When I tell people I’m a one-man-band reporter, they usually all respond the same way. Their first question is “how do you do it alone?” And then they usually ask “How do you find your stories?” So I’ve decided to share my tried and true tips for finding stories.
- Listen to those around you – friends, family, you may be surprised how an everyday conversation could lead to a good idea
My parents are attorneys, and they often talk to me about their cases. While in graduate school last winter, I was talking to my mom about a trial they were preparing for. She mentioned she had the list of potential jurors, and was looking up each one on Google and Facebook to learn more about them. I had never heard of an attorney doing that, so I decided to investigate. I contacted a public defender I had interned for, and sure enough, he knew a colleague who was using the internet and social media for the same purpose. I put together a great story about a Cook County Public Defender who had used Facebook and Google to look up 200 potential jurors and about the rising trend of attorneys who did that. So, thanks Mom!
My boyfriend’s sister is a medical student at Harvard, and last Christmas I was with his family when his sister was talking to their dad about medicine. She was telling him about how her classmates use apps on their smartphones to help them look up information while on rounds. Yet again, I thought this was a pretty novel use of technology and decided to follow up. Back in Chicago, I asked some med school friends about doctors who used smartphone apps. Sure enough I found there were tons of apps at their disposal – for diagnosis, for a quick reference, even for x-rays and it made for a good story. So, thanks Eli!
- Listen to people you’re interviewing when you’re out on a story, it could lead you to a good follow-up
I did a story on Staten Island about the mayor’s proposal to allow livery cars to do on-street pickups. I set up interviews with a few livery company owners and after asking them their opinions on the proposal, I was packing up my gear, and carefully listening, as they were talking. They complained to each other about how the only inspection site for their cars is in Queens, and whenever they get their cars inspected, they lose a day’s business taking the time to drive there and back and lose money on tolls and gas. I asked them about the issue, and they told me they were hoping to get an inspection center on the Island…a great follow-up story for me to look into.
While reporting in Maspeth, Queens on a rally against putting a bus depot in the neighborhood, I stumbled upon another great story. I walked into a neighborhood diner to ask patrons their opinions on the proposed depot. One man told me he didn’t much mind the depot, but that he was upset with a new proposal to convert several streets into one-way to cut down on truck traffic. I got his name and number and a few weeks later followed up and turned out a good story about the one-way streets proposal.
- And don’t be afraid to ask people you’ve interviewed if they have other story ideas
While reporting in Topeka I was doing a story about a prison inmate who had escaped and was found on the roof of a Denny’s. I was interviewing nearby business owners about what they had witnessed – including the saleswoman at the David’s Bridal next door. It was the day before Valentine’s Day, so after the interview I decided to ask her if she knew of any good love stories. Sure enough, the customer she was helping was getting married to her high school sweetheart, after 29 years apart. I interviewed the bride-to-be the next day and it made for a great Valentine’s Day piece!
- Look for trends
While in Washington, I interviewed Katie Jacobs Stanton for a WhoRunsGov profile. She had served as the Director of Citizen Participation at the White House, and was telling me how vital social media was for allowing the White House to directly connect with the public. I wrote up the profile, and then thought, if the White House can use YouTube, Facebook and Twitter to connect with the public, then how does that impact the White House Press Corp, who traditionally serve as the connection between the two. I interviewed Ann Compton, Mark Knoller and others, who told me the introduction of social media was changing the way they report. I picked up on a trend early on and the story was featured on the front page of AOL’s Politics Daily.
In Chicago, I saw on Facebook that a friend was starting a new company – Foodie Registry – that allowed wedding guests to buy restaurant gift certificates as opposed to traditional wedding gifts. I was curious if giving non-traditional wedding gifts was becoming a trend and found another local site that allowed users to purchase adventure gift certificates for weddings – including certificates to cooking classes, skydiving, etc. I interviewed a wedding planner as well who told me non-traditional was the new way to go, and the story ended up running on WCIU.
- Look for the …
Whenever I finish reading an article, I always ask myself if there are any follow-up questions, any obvious blanks or gaps to look into. This strategy is how I stumbled onto my final reporting project one quarter in graduate school. I had read several articles about Detroit’s booming film business and how the city’s huge tax credit was a lure for filmmakers. Then I came across a short article about how Chicago had upped its tax credit from 20 to 30 percent. The two separate pieces were begging for someone to connect the dots. Why did Chicago raise its tax credit? It turned out Chicago was steadily losing film business to nearby Detroit and the increase was part of a failed effort to lure filmmakers back, which made for a great investigative piece.
- Just look around you, you never know what you might stumble upon
I was in a cab in Chicago last winter when my friend lost a piece of her cell phone in the car. She couldn’t find it in the seats, so when we got out the cab driver handed us a card for a Lost and Found number and said if he found it, he would turn it in. I looked at the business card, and on the back saw an ad for the Chicago Dispatcher, a newspaper that serves cab drivers. I later looked up the newspaper, and found this great monthly column titled “Tales from the Rearview Mirror” where cab drivers submit passenger horror stories and comedic tales. I ended up doing a piece on the column, and on the cab drivers who wrote it, who had some great tales to share indeed!
Re-use and re-cycle
- If you found a good story in one city, chances are there is a similar story in another
My senior year at Northwestern, I had done a story about a Chicago family pressing to pass an Illinois law that would provide insurance coverage for Autism-related treatments and expenses. It was a touching story about the father of an autistic child who was championing the cause. When I left to report in Topeka, I decided to see if there was a similar bill being considered by the Kansas congress. Sure enough, a family in Topeka had helped to introduce a Kansas bill – their son had autism and they had to pay for his computer, and other devices and treatments out of pocket.
While in Topeka, I had done a story about a man who won the Midwest Barista Championship. It was a fun story to work on, so a year later, while in graduate school in Chicago, I looked into whether the Windy City had any barista champions. Sure enough, the Chicago competitor had placed 1st in the entire country. I did a piece on the national barista champion, and it became one of my favorites because of the cool video and editing.
- Journalism professors would often tell me to stay away from localizing stories, because they become generic pieces that you can find on any station. But sometimes, and in the right circumstances, you can find a good story
Last year, I read a USA Today piece about how major companies were requiring their employees to stay in environmentally friendly hotels on business trips, which was a big business boost to the hotels. I decided to localize it – look into which Chicago hotels were green certified and whether it helped business. It turned out, Chicago ranked top in the nation for green hotels, largely due a program funded by the mayor that provides financial incentives for Windy City hotels to go green. But it turned out the initiative wasn’t helping much, and that hotels in the city, green or not, were losing business. That’s because the McCormick Convention Center, which had been a premiere site for national conventions for years, was becoming increasingly expensive and major trade shows and conventions were leaving for other cities. So sometimes localizing a story can lead to an even bigger one.
I hope these tips will be helpful clues when you’re on the hunt for a good story!