How one thing leads to another

(or) Where good story ideas come from, a rumination on creativity

One of the stories I am most proud of that I did on my first reporting job came from noticing something. I observed that the police in Columbus, Ga., often would not categorize a crime according to one of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports categories. Instead of calling a crime a rape, for example (even if that’s what it was, according to the victim), they would call it a “miscellaneous incident.” Or an “MI,” for short.

Funny thing was, Columbus had just been named one of the safest cities in America. Honestly, it seemed to me that there was a lot of crime there. And I had just come from Chicago.

So I started counting, and I had to do this manually because this was before databases (in the year 1985 BD). And what I found basically added up to this: Columbus had a lot more rapes and burglaries and assaults than the police department was reporting to the FBI. In fact, if the group that named Columbus one of the safest cities in America had seen the actual numbers, they would have changed their minds.

It was just something I noticed. And it ended up being a pretty strong story.

Sometimes, little things turn into big things. And sometimes, little things remain little things — but people find them interesting, nonetheless.

You will also find that when you start reporting, really talking to people out there in the world and producing stories, other stories will come your way. People will call you and tell you about stuff because you seem like someone who finds things interesting.

I love what Beth Macy has to say about observation in this piece she wrote for the American Journalism Review. She has an amazing eye/ear for stories.

I also think there’s a lot of value in thinking about Third Places, finding them in Columbia and talking to people there. Watch this video and think about where the Third Places are in your life. Can social media take us to a new kind of Third Place, if that’s where people are having conversations?

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21 Responses to How one thing leads to another

  1. judyinheart says:

    I think the video clip is very helpful to the neighborhood reporting. When you look can be essential for finding news ideas! No wonder whenever I went to my neighborhood, there is nobody on the street and it seems nobody even lives there…

  2. Julia Boudreau says:

    It’s articles like these that leave me excited at the thought of generating story ideas. In particular, I found the story about Regina Brett particularly engaging. Her sense of calm when it came to developing ideas is one that seems to be somewhat rare. I have learned from reading about her that although I may have 6 story ideas already generated, I should never turn down the opportunity for more. She discovered an inspiring story about the young, possible future neurosurgeon when she least expected. To me this proves that to be a good journalist I should strive to keep an open mind while also meeting as many people as possible. As seen in her example I will never know who has a life story that can make up the next great article.

  3. Emilie Stigliani says:

    Beth Macy’s observations helped me understand my own approach to writing and to life. All the people Macy profiled in this article seem acutely tuned in to the world around them — their community. I believe employing this method helps reporters write compelling, honest articles. When I am researching a story (conducting interviews or sitting in on a meeting), I try to really be present. I listen and watch even when people aren’t talking about the topic I am covering. I take notes on little details — the polkadot chairs or the black and white photograph of a woman with a horse. If there’s time, I make small talk: “What kind of Pop Tart are you eating?” or “What are you planning to wear on the first day of school?” These details help me to write a more colorful article and sometimes inspire a new story idea.

  4. Crystal Herber says:

    These articles and videos helped to solidify my thinking about how and when stories can develop. While the movie was a little dated, I still felt it had lots of practical information in it. I also liked the idea of a great, interesting story coming from a sign on the subway. There are story ideas all around us, we just have to be willing to go out and find them.

  5. I definitely think that social media can definitely take us to a Third Place. I’ve seen some great ideas for stories on Facebook, where someone posted a status update, their thoughts about an article they read, or talked about something that happened to them and dozens of their friends weigh in it. I think any space where people are interacting with one another and sharing ideas or opinions can function as a Third Place.

    I absolutely love the advice in the Beth Macy piece that says we should figure out the themes that speak to us the most and write about what moves us. It was a great reminder for me to look for opportunities during the semester to write about areas I’m emotionally attached to that may be hidden in the Columbia area.

  6. Fedor Zarkhin says:

    The article was interesting because of what it said about the value of journalism. It looks like Beth Macy is saying that we are here to help people enjoy their lives, to give them something human, to give them a reason to pause. We’re the lucky ones that get to live life like children, and the reason we have that privilege is because most people would like this kind of life at least on some level but can’t have it, for one reason or another. Judging by what Macy writes, journalists don’t have a duty to talk about what’s wrong in the world or things that need to change. What we have to do is give flesh to the boring world around us, and if we do that through other people’s suffering, then that’s fine. It’s an interesting perspective.

