This is the handout for the workshop, developing story ideas, which I presented today for staff members at Gazette Communications. We discussed how to come up with good story ideas and how to develop a plan to execute them.
Every good story starts with a good idea
Story ideas are literally all around you. You need to be alert and imaginative in recognizing and pursuing them. You can generate story ideas by looking in a variety of places:
News. By the nature of our business, most story ideas will come from the news. Don’t fall into the trap of simply covering the events or the debate. You’re not a board secretary recording what happened. Think of other ways to cover the news. Should you write a blow-by-blow narrative of a big event where you’ve provided incremental daily coverage? Can you take a different approach to a news event or issue by writing an explanatory piece, a follow-up, looking ahead, assessing the impact, placing it in context of other events or historical background? Will a behind-the-scenes account add insight or interest? Is a person involved with the event or issue worth a profile? Can you tell an interesting story about a power struggle or personality clash behind the surface issue? Should you liveblog this event or host a live chat about the issue?
People. The people in your readership area are interesting and important. Many are worthy of stories just by themselves. And they know the stories that are interesting. Spend more time outside the newsroom, talking to your sources and developing new sources. Ask them what’s important. Ask what’s the best story that hasn’t been covered yet. Ask what they do outside the office. Ask what you’re missing. Ask who the most interesting and colorful people in their office or agency are. Ask who’s shy or modest and might not tell you something interesting if you don’t ask. If someone’s routines or behavior catches your attention, consider whether you should inquire and find out whether she’s worth a story.
Social media. Follow the Twitter, Facebook, SlideShare YouTube and other social media accounts of organizations, officials, scholars, experts and activists on your beat. Monitor the community conversation on social media. You will get ideas for breaking news stories as well as enterprise. You can also use social media to seek story ideas, asking for suggestions for stories about an annual event, such as a holiday or festival or asking for tips about a breaking story such as a snowstorm.
Paper. Boring reports often contain nuggets of information that can lead to an exciting story. Take a closer look at the mountains of paper (and pdfs) produced on your beat. Ask someone to explain some of reports, to help you cut through the statistics and jargon to what’s important. Look at some documents that aren’t going to turn up on your regular rounds. For instance, if you’re a courthouse reporter, you probably spend little time looking at probate files or bankruptcy cases. But maybe a probate file will reveal a huge fight brewing in a prominent local family, or a frugal old lady no one knew was a millionaire. A bankruptcy file might turn up some prominent names or lead you to a poignant story of broken dreams. You probably report on a big lawsuit when it’s filed and when it comes to trial. But most suits are settled and might be noted just briefly then, if at all. Take a look at the motions and depositions that follow the initial suit. Maybe that’s where the story is. Look over the affidavits filed with a search warrant.
Data. What offices on your beat keep data that might reveal some interesting stories through computer analysis? The National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting publishes books of examples of CAR stories and has online resources (for Investigative Reporters and Editors members only) of CAR stories. Might the same data be available on your beat in your community? The reporters who do such stories are almost always eager to discuss the challenges and obstacles they faced in obtaining and analyzing the data.
Internet. Stay familiar with your community web resources. A blog may reveal information that will launch you on a story. Maybe a local business is finding customers around the globe because it is using the Internet wisely. Maybe a clever webmaster gives the electronic world an entirely different view of the company or organization that’s known locally as stodgy and old-fashioned. Maybe a service available online is putting people who used to provide the service in person out of work.
Context. Put a news event or issue into context by asking whether other communities or people or agencies are experiencing the same things. If so, maybe you have a trend story. If not, maybe you have a “first” story. If it’s a trend story, see whether other communities have learned any lessons that might apply in your community. The flip side of this, of course, is localizing a national story. Is this trend happening here? How will this development affect us here? Are local people involved in this national event?
Impact. Who will be affected by the issue or event you have written about? Who will be inconvenienced? Who has to pay? Who profits? Who’s harmed? What’s likely to happen a year from now as a result of today’s news? Or five years from now?
