Start with what you notice

Bet you’ve asked yourself this question at least once: Where do great stories come from?

There are quite a few answers to that question. Thinking back on the work that makes me most proud, I can cite a wide variety of starting points:

  • a phoned-in tip
  • some documents that arrived in the mail
  • an offhand comment heard at a professional conference
  • long-term observation and reporting of a complicated subject
  • a follow-up on a five-year-old story that made me wonder, “Whatever happened to…?”
  • a Freedom of Information Act request
  • cultivating a great source as part of beat reporting.

Use technology, like RSS, alerts and Twitter to find out what other people are reporting on a subject you need to know about. Read professional journals and newsletters. Look closely at organization’s websites, and get on listservs.

First step, though? Notice what you notice, as writer Beth Macy puts it so eloquently in this piece she wrote for AJR. She learned the importance of observation as a columnist, and she has serious reporting chops. She wrote a great story I will never forget about a young woman who was the first person in her family (and her neighborhood) to go to college. Oh, yeah — she went to Harvard.

So, observe. And notice yourself observing. Think. Read. Gather. Talk (about your idea with your editor). Read more. Then report.

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4 Responses to Start with what you notice

  1. I really liked the story about the 16-year-old standing behind the ice cream stand, dreaming of being a neurosurgeon. The column Louis wrote completely changed that kid’s life, and indeed reminded us all “the power of journalism.” I also liked what Regina Brett said about editors in that sometimes it’s better not to ask and just do. Then when they see what you’re doing they may be more inclined to accept your idea. I’ve scrapped a few stories ideas because I couldn’t figure out how to pitch the story to my editor. Maybe instead I should pursue the story first and see if it goes somewhere.

    • reedkath says:

      As an editor, I can second what you’re saying. Sometimes, the best way to persuade an editor to let you do a story is to come back with a sample, so to speak. Say you found a source already, and you’ve done a bit of a phone interview (with plans to return in person, of course), and the person is interesting, quotable, perfect for the story, etc.
      It’s like mining: you think you see gold, but your editor is above ground and can’t see what you’re seeing. Go get a nugget and dazzle your editor with it.

  2. erinfjones says:

    So far my biggest challenge as a journalist is coming up with stories that fit the Missourian content. I have started trying to ask myself why it is I notice the things that I notice, but a better technique has been going out and talking to people. I found the orientation assignment to be exceedingly helpful, because I was given places to go and an idea of who to talk to, but the questions were up to me. I think that just always being open to a story is important and will guarantee success. Instead of being shy around other people at the grocery store or hair salon, strike up a conversation. You might not get a story by talking to people, but you DEFINITELY won’t if you just sit there and say nothing.

  3. ccoester says:

    This was exactly what I needed to read. I’ve had a few story ideas that I believe have a compelling nugget but lack the framework. Seems like I’ll have my work cut out for me, but who doesn’t love a challenge?

    Especially enjoyed reading Macy’s ‘Notice What You Notice’ article.

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