    I think understanding that our goal is personal engagement with the public will make it easier to find story ideas. This makes it clear that we need to entertain, interest, or touch the public.

    • reedkath says:

      We have the privilege of getting to prove every day that the world is, in fact, not boring at all. Quite the contrary, Fedor.

  7. Haoyun Su says:

    I took some notes from Beth Macy’s article.
    Great stories start small. And sometimes I just forget that little, or even trivial things can easily grab people’s attention. Story ideas are everywhere, waiting for our pick-ups.

  8. emilyg87 says:

    I loved the part in Beth Macy’s article where she explains how Sam Roberts “noticed that he noticed” something and realized that made it newsworthy. It’s very easy to get caught up in what you’re supposed to be reporting or what you think will be the story. One of the best things I’ve learned while interviewing and observing for my stories this year is that you can’t limit yourself mentally when you start…the times that I’ve had the least idea of what to write about or when the story I thought I had disappeared, were the times I found the best stories, probably because I was then so open to ANY story that came along!

  9. keliza13 says:

    The social network could arguably be the third place; that being said, I think we have to be careful how much we rely on social networking for real journalistic research. Social networking seems to be the “easy way out” since you can do it from your desk in the newsroom; on Thursday, John told me to look for “real world stuff” for the story I’m working on regarding Columbia’s sewer testing–this is something that can’t be done from a desk. Social networking might lead us to be a bit lazier in our research technique and may just be the antithesis of the third place because we’re not coming face-to-face with people and experiencing their emotions. We’re just seeing what they typed out, i.e. what they want us to see.

    • reedkath says:

      I totally agree with you — I share your worry about us seeing people as they want us to see them. Can’t really rely on the alternate reality presented by social media.

  10. Carlos D. Navarro says:

    Beth Macy’s article is just a fantastic example of how journalism (particularly nowadays) can take shapes we didn’t even dare to imagine a few years ago. Honestly, it opened my eyes as to how diverse the experience of the reporter can be. Having and open mind and open eyes is something that’s easier to say than to do. But Macy argues that it is actually not enough to open your eyes; you also have to be ready to hear things, to feel them, to smell them. A story, even a transcendental one, can start with the simplest detail. And if we always aim too high, we may actually end up overlooking those small things that can eventually become great stories.

    I also liked the bit about leaving your comfort zone and going out to the real world to get a story. This is a sort of a personal experience, but when I first arrived in Columbia for Boot Camp, my comfort zone was rather small – the hotel room where I lived for two weeks. Everything outside my room (including the newsroom) was scary, uncomfortable and weird.

    I remember one of the nights I spent at the hotel, there was this huge gathering of bikers all over the place. The tiny hotel was crowded with these lively people who where apparently taking this long trip across the state, just for the fun of it. There must have been dozens of them, and they were so noisy! I remember I thought that there had to be material for at least one story in such a picturesque group of people.

    I was in week one of Boot Camp, but Professors Swafford and Schneller had already told us that good reporters just leave fear aside and venture into the unknown. Sadly enough, though, I did not gather the courage I needed to do that. And the bikers came and went without my asking them one question about their business in Columbia or elsewhere.

    What I mean to say with this example is that during my first few weeks in this community my comfort zone was very small and I saw this as a disadvantage. Now (and I don’t even suppose I have a lot of experience on this yet, but I do have more experience than before) I see that it was actually the other way around. The fact that my comfort zone was so small actually meant that I had more places, contexts, environments to explore, to discover. That is exactly the type of places we reporters should be interested in visiting. Places with a lot of unknown people, who have countless unknown stories to tell us. For it is there, beyond what we can comfortably see and hear, where that great story we were born to tell (in Macy’s words) is waiting for us.