Conflict. Who won’t like something that’s happening? Who will try to prevent it from happening? Who had to be pushed aside to get it accomplished? If a group is having a convention in your community, see whether some internal conflict might provide a better story than the sweetness-and-light image leaders portray. Who are the dissidents and outcasts, and will they make their presence felt with a rump convention or by making a stir on the fringes or the convention floor?
Repetition. If you encounter a single issue again and again in different news stories, maybe you need to take a broader look at that issue and its widespread importance or impact. If you hear a tip a second or third time, consider whether it’s a better or more urgent story than you thought the first time you heard it.
Inquiry. Find answers to your questions (and always have lots of questions): Why is that? Who’s getting away with something here? Why doesn’t this work? If you’re wondering, your readers may be wondering, too. The answers are probably a story. Ask some readers and sources what questions they have about your community.
Technology. How is technology changing things on your beat? How do these changes affect the public? Might the new gadgets you see on your beat be showing up in other parts of society?
Silent voices. Are you writing about an issue on which some interested parties may be reluctant to speak out? This is common on social issues such as substance abuse, sexual abuse, sexual orientation, welfare, abortion, unemployment, immigration, domestic violence. Seek out these people, using third parties such as counselors, pastors, advocates and interest groups if you have to. Win their trust, listen to their stories and tell their stories.
Challenge. When a source gives you that tired old line about writing only about the bad news, challenge her to fill you in on a positive story that’s just as important or just as interesting as whatever negative story she’s complaining about. Maybe you’ll get a lame tip, or maybe you’ll get a valuable one. Or take the initiative. If you’re covering a murder, scandal or disaster in a small town, you can take for granted, whether you hear it or not, that people are thinking the press only cares about them when it’s bad news. Tell the people you deal with that you’re interested in good news, too, and give them business cards with a specific plea to let you know when something important, good or bad, is happening in town.
Persistence. Sometimes a good idea will not pan out because the central character doesn’t want to talk. Try again later. Maybe the time wasn’t right the first time. Maintain contact. Show interest without being a pest. You might get the story eventually. Many times a source who says “no” really means “not yet.”
Theft. Steal good story ideas wherever you can. If you see a story you admire in another news source, ask whether the same story could be done in your community. Call the reporter up and ask how he came up with the idea and how he went about pursuing the story. If you see a story that reflects a really clever idea, even if the story itself couldn’t be replicated in your community, call the reporter up and ask how he got the idea. Network with reporters on a similar beat through organizations such as Religion Newswriters or the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, and share ideas with colleagues. Read Poynter’s annual Best Newspaper Writing books (be sure to read the essays by or interviews with the winners) or study the winners of other journalism awards and consider whether the same ideas could be pursued on your beat. Steal ideas from sources, too. Ask what else they know of going on in the community. Ask what stories they would assign if they were running your news organization. (They will give you some bad ideas that you can discard and still get points for asking and listening, but you also might get some good ideas.) Check the timely resources and story ideas at the Journalist’s Toolbox or Al’s Morning Meeting at Poynter.
Share. If you hear tips or think of ideas for stories on a colleague’s beat, pass them along. Maybe a few tips will come back your way.
Different perspective. Tell your community how people in other parts of the country view something that is a source of pride, embarrassment, amusement or anger in your community.
Humor. If you hear something funny on your beat, consider whether it may be a bright story to be shared with your readers, rather than just repeated to colleagues.
Questions. The questions we learned our first week in our first journalism class remain fundamental to developing good story ideas? Who’s responsible? What’s going to happen next? When is that likely to happen again? Where did the money go? Why wasn’t anyone watching? How can we prepare ourselves for the next time? In addition to the traditional 5 W’s and How, include at least two others in your list of basic questions to ask for each story, and to use for generating story ideas: So what? and How much? Come up with your own questions to ask.
Story elements. OK, I’ve mentioned how important the W’s are, but let’s think beyond them, every step of the way, starting with the story idea. Think in terms of story elements: setting, plot, character, conflict, climax, resolution, action, scenes. Each of those story elements might suggest some stories to pursue or some fresh angles to pursue on a continuing story.
