 3: Reflecting the professional press, the use of a cutout picture (the background has been removed so only the primary figure remains) can be quite dramatic. When done poorly, the end result is often a detriment rather than an improvement.

Solution: Use the “Extract” tool in PhotoShop. Depending on the version of PhotoShop, this tool is found on a pull-down menu such as under “Filter.” When in the Extract mode, there are special tools to assist the user when the background and primary image are nearly equal in density. This is a better way to do cutouts than the magnetic lasso tool, but in either case, be sure to work in an enlarged size such as 400 percent.

Problem 4: Most schools will admit that the captions under the pictures are a last minute entry on the page. Thus, too many times the caption tells the reader very little or in many cases does not exist at all.

Solution: The two most often read items in the paper are headlines and captions. Every staff must realize that more effort is needed in both instances. The first sentence of a caption should be in present tense (as if the action is taking place right now) and include the who, what, where, etc. without stating the obvious such as “Number 16 kicks the football.” The second sentence is in past tense and goes beyond the action of the photo to give related information so the reader better understands the story. Finally, if it is a sports picture, give the results of the action (he scored a field goal) and the final outcome of the whole game or match.


Editorial Pages

Problem 1: Too many papers have no soul! That is to say that there is no staff editorial in each issue.

Solution: For each issue of the paper, the management staff meets, discusses the timely issues of importance to the student body and takes a position. This editorial is then written by a single writer based on the group’s opinion. It does not have a byline because it is from the group of editors and not the individual writer. Some papers will balance the editorial with a factual story elsewhere in the paper that may be referenced at the end of the editorial.

Problem 2: All too often, the entire editorial pages are filled with individual columns (same writer who contributes a piece in several issues) or an opinion of a single person that is a one-time occurrence.

Solution: Limit the opinions of individuals. Given the size of most school papers, each issue should have only two or maybe three individuals who get to take their own slant on the news. No matter what, these opinion pieces must have merit and content. The paper should not be a place for individuals to play with words for their self-gratification.

Problem 3: For several schools the masthead or staff box needs more work.

Solution: The flag on the front page establishes the personality of the paper. The flag should be reproduced exactly in miniature at the top of the masthead. The rest of the masthead then fleshes out who and what the paper is. It should include the school name, address and contact information like phone, fax, email and web page. The staff names printed are the editors and managers. The reporters, artists, and photographers are not included as their names are placed with their specific contributions. Several other items needed are a mission statement or purpose of the paper (seldom is humor a primary reason for the paper), the advertising policy which includes the right to reject any ads, the method of determining the editorial (is it by vote of the majority, who is involved, and that it is not a reflection of the school administration), and other information that will assist the reader in understanding how the paper is produced (e.g. part of a class, extracurricular, or censored by the principal).Organizations and awards may be included as well.

Problem 4: Overall, the editorial pages are often the least visually appealing. Several papers have great writing here but destroy the readers’ attitudes before a single word is read because the pages are so boring to look at.

Solution: Break up the pages with various pieces of eye candy. Use a column signature with the author’s picture for every personal opinion piece even if it only appears once for the year. Draft an artist to do both an editorial cartoon and supporting art for any of the pieces on the pages. Pictures are a great way to add both interest and information to any item including the staff editorial. When done properly, photos can even be an editorial comment with little more than a headline and caption to carry the message. Do a survey of the student body and create a chart or graph to show how the opinions break down. Add a photo poll on an issue of merit and publish the one-sentence answers along with a picture of each person. Use other means of telling the story like a series of bulleted points (use phrases instead of sentences and paragraphs) that cover several positions in a regular feature of good things and bad things that need to be noted.


Entry Points

Problem: Many pages lack a visual element to draw a reader to a specific starting place on the page. Some pages are no more than headlines and body text with nothing “pleasing to the eye.”

Solution: On every page, usually above the fold, there must be either a dominant photo or major piece of art with the primary story. This visual must be bigger and/or darker than any other visuals on the page. Additionally, there should be at least one other, less dominant, photo or graphic in the lower half of the page. In those cases where there is nothing available to go with the primary story, a Standing Photo should be added as an entry point for the reader. This photo would be a story unto itself, be boxed off to separate it, have its own headline, and include an expanded caption.


Continued Stories

Problem: Usually found on the front page and occasionally on interior pages, many papers will jump stories to other places in the paper. This makes it more difficult for the readers and often leads to unread copy. People are generally lazy and will not go to another page to finish a story, will intend to read it “later” and then forget, or get so involved on the interior pages that other items on the original page are missed.

Solution: The first approach is to limit the story to the space available or cut/move other items on the initial page to gain more room. This may work in some cases, but it is often not the best method. Rather, consider splitting the story into different aspects or facets. The primary aspect is written on the first page, and the other part of the story appears on a different page. The second story must stand by itself, have its own lead and include a different headline. If desired, a tag reading “Related story on Page 4” could be placed at the end of the first story.


Journalistic Style

Problem 1: The first paragraphs in many papers are either a long, confusing series of sentences that include too much detail or they jump into the story contents without letting the reader know what the story is actually covering. Often, the writer relies on the headline to provide the substance of the article.

Solution: All reporters must learn to write a lead paragraph. To many journalists, this is the hardest but most critical writing in the paper. Generally, it is a single sentence that focuses on the who, what, where, when, why and how. Note: these items are placed by importance to the story. While it is easy to begin with the when, seldom (perhaps September 11 is the exception) is the date the most important. Do not get into the specifics and examples until the general picture is established for the reader in the lead paragraph.

Problem 2: Paper after paper contain long paragraphs. Many are three or four inches in length, and several run for ten or more inches. Related to this are the instances where the story is unbroken by any other elements resulting in huge blocks of text which often “look” too long to many readers.

Solution: Unlike typical essays assigned in English class, newspapers try to have many smaller paragraphs rather than making the point in an unbroken string of sentences in a single block. This is often accomplished by entering a return after every two or three sentences (this also works some white space into the copy at the beginnings and endings of every paragraph). Even with smaller paragraphs, something must be done to eliminate enormous blocks of gray text. Using a dollar bill as a rule of thumb, whenever a block of copy is larger (either vertically or horizontally) than the size of the dollar, it needs to be broken up. Some suggestions for breaking this text into smaller sections include a pulled quote, a photo, art work or graphics, a nut graph, a sidebar, or adding subheads (sometimes with an extra return) noting when a different aspect of the story begins. Whatever techniques are used, use a specific technique no more than once on a page.

Problem 3: Too many student journalists write in styles not appropriate to the medium. Neither the formal essay nor the familiar use of “I” and “you” is generally accepted in the newspaper. Following other journalism rules will make the paper more professional and respected in the school.

Solution: Buy a stylebook. CSPA has one available for only $7.15 that can be ordered at http://cspa.columbia.edu/docs/books/index.html. The staff should also have access to a copy of the AP Stylebook (http://jea.org/resources/bookstore/bookstore.html) as well. Once in hand, these references must be used and followed. It may be a picky issue to use “percent” instead of “%” but abiding by the journalistic standards is often what sets the excellent papers apart from the merely good ones.

David Wiegand advised the yearbook Aurora and newspaper Warrior’s Word for 20 years at Wausau West High School in Wausau, WI. His publications earned numerous writing honors including Gold Circle awards from CSPA, and National Winners from Quill and Scroll. The newspaper earned a Gold Medalist rating from CSPA, All-American status from NSPA and the George H. Gallup honor from Quill and Scroll 10 times. The paper also has been a Pacemaker finalist for NSPA and received a Silver Crown from CSPA.