How a story gets found

I teach three classes or four classes a semester and story-finding seems to bedevil my students. I never had a problem finding stories as a reporter. What little natural talent I had was in that area, but I think most of it is just recognizing the elements that make for a successful story, rather than just a topic. I broke down two stories — one I found a few weeks ago but didn’t write because I’m busy and the other one a needle-in-a-hay-stack story I wrote awhile ago. Maybe the process will help someone.

The story I found but didn’t write: Microsoft announces it will stop supporting anything but Windows 10 sooner than planned, throws institutional computer users into a tizzy

How I found it: My neighbor is a support engineer for a computer component manufacturer. I ran into him and he looked glum. I said “What’s wrong?” He said “Microsoft announced yesterday that they’re only going to support Windows 10 after [insert some date next year that I’ve forgotten]. Most of our clients aren’t on Windows 10 and they’re going crazy.”

I asked “Why?”

His response: “Because our clients are all huge — 2,000 to 20,000 workstations. They can’t turn on a dime. They need time to plan, time to budget for the new licenses and time to do all the testing to make sure it works. They don’t have that time.”

And there is the essence of the story: Microsoft made a sudden move that’s going to cause customers pain — and money. This is a story that can be pursued in virtually any place where there’s companies that are going to have to upgrade. It can be sliced and diced in a couple easy different ways: How is the local university with 15,000 computers to support going to handle this/pay for this? How are small- to mid-size businesses going to deal with it?

This has all the elements that we’d look for in a successful story: A large condition we can apply to a relevant population, a cost (financial and otherwise) and clear conflicts (between companies and Microsoft, between institutions and their budgets and their competing needs, etc.). Characters are easy to find since a large group is being affected.


The story I ended up writing: Illegal immigrant kids are wildly successful in high school sports but have no path to a better life through scholarships (which you can see here).

It was 2006 and immigration was a big deal. Most of the cities in the American southwest had both pro- and anti-immigration marches. The news was filled with stories. The country’s leaders were trying to figure out what to do about the U.S.-Mexico border and the millions of undocumented immigrants in the country.

An editor I worked with at ESPN:The Magazine and I were talking and he said “You’re down in the center of it. You should figure out someway to connect immigration to sports.” I got to thinking about it. College teams were going to be tough — too much paperwork with documentation has to happen for scholarships and enrollment. And if I found just one person, it wasn’t much of a story. I wanted a number that made for a critical mass. So I shifted my sights to high schools. But how could I find them?

I had done some border reporting before. But I could also look at a map. I had a much better chance of finding a cluster of high-school-sports-playing undocumented immigrants in border states than I did in, say, Ohio. So I called the information offices for high school athletic associations in border states that had historically high immigrant populations: Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas. I explained what I was looking for.  Texas was no help. California gave me a few leads that petered out. Arizona didn’t have anything. But the information officer in New Mexico said “Actually, last spring we had a soccer team that was full of illegal immigrants play for the state championship against a rich school from Albuquerque.”

That sentence was everything I was looking for: It had all the story elements that I wanted (a critical mass, a team) and the bonus element of a strong social class contrast). I found out the town and called the school superintendent there. He confirmed the story and gave me more details that strengthened the story.

This was an example of taking a large issue and having an idea to scale it down. As a colleague of mine says “We don’t need to eat the whole cow, we just want a steak.” Scaling it down to “immigration in sports” and then further scaling it down to high school sports helped me focus my reporting and find the story that I thought I was looking for.