Looking back. Of course, obvious anniversaries are a journalism staple. But sometimes you can find an interesting story by looking back on an anniversary that might be overlooked without your enterprise. Or you can look back as a means of accountability. What did a politician promise during the last campaign? Did he keep the promises? What goals did the school board set in hiring a new superintendent? Did she meet those goals?
Follow the money. On virtually any beat, you can find good stories by following the money. Who’s paying for this? How much will it cost? How much will it raise my taxes? What will need to be cut to pay for it? Did the people who benefited from this vote contribute to the campaigns of those delivering the votes?
Source development. Spend time with prospective sources so they know you’re interested in doing a thorough job. Seek out sources who aren’t the “usual suspects” on your beat. If you always find yourself talking to white men, find some women or minorities who might bring a different perspective to your stories and steer you toward different ideas. If you find yourself always talking to the professionals and bosses, spend some time talking to the folks in the trenches. If you spend most of your time talking to liberals, seek out some conservatives. If you spend most of your time talking to people your age, seek out some younger or older sources. These people with different perspectives will point you to different stories. Look around the agency you cover for the people or office who attract the least attention. Spend some time there to see if you’ll hear some different tips. Don’t seek information and story ideas just from the officials on your beat. Seek out the consumers, the former officials, the gadflies.
Prospecting. Take time to go “prospecting” for stories. That means to take a trip or set up an interview with no particular story in mind. You’re visiting a source you haven’t seen for a while or a community or agency you haven’t covered for a while. You go just to familiarize yourself, to take someone to lunch or chat in the office or home a while. Maybe you’ll come back with a terrific story you never would have known enough to pursue. Maybe you’ll come back without a particular story, but with some tips to pursue. Maybe you’ll just come back with a valuable source to contact in future stories. At the least, you’ll gain a greater understanding of your community and your beat. Prospecting almost always yields stories and is always time well spent. You just can’t tell the boss in advance what it’s going to produce. As Chip Scanlan says, when you get out of the newsroom, “the chances increase of finding stories in the world that no one has yet told.”
Developing your story idea
Enterprise stories, especially long-term projects, may require considerable reporting and writing before you even decide whether and how to pursue the story. Many of the points presented here apply to almost any kind of story beyond routine daily coverage. The scale would be different if you’re suggesting a quick-hit story to do in a few days, a major enterprise story you might spend a few weeks on or a major project you might spend months on. But the principles are the same: Before reporters can persuade their bosses that they should invest significant time, space and money in a story, you need to develop the idea. Before you can pursue the story efficiently, you need to develop the idea.
Put your idea in writing. For an important enterprise story, especially a project idea, write a detailed proposal. This gives your supervisor something more substantive to consider and discuss with other managers. A written proposal demands consideration and response. Writing also starts you on the exercise of focusing your work and writing the story. Sometimes a well-written proposal can become the framework for the overview of a series or the introduction to a story. On a shorter-term story, the proposal may be just a one-paragraph e-mail or a one-page memo, but putting an idea into writing always helps.
Propose timely stories. Editors and producers are and should be interested in newsy, timely stories. Even projects should be timely. In your proposal, address the news peg your story would have. Should it run before, after or during an upcoming event? Would an anniversary, holiday or hearing provide a time peg? Has a recent report or decision given urgency to the issue? If a reporter proposes an “evergreen” story that could be done at any time, a supervisor could reasonably respond that the story could be done at any time, which often means something else is more pressing now. If your story looks like an evergreen, tell your boss why it is timely now. If you’re dusting off an old proposal, look for a news angle and explain why now is the time to do the story.
Propose specific ideas. Don’t propose “an in-depth look” at city street construction projects. That’s broad and unfocused, as well as being an evergreen. Propose a project examining why construction projects take so long and whether the city sets and enforces deadlines for contractors. The specific focus helps your supervisor get a feel for the story right away and start sharing your excitement.
