Journalism basics: Developing a story

I was fortunate as a reporter. I almost always had beats to keep me occupied or the natural curiosity when working general assignment to want to know what was going on around me.  And most every reporter I’ve ever worked with professionally has been the same way. I’ve never heard from a reporter what I frequently have heard from students:

“I can’t find a story.”

In newsrooms, I’ve heard “I’ve written this story every year at graduation.” I’ve heard “I have to write this story about cotillion because the publisher’s daughter is making her debut.” I’ve heard “I’ve been looking at this data for two days and it’s so inconclusive that I can’t see a story there.”

From students: “There are no stories.” “There’s nothing going on.” “How do I know? I’m only a student.”

So here we go…

The best student storyfinder I ever had worked as a part-time bartender in strip-mall suburban Mesa, Ariz., at a bar improbably named “The Dirty Drummer.” Every week she came in with a great story idea she had heard from customers. It wasn’t because she was a bartender and people like to confess to bartenders. It’s because she was part of the community. Being involved in some way in the community in which she lived helped her find story ideas that had legs.

That’s the first tip: Get involved in your community.

Arizona State University President Michael Crow had a made-up term that described how he wanted the university to interact with its environs: community embeddedness. He wanted his institution to be involved in the community. Reporters should practice that, too, because that’s where the great stories come from.  One of my best sources as a reporter was the woman who ran my dry cleaners.

I used to take my students in Phoenix on walking tours of downtown (note: this works best when it’s not August and when all of them remember to wear good walking shoes rather than pumps or flip-flops). And as we went through each block, I’d walk backwards in my best tour guide imitation and talk about the stories that were all around them.

That building over there with the boarded-up windows and the historic plaque is an old funeral home and that building across the street is an old funeral home that’s boarded up and two blocks over there’s another funeral home and it has a “Going out of business” sign on it (cue joke about people about dying to get in). What’s the story there?

And that row of stores there is being razed for a new high-rise. What about the business owners there?

That’s the second tip: If you look around enough, eventually you start seeing stuff.

 Sometimes you’ll find a singular thing. Sometimes you’ll find a trend. But you’ll always find stories, even if it’s an evergreen story about that statue in front of the courthouse.

When I was a reporter in Seattle, I had to cover a meeting across Elliott Bay in Bremerton, which required a ferry ride. I noticed a big red boat with “U.S. Coast Guard” on the side. When I got back to the office the next day, I called over to the Coast Guard District Watch Office (who I had to talk to every day as part of calling cop agencies around Puget Sound to check for news) and said “What’s the big red boat?” It was an icebreaker, I was told, which went to Antarctica. That started a chain of events that ended with me going to Antarctica on the icebreaker.  It wouldn’t have happened without me taking the time to look around and wonder.

I don’t think that finding stories is the hard part. They really are all around us. I’m looking out my window and I can see three (why won’t the city require special lights in subdivisions in outlying areas to cut down on light pollution?; how will the placement of a new school in the neighborhood change traffic on our narrow county road?;  have the recent heavy rains done more to erode a creekbed that could undercut my road?). The hard part is recognizing that they’re stories and summoning the internal power to ask.

That’s the third tip: Ask the question out loud. 

If you people the question — and they’re in a position to answer — you’ll get an answer. And that answer will lead to more questions. Those questions will lead to more questions. And then you can start figuring out what the best story opportunity is.

The slide deck below goes into more details about developing a local story and some of the questions to ask to refine through the process.