  11. nilesmedia says:

    About social media as a third place: I think the idea is to use it as “a” third place, not a journalist’s “one” third place. If its’ relied on too heavily, then certainly the concerns mentioned are more likely to become issues. But I see it more like an opportunity to eavesdrop. We don’t just report what we’ve overheard. We notice something interesting we’ve overheard, then actually step into that world to find out about it.

    And I loved Beth Macy’s advice and examples about just how to step into that world and how to approach our observations there. I’m glad someone in this thread brought up her point of “themes” that may emerge in our reporting. It reminded me of that part of her article and made me think more about it: There are certainly topics I’m drawn to over and over. Rather than fearing that I’m just writing the same story again, it’s better to see an opportunity to go deep. Otherwise, I’ll remain on the surface where the similarly themed stories may in fact seem repetitious. But by recognizing an interest as valid and a chance to become more expert on the subject, then digging in can allow me/you/us to uncover more details that distinguish each story from the others. And only that level of understanding can really generate the kind of nuance that makes great, original reporting.

  12. Kip Hill says:

    I hope I get a story one day that allows me to just call up Noam Chomsky. That would be pretty awesome.

    I appreciated Macy’s argument that we should be confident in ourselves as reporters and think about the “themes” of our own lives when trying to find and tell stories. While we are certainly writing for a diverse audience at the Missourian, I think it’s important to recognize the things we find interesting and applicable to our daily lives-or, at least, when handed a story assignment that falls outside of that day-to-day experience, to try and find a frame that makes sense to us.

    If you don’t feel a personal stake in what you’re reporting, I think it’s unlikely your readers will. It’s important not to allow that frame to impinge upon your objectivity, but it’s also important not to dismiss ideas or ways of framing a story personally simply because you’re afraid the audience won’t get it. We’re all active, engaged citizens here with unique perspectives that are endlessly interesting. I would say it’s our duty to write through that lens.

  13. I think social media is a rapidly developing third place. But I’m not sure how reliable it will be. By using social media to generate story ideas, you run into the problem of people lying (intentionally or accidentally) and people being fake. In addition, sometimes the smallest things can be blown out of proportion because everyone is tweeting or updating their status about a particular event. For example, during the VMAs, my newsfeed was clogged with people talking about Lady GaGa. So, I think that if social media was viewed as a third place, there would be a lot of sifting through information on the reporters part. Also, stories may not always pan out or turn out to be true. One example that comes to mind was last semester when some victims were brought to University Hospital from Callaway County and the murder was thought to be coming to the hospital to “finish the job” and it was reported that there was a gunman on campus. Somehow the information given to the public was twisted in such a way that there were professors holding and even canceling their classes. Students were sending text messages galore to their friends telling them to stay inside. I think there was even a report that there was a gunman spotted in specific buildings. I can easily see a reporter following social media picking up on this story, reporting the information presented at the time as quickly as possible, and then having to retract the information when it turned out to just be a rumor and in face no gunman even entered University Hospital. In general, I think social media is an upcoming third place, but the information presented there should not be taken at face value.

  14. Jared says:

    I think social media is only beginning to be a Third Place but it still has a long time left until it will be considered a “Third Place” simply because the social media world is so large. Twitter and Facebook, two of the most famous social media outlets, cater to people everywhere on Earth… Which is why I think it will be a long time until social media is considered a Third Place: “Earth” is unfortunately just too big of a geographical fault line right now to unite people together. But I think social media does have the potential and is slowly taking us to a new and developing “Third Place”.

    I really enjoyed Macy’s article because it reminded me of why I started writing news in the first place: I was curious about things around me, I like to learn new things and I enjoy writing. I feel like I’ve drifted away from that in the past few months and it’s nice to read an article like Macy’s which reminds me that the smallest idea, or even a simple question, can lead to a great story.

  15. allisonseibel says:

    I really like Macy’s article because it is so, so true. When I reported last semester, I would say half (if not more) of story ideas I had just came from stuff I saw. I remember I was driving on Nifong, which I drove down every day because I lived out there, and at the intersection of Nifong/Bethel I noticed a big sign that I had never seen before. So, while trying not to crash my car, I tried to get the best look I could at it to see what it was. And, it ended up being about a church that had plans to build on the land. It ended up being a bigger story of mine and the woman from the church I interviewed ended up being from my hometown in Illinois. It was probably my favorite story I did and favorite person I talked to.