Propose relevant ideas. Explain in your note why this story will matter to readers. Even if you think the relevance is self-evident, tell why this story matters to readers and how you will make that relevance clear.
Think beyond the story. Reporters are used to focusing on a single story that will air on television or be published in the newspaper. But think of ways to turn a story into a running conversation or to help users dig deeper into a story. A story might start with an event liveblog that includes lots of interaction with the community, then a story explaining a particular issue related to the event, with a live chat following the story, or with a running conversation (joined by the reporter) in the comments or on a blog. Databases, source documents, videos, slideshows and interactive multimedia projects let the user engage even deeper, personalizing the story experience.
Consider national comparisons. If you’re examining a local issue, find out how the local situation compares to national averages and national extremes.
Consider local impact. If you’re examining a national issue, explain how your story will cover the local and regional angles. How does the issue affect your local area? Who here is involved on either side? Who here is an expert? Are members of your local delegation dealing with the issue in Congress? Will the issue cost us money or generate spending locally?
Consider previous coverage. Check your own organization’s archives and do some browsing online. Read coverage by other newspapers, TV stations and blogs. If someone covered this issue a couple years ago or another paper wrote about it a couple months ago, tell how the situation has changed or how this story will be different. Tell how you’re going to examine issues the competition has missed. If your proposal sounds like stories your supervisor has already seen, you’re not likely to get the go-ahead.
Tell what you know. Do some preliminary reporting, so you can describe the general situation or the scope of the problem. The more you know, the better you can sell your need to learn still more. The more hypothetical or speculative your story sounds, the stronger your chances of being told it might be a good story to pursue “someday.”
Describe avenues of inquiry. Tell what you need to find out. Maybe you have some tips that you need to check out. Maybe you have a hypothesis. Tell your supervisor where you expect to look and what you think you might find. You don’t need all the answers in your proposal, but you need to know enough to present some good questions.
Outline possible stories. Of course, the information you find will shape the final stories, but include a possible outline in your initial proposal. Say you’ll write a first-day main story about the odyssey that brought a group of refugees to your community, with a sidebar on the violence in their homeland, then a second-day story about the cultural adjustment that the refugees face. The outline may change. Maybe you’ll decide that domestic violence is worth a sidebar to the story on cultural adjustment. A working outline helps editors envision your final stories and start anticipating them.
Consider usefulness. Think of ways this story will be useful to your readers and explain in your proposal how you will make the finished product easy for readers to use.
Consider visual elements. Visual elements such as video, photos, slideshows, graphics, maps and interactive multimedia need to be part of your plan from the very first. Think about statistics you might find that should be presented graphically. List possible maps you would need. Identify events or interviews that should be photographed. If you have no visual ideas, admit that and suggest in your proposal that you and your supervisor should meet soon with visual colleagues to brainstorm and begin coordination. Maybe you should involve a visual journalist in your original proposal and pitch it together. Or if you’re a visual journalist, you should consider how you might work with a reporter and pitch the story together.
Consider audio elements. Who are the voices that will tell this story best? Does music or the ambient sound of a particular event or location help tell the story?
Consider interactive opportunities. Think about ways to involve users in the story. Could you provide supporting data in more detail online than in the print or broadcast version, or can you set up an interactive database or calculator to help users personalize the story? Can you present the content in a quiz or game format?
Consider narration. Consider whether this is an opportunity for some narrative journalism. Is it a story that unfolds through time, with story elements such as plot, setting, characters, conflict and resolution?
Consider navigation. In the print or broadcast story, the reporter controls the story. In the digital presentation, you can share the navigation with the user in ways that can heighten the experience. Consider whether a map, timeline, graphic or photograph can serve as a framework for multiple parts of the story that stand on their own. The storyteller can share control and navigation of the digital story with the user.
Consider mobile. Would your story have lasting value as a mobile application? What would make your story work more effective for mobile users? You need to consider the mobile use of a story early. Even if your organization does not have strong mobile development capability, ask about mobile possibilities. No reason you can’t be first.
