Avery Comarow’s Ten Commandments of Good Service Journalism

Before retiring at the end of 2017, Avery Comarow spent much of his 50-plus years in journalism as a consumer writer and editor for publications including Money, Consumer Reports, and U.S. News & World Report. In response to a March 9 post, “Editing Service Stories: Try to Avoid a ‘You Must Do This’ Tone,” he passes along the Ten Commandments he created for consumer reporters at U.S. News. 
Jack’s complaint about service journalism sometimes reading too much like a series of commands rang my bell. When I started doing consumer journalism for Money magazine in the 1970s, I quickly learned the truth of that versatile cliche, “Doing X is like playing chess—easy to do, hard to do well.” I could knock out a 600-word advice-filled piece filled with “you shoulds” and “talk to your doctor/lawyer/accountant” so much more easily, and with so much more seeming authority, than reporting the real story, which would have been nuanced to account for the fact that we live in a real world.
But a couple of sharp editors at Money disabused me of taking the lazy way out, God bless the late Bob Klein in particular. It didn’t fly at Time Inc., nor should it have been tolerated anywhere.

When I inaugurated the News You Can Use service section at U.S. News & World Report in 1987 and needed to build a staff, I was surprised at how hard it was to find writers who got it—who understood that good consumer reporting is a brand of investigative journalism. Over and over, writers would appear at my door holding a markup, distressed and demanding to know what the hell I wanted from them. Doing this stuff right was HARD. So I created the Ten Commandments, tweaking it over the years for currency but with unchanging intent: to help writers think before they sin. see Commandment VI.
The Ten Commandments
I. Be timely.  Why is this story worth reading? Why are you writing it now?
II. Be fresh.  There’s always an angle. Be a little unconventional. A story with a twist is more fun to read (and to write).
III. Plunge right in. Throat-clearing is deadly. Lede feel wordy? Try lopping off the first graf.
IV. Telegraph the “why.” A nut graf high up tells readers why they are reading the story. A sentence or two in the lede works. It doesn’t have to be a graf of its own.

V. Don’t overstuff. Limit the points you want to make. Know what they are before you hit the keys. Stick to them.

VI. Honor thy reader. The imperative voice (e.g. “Be sure to get your flu shot this fall”) is patronizing. Aunt Sally isn’t dumb and she doesn’t like being ordered around.

VII. Kill the clichés. “You’re not alone….” “More studies are needed….”  In the days when stories were marked up, Newsweek editors would scrawl MEGO (My Eyes Glazed Over) next to such yawners.

VIII. Spare experts’ quotes. Quotes do not confer credibility or authority. Use them only to add interest, a surprising element or a new dimension.

IX. Jettison the jargon. Why would you explain to Uncle Fred that aspirin helps heart patients due to its meaningful prophylactic effect on the incidence of cardiovascular events with a significance of 95 percent or better?

X. Be skeptical, not cynical. Good reporting, not snarky adjectives, brings unworthy products and services into the light.

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