The Black Box system for organizing a story

Len Reed, environment and science team leader at The Oregonian, developed a system to help reporters handle unruly information.

The Black Box helps reporters sort through and prioritize the information they have and quickly and clearly make the case for their stories to editors. With the system, writing a story is essentially boiled into four phases:

1. Reporting phase

  • Gather
  • Search
  • Ask
  • Interview
  • Sort

2. Black Box phase

  • What is this information?
  • What does it mean?
  • What does it signify?
  • What is the headline?
  • What is the lead?
  • What is its context – with what does it connect?
  • So what?
  • Who cares?
  • How can you quickly tell it to the clueless and make it count?

3. Editor phase

  • Succinctly tell your editor what the story says.
  • Tell your editor the headline that captures the story.
  • Be prepared to defend your thinking.

4. Writing phase

  • You’ve got a lead; now order a sequence in telling: organize.
  • Write quickly, staying on track – you can go back and tweak.
  • As you write, periodically ask yourself: Who cares?
  • As you write, periodically frighten yourself: The audience is leaving.
  • When you finish, go back and ruthlessly cut words and sentences.

Before last reading, say “no one cares”; let the story change your mind.

This guide, like many of the others in API’s Journalism Essentials section, is largely based on the research and teachings of the Committee of Concerned Journalists — a consortium of reporters, editors, producers, publishers, owners and academics that for 10 years facilitated a discussion among thousands of journalists about what they did, how they did it, and why it was important. The author, Walter Dean, was CCJ training director and former API Executive Director Tom Rosenstiel who previously co-chaired the committee.