Consider location. If location is important for a story, consider how you might involve users in providing content for a map. For instance, perhaps you are examining whether some parts of town get plowed before others when it snows. You could ask users to report when their streets get plowed the next time it snows, using the data for a color-coded map.
Consider crowdsourcing. Journalists are just starting to tap the wisdom of the crowd. Use social media, your web sites and your traditional media to ask the community for help on a story. If you are seeking people who have experienced a particular situation or witnessed a particular event, one of the quickest ways to connect with the right people is to ask. Of course, you need to consider competition in such public appeals, but collaboration is becoming much more important than competition in today’s media environment.
Consider travel and expenses. If you need to travel, include the plans in your proposal. If you’d like to do some polling or hire an outside consultant, explain what you would need and why. Don’t expect managers to spend big bucks without a strong explanation from you about what your organization would get for its money. And don’t assume that your bosses won’t spend the big bucks.
Consider computer analysis. What data are available that could explain some aspect of the topic you are examining? If you don’t have the computer expertise to analyze the data, you will need to learn and/or involve a colleague who does. But your initial proposal should address data that may reveal a problem or prove a point. You might want to consult a reporter who does more work with data to brainstorm how data may be used.
Consider other beats. Does your proposal overlap with someone else’s turf? Tell the other reporter as a courtesy, or ask the other reporter’s advice on angles to pursue. Ask whether the other reporter wants to collaborate on the proposal and the story.
Consider a timetable. How long would it take to do the project as you’re proposing? Acknowledge that delays can happen, but suggest a timetable, dealing with your news peg and with realistic expectations of how long the proposed work could take. Maybe you are proposing something that is immediately timely but also requires a longer-term inquiry. Suggest what you could do right away and how long it would take for the deeper look. Would the deeper look still be timely when it’s finished? What news peg might you have at that time?
Consider your daily duties. Can you juggle this story, at least for a while, with your regular duties? Your supervisor is going to have to consider this question. Help her out by explaining how much, if any, of your regular duties you could continue while working on this story. If you need to be fully detached, state that clearly.
Think big. Your proposal is no place to scrimp on time, space or money. Propose the best way to deliver the best package possible for your readers. Propose spending as much time as it takes to do a thorough job, but not so much that the story won’t be timely, or that someone else will do it first. Propose devoting as much space or air time as it takes to do a thorough job, but not so much that you bore your audience or distort the importance of the issue. Propose spending whatever money it takes to do a thorough job. Your bosses may trim your plan back in terms of time, space or money. And maybe they should. They are responsible for the budget, the balance of the news report and for deploying the staff. Your role here is to advocate for a story you believe in. The managers’ role is to fit that story into the big picture.
Think small. Don’t lose enthusiasm for the plan when supervisors don’t adopt your grand design. Make adjustments. Decide what’s the best way to do the story with the time, space or money the managers decide it’s worth. If your basic idea is good, you need to maintain your enthusiasm for the story.
Don’t say no for your boss. Propose doing the story as thoroughly and aggressively as you think you should do it. You aren’t responsible for the budget. You don’t make the decisions about space and use of your time and taking on tough targets. Your boss might say no to travel or consultants or time or space that you propose. Your boss might not want to take the story on at all. But if you think it’s a good story, propose doing it the way you think you should. If you believe in the story, make the manager say no.
Don’t give up easily. If you really believe in a story idea, but your boss doesn’t want to do it, ask why. Try to learn specifically what your proposal is lacking. Be open to the possibility that the manager is right. Maybe you got excited about the idea and lost perspective. Or maybe you failed to include some important points in your proposal. Maybe you need to do more research to demonstrate the local impact. Maybe you forgot to give the proposal a news peg. If the supervisor raises valid objections that you can address, maybe you can agree to pursue the story. Or maybe you should propose it again at a later date when it is more timely.
Keep the ideas coming. Learn whatever lessons you can from the discussion and rejection of a story idea and try again. Your best defense against bad story assignments is to keep your boss considering your own good story ideas.