Coming up with story ideas

Shorts and sandals: My favorite work uniform.

Shorts and sandals: My favorite work uniform.

Today in Reporting II class, we’re going to talk about several things, including finding sources and coming up with story ideas.
When I worked in newspapers and was assigned to a new beat, I tried to spend the first couple weeks getting to know sources – everyone from mayors and police chiefs to prosecutors, public defenders and the heads of social service agencies.
While covering county government in Fort Myers, Fla., and later city government in Fort Lauderdale, I often spent the first hour of the day talking to secretaries and office assistants. They would allow me to read their bosses’ mail right after their bosses had put it in the outbox. This was before blogs, Facebook and Twitter. Back then, a lot of folks used snail mail. And from their letters I’d learn about issues, projects and controversies well before they were taken up in a public meeting.
I’ve always put a lot of value in hard data: letters, reports and other documents. The paper trail can lead to great ideas and stories.
People are just as important. If I were looking for stories in St. Augustine, I’d want to get to know local government and law enforcement officials, along with others, for instance, the heads of some of the social services agencies (for a sampling of these, see the United Way list of partners).
When looking for story ideas, reporters must find and consult experts and others who have first-hand information. That leads to specific, detailed story ideas – much preferred over the vague, often hypothetical ideas that a reporter might produce when working in a vacuum, with little contact with sources or documents.
It’s also important to read widely and be curious, although I’m not so sure that can be taught.

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