The Reese News Lab guide to story ideas

Feb 15 2013

Every reporter dreams of an editor who says, “Bring me a story. It can be about anything you want.”

But the reality is that that much freedom can be terrifying. How do you choose a story when you have a whole universe to select from?

My fellow Reese News Lab managers and I realized last month that some of our college-aged staffers didn’t really know where to start when trying to find story ideas, especially when they are looking for stories within a broad topic area like “STEM education.” So Senior Producer Sara Peach and I sat down with small groups of our staffers for some reporting “real talk” to share ideas, questions and tips with each other. I laid out an outline of my process, and we had conversations about each of the steps.

Together, we came up with the Reese News Lab best practices for generating a story idea. We started with a few assumptions: Different approaches work for different reporters, we all (including Sara and me) are still learning, not every situation will be the same, and no question should go unasked, because someone else may have an answer.

Step 1: Generate curiosity by finding information about the idea and related topics.

  • What to read: News articles, trade publications, academic papers, press releases, relevant organizations’ websites and literature, old stories your news organization has published
  • Where to listen: Join conference calls on related topics by signing up for listservs of related organizations who host these calls or be checking websites to see when they go on, attend conferences, make real-world observations.
  • Where to look on social media: Create Twitter lists of people related to the topic to keep tabs on what they are saying, compile a list of Facebook pages to check.

Step 2: What to look for when compiling information

  • Background to help you better understand the subject
  • Surprises: Something unexpected or that you’ve never heard before
  • Unanswered questions or gaps in the stories
  • New perspective: Is there another way of looking at a story?
  • Can you localize the story?
  • Relevance: Is there a reason to write about this now? Is it current?
  • Anecdote: Can you find someone who could give personal insight into the idea?

Step 3: Talk to people and bounce the story idea off of them
Ask your colleagues, friends or family:

  • Does everyone already know this?
  • What do you think of when I say … ?
  • Talk to sources (more on this in a minute)
  • Post something on social media; see if it generates responses on Twitter or Facebook

Step 4: Start calling sources to learn more about the idea and begin reporting on the story

Some types of sources include:

  • PR people or media relations people
  • Scholars
  • Authors of published scholarly papers
  • Advocacy organizations
  • Legislative reformers
  • Activists
  • Politicians
  • Adversaries
  • Scientists
  • People mentioned in other stories
  • Related businesses
  • Research institutions
  • Other experts in the field

Step 5: Where to find sources

Look in places like:

  • Social media sites like Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter
  • The phonebook
  • Filings from organizations like past press releases or event releases, business filings
  • Referrals from other sources
  • Organization’s websites

Step 6: How to get sources to talk to you

  • Be pleasant and persistent in showing up at their office and calling and emailing them.
  • Leave a voicemail and be sure to include your name, news organization, number, email and a brief hook to the story that will give them a reason to call you back.
  • If you found them on social media, a Twitter direct message or Facebook message may be appropriate.
  • Think about why they should talk to you and what they would get out of it, and be prepared so it will be an intelligent conversation
  • You can use other sources’ choice to speak to you as leverage. You don’t necessarily have to name drop, but let the source know that you have received input from others in the field and want to give them a chance to be heard.

Step 7: What to ask

  • Have a plan by doing background research and writing out questions or points to hit–whichever you are comfortable with. Practice asking questions if you don’t feel sure about interviewing.
  • Start broad to get a source talking, then narrow down to the specifics with something like: This is what I’m writing about; can you tell me your thoughts on it?
  • Help them talk you through jargon by asking questions like: Could you explain that further? What did you mean by this? Could you give some examples?
    How would you say that to college students?
  • Remember that silence is OK. You can take a few moments to collect your thoughts and revisit your list of questions or points after they finish an answer to be sure you have hit everything you need to. Take a moment to reflect on the answer and ask a follow-up if need be. When it is silent during a conversation, oftentimes people feel the need to jump in and talk into the silence; use the silence and let the source fill it – they may say something noteworthy
  • Questions to ask every time:
    • Have them spell their name
    • Proper title
    • Organization name
    • Is there anything you want to add?
    • Anything I missed?
    • Can I contact you later?
    • Who else should I contact?
    • What are you reading?
    • Can you send data, presentations, etc.?
    • Work phone number
    • Phone number to contact them if they are not at their desk
    • Email address

Step 8: How to get them to keep answering the phone for you by maintaining a relationship

  • Send the story when it’s done
  • Thank them for their input
  • Send other interesting stories you come across
  • Talk about unrelated things, if it comes naturally
  • Send data or reports related to what you spoke about
  • Have a source spreadsheet
    • Keep track of their name, title, contact information, when you last spoke and any other personal details that they may bring up
    • This way you can ask about the golf trip or conference they went to and continue building a professional relationship

Step 9: Look over your findings and revisit the original idea

  • Ask yourself:
    • Is it too broad?
    • Can it be narrowed down?
    • Has this story already been written?
    • Can I cover it differently than it has already been done?
    • Is it true?
    • Is it interesting?
    • Is there an audience?
    • Is it relevant?
    • Has the situation changed?
    • What would a skeptic ask?
    • Potentially revisit Step 3 and talk to people about your idea again

Step 10: (Maybe) build your pitch

After reviewing these steps with the staffers, we gave them an assignment. They had 24 hours to enact some of the tips we discussed and do the following:

Look for a STEM-related idea by doing the following, and record the steps:

  • Write down the story idea and question you are trying to answer
  • List four links you read to familiarize yourself with the topic and help you develop an idea
  • List one personal “phone a friend” that you spoke with about it. Tell if it changed your idea (Yes or No)
  • Call one source. Write down their name, title, organization and where you found them.
    • If they answer, get one source referral
    • List the names, title, organization and contact information for two additional sources you would like to call
    • Name one thing you might do to maintain a relationship with a source
    • Revisit your findings and decide if it a story idea that you can pursue. Why?

Update: Read reporter Isabelle Boehling’s account of learning to report a story using these steps.


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