How to write an article - Part II: Analyzing content

Posted by tadelste on Feb 26, 2006 3:19 PM EDT; By Tom Adelstein Editor-in-Chief
Mail this story
Print this story

This is the second article in a series. The first installment dealt with format and flow of article writing. This discussion involves subject matter. Readers should also find this information helpful when determining the validity of a story.

Content deals with the subject matter of an article and its value apart from a writer's ability. In article writing content requires vetting or satisfying the reader's need for empirical evidence rather than theory or subjective reasoning. You can write an editorial but don't consider it an article.

Over the last several months, I have published several pieces related to Microsoft's involvement in the lobbying of government officials. I spent approximately three years digging through archives, copying registration statements, reading SEC filings and court transcripts.

I also waited for an inciting incident before I started any portrayal of the subject's actions. By looking into sworn statements and acknowledgements made in court documents, I felt the data had substance.

I also found that timing makes a difference when offering content to the public. You have to judge your audience's condition for communication. Know if your reader's attention has become fixed on something unrelated to your material.

Recently, I wrote an article about the timing of IBM's subpoena with regard to Linux. I laid out the facts for myself and arranged the article in a chronological pattern. I also asked myself if the material allowed for an interpretation of events so the reader could better understand them and/or did it challenge the reader to think in different ways.

After publication, the first comment out of the bag came from a person with a clear agenda. I read the comment carefully and concluded that it came right out of the disinformation manual for discrediting journalists. One of the obvious features of the comment involved the failure to read the article.

The commentator started with the notion of conspiracy theories. He then went on to write several paragraphs aimed at distracting anyone from the material contained in the article. Knowing our terms of service, I recognized that the comment fit the criteria for moderation and so I moderated it.

Conspiracy theories

Much of what you see in news-wire articles have a sprinkle of fact in them combined with editorial content. Such material fails the test of a conspiracy theory. So, what qualifies as a conspiracy theory?

If someone claims that people work in secret to obtain some negative goal but cannot supply empirical evidence, then you have a conspiracy theory. You can easily identify one because they have a "they or them" in the treatise. As they say, that's what makes a good conspiracy theory.

If a reporter has facts included in his or her treatise which point to easily obtainable public information then you may not have a conspiracy theory. For example, when Ralph Reed's employment by Enron came to public view while he worked on the Bush 2000 campaign, that raised a flag. When court evidence indicated that the Vice President arranged the employment that ended speculation.

When reports filed with election officials confirmed Reed's employment by Microsoft while he worked on the campaign, we saw another flag. When he admitted to a conflict of interest and promised to cease lobbying the former governor for Microsoft , then the speculation had to stop. He worked for a litigant in an action taken by the Federal government and lobbied the front runner in the election for President. That is not a conspiracy theory.

Slanting or spinning material

Reporting of news rarely qualifies material as an article or what we also call a story. When two writers can reach different conclusions about the same events, then you have a slant or spin. For example, IBM wrote a subpoena and presented it to Microsoft, what did it mean?

If you read the subpoena you can see the defendant gathering evidence for a presentation to the court. They want original documents or documents the witness claims as true. By reading the subpoena, one has to look for the purpose.

If a reporter explains the requests and correlates them in a larger context to other events, that indicates an interpretation of events. But if a writer reports that IBM issued a subpoena to simply go on a fishing expedition that's slanting or spinning the event. If another writer reports that IBM issued a subpoena because they know something about Microsoft, that's also a spin.

Unfortunately, readers rarely qualify as analysts. So, an uniformed reader usually concludes a report using selective perception. He or she fits the information into a belief system that fails to recognize anything that does not fit previously made conclusions.


A muckraker investigates and exposes societal issues such as political corruption, corporate crime, child labor, conditions in slums and prisons, unsanitary conditions in food processing, fraudulent claims, etc.

Ralph Nader provides an example of a contemporary muckraker in his book, Unsafe at Any Speed (1965). This book questioned corporate power and their ability to transfer risk to consumers which increased a company's profits. In his letter to the court in US v Microsoft, he questioned that same issue.

Muckraking started just before the time of Theodore Roosevelt. Citizens worried about unsafe working conditions, political corruption and social injustice at the start of America's industrial age. Proliferation of inexpensive newspapers and magazines in the late 19th century exposed the public's opposition to industrial conditions.

Writers aimed their articles at trusts such as oil, beef and tobacco, prison conditions, exploitation of natural resources, the tax system, the insurance industry, pension practices and food processing, among others. While you might think that nothing has changed much in the last 100 years, they have. We have more people and higher taxes.

The Jungle (1906) by Upton Sinclair's prompted federal legislation regulating food and drug practices. Like Nader, he failed as a political candidate. He helped found the American Civil Liberties Association. He also wrote fiction and won a Pulitzer Prize. Consider him a muckraker.

Another writer, David Graham Phillips created momentum that would culminate in the adoption of the 17th Amendment. He wrote an article for Cosmopolitan entitled "The Treason of the Senate". The article exposed political corruption and even provoked President Roosevelt.

Knowing your audience

Writing articles involves determining if you have an audience and knowing if they would benefit by your writing. I chose to write for the open source community. I saw an audience that could use an interpretation of events from the perspective of someone familiar with technical issues, business and finance and law.

Before I started writing for this community, I wrote a dozen books for CPAs who didn't understand investments, insurance and financial planning. At the time, that audience needed help. As a fellow CPA with a Wall Street reputation I trained them in portfolio management, fundamental and technical analysis of stocks, bonds and mutual funds and how to write financial plans. That worked well enough that my investment banking firm became an acquisition candidate and finally I sold out to a NYSE company.

Pamela Jones has chosen to write for the free and open source software community. Thank God she did. I ghost wrote a book on intellectual property law because I interned at the Library of Congress in the Copyright Department while in college. But, Pamela's expertise and writing ability puts her in the category of a Pulitzer Prize winning writer. I could never have done what he has. I doubt many people could.

Pamela knew her audience, saw the critical nature of the issues and became both a muckraking journalist and an interpreter par excellent. Her seized the moment and we're all blessed that she did. She's transcended the community and become an authority quoted by major publications.

A writer who specializes in articles should take note of Pamela's formula. Have the tools to write, know the subject, do your research and serve your community consistently. That will take you far in this field.

Final Thoughts

Remember that content drives articles and serves an audience. How you're viewed by you audience and colleagues have to do with what you write and how you do it. If you think you have enough celebrity, you can get away with writing editorials. Otherwise, stick to the facts; like in Just the Facts, Ma'am, just the facts Sargent Friday.

» Read more about: Story Type: Tutorial

« Return to the newswire homepage

This topic does not have any threads posted yet!

You cannot post until you login.