    Then, the next semester I wasn’t reporting. But, I ended up one Friday on a plane in St. Louis when the tornado hit the airport…scaring the daylights out of me (I’m afraid of flying – it was the scariest thing I’ve experienced and we were on the ground), cancelling my flight making me miss my grandfather’s induction into Michigan’s Sport Hall of Fame, destroying the airport and the gate I was just in, and then destroying my car. I knew the tornado would be a story and even though I couldn’t report on it I made sure to contact people I knew who were reporting back here and send them images. It did end up to be a big chunk of a story.

    So I think even when we’re not reporting,as journalists, if something happens to you or you see something, it’s still worth it to get it noticed somehow; like calling an editor (like Katherine mentioned how people call her) or passing photos and information on to a reporter.

  16. I have to admit that the topic of one thing leading to another immediately triggered the bad 80’s song by The Fixx for me. Now, that I’ve embarassingly admitted to having listened to The Fixx, I have to admit that I subsequently researched the lyrics to the song after reading the above post by Katherine and the articles she attached within it. While most of the lines in the song have no relation to one another, and seeing them in print really makes you wonder how that song came together, there are a few gems mixed within that I think might relate to ‘one thing leading to another’ in journalism:
    One of the first verses of the song includes the line “you see dimensions in two”
    – I like to believe, that if The Fixx were at the front of Gannett Hall they would tell us to keep a broad and open mind to the many directions our story could go upon interviewing someone for it. People are so multi-fascited and multi-demensional, that you can’t just see them, and their place in a story, as inhabiting this flat, 2-D space. “Let the conversation open up dimensions of your story you didn’t even know were there,” they would say, “then one thing will lead to another!”

    Another bit of lyrical genius by The Fixx are the lines:

    Oh well, one thing leads to another
    You told me something wrong
    I know I listen too long
    But then one thing leads to another

    I once again imagine The Fixx at the front of Gannett, reminding us all to listen in-depth when a resource or interview for a story is telling us something or answering one of our questions. The other day I was compiling a list of some more unique and whacky classes offered at Columbia’s three universities. When I called Columbia College, a woman at their registration office started listing off a few, one of which, is a program where students can become Umpires for the MLB. The program just opened up to the civilian population in June and there is nothing like it in the world. Columbia College was approached by The U.S Marines and MLB two years ago to start a program where marines could become Umpires and serve their communities between being in active duty and at home. The students take liberal arts course work and have their capstone at the MLB training camp in California to wrap up the program in the winter. I would have had no idea unless I back tracked and asked more about it from the woman I was speaking with on the phone. The story was far greater than zany classes, it was a fortunate case of one thing leading to another.
    And on that note, I hope reading this does not lead anyone to seek music by The Fixx.

  17. Aaron Cooper says:

    Macy says to “notice what you notice.” Beyond just being more attentive to accumulate more story ideas, this suggestion sounds useful. If I notice my unconscious habits—my prejudices, tastes, predispositions and myriad other filters that inform my reportorial choices—if I notice these things, then I can take a step toward noticing something else—toward noticing what I don’t notice—and toward training my mind to include more of the world. The End.

  18. asussell1 says:

    Macy made me think about how journalists go about their reporting. I think too often we adopt “tunnel vision” in regards to our stories. We set out on a mission to retrieve quotes and data from certain sources. If we took the time to consider the world around us and the people who live in it, we would discover the stories that don’t arrive in the newsroom packaged as a press release. Macy found a story simply because she stopped by an ice cream shop to get directions. If she had chosen to use Google Maps on her iPhone instead, she would not have spoken with Terrence Embry. As journalists, I think we should learn to remove our blinders. The world we are living in is the same world that we are writing about.

    I definitely believe social media is a modern day Third Place. Although digital conversations are different than verbal conversations, the digital conversations are what some people have limited to themselves. The conversations that occurred in coffee shops 20 years ago now occur on Facebook or Twitter. Social media has become a new dialogue that should not be ignored. As journalists, if we ignore these conversations, we are ignoring the voices of the community.

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