Feeding the Beast
Updated: Mar 6, 2020
Generating Great Story Ideas When Your Brain Is On Empty
Back when I was a newbie reporter at my college newspaper, The Diamondback, we often referred to the paper as ‘the Beast’ constantly starving not for food but interesting reads about happenings on and around campus.
It was our job as staff writers to come up with these stories to fill the paper around the paid-for advertisements so there would be no ‘house ads’ – free advertisements placed by the paper’s owners explaining how to place a paid-for advertisement.
Eager to see my name in print and avoid the dreaded house ad, I quickly learned how to find ideas that spawned decent stories. Here are a few tips on finding great stories:
☐ Be curious – This is probably the most important skill a writer can develop. Cultivate a curious mind by reading widely. Read bulletin boards in stores, classified ads on Craig’s List and on Facebook Marketplace. When someone mentions something you have not heard of ask questions about it – even if at first it seems boring. Don’t be biased -- keep an open mind to new ideas and opinions. Visit the library or a good bookstore and take the time to browse the shelves. Especially the magazine and newspaper section. Do random Google searches on things that pop up in your mind while you are waiting in line at the grocery store. Don’t ever let yourself become bored.
☐ Talk to people – Don’t just rely on Google for information. Strike up a conversation with the woman standing in line in front of you at the grocery store, notice what is in her cart. Chat with the cashier about food or cooking. The barista at your local coffee shop and even the clerk at the motor vehicle administration who is renewing your driver’s license could easily tip you off to something new.
☐ Develop a ‘panel of experts’ – This great advice I received from Bill Marimow, a former top editor at the Baltimore Sun and the Philadelphia Inquirer as well as a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. If you have a specialization (or in journo talk, a beat) identify a half a dozen or so people who are experts in that field or topic and chat them up once or twice a month. Find out what they are debating, talking about or what is new and interesting to them. You can also bounce your own ideas off them to find out if you are on the right track.
☐ Trade associations – Read the websites and publications that cover your area of interest. When I covered criminal justice at the Baltimore Sun, I read Police Chief magazine and the International Association of Police Chiefs website, policeone.com as well as law and court association publications. I found story ideas about how police and prosecutors were trained, the newest trends and what kinds of crime were happening most often regionally and nationally.
Find Conflict -- It''s not just in war zones. You can find conflict in organizations or in people's lives. When I was a reporter I wrote about an 18-year-old who was trying to get custody of his 14-year-old brother because their mother was a heroin addict and their father was in prison.
☐ Localize or nationalize – When you are reading an interesting story in your local paper think about how it could it be nationalized – is the same thing happening in other parts of the country? What is being done about it? Do the same thing to localize a national story that interests you.
☐ Social media – Put out a tweet or a Facebook post posing a question about a problem you have or have noticed in your area. Chances are others have experienced the same thing. Check out Twitter trending topics in your area and nationally. Use LinkedIn to follow companies, people and topics.
Finally, when an idea or something strikes you as interesting hits, be ready to jot it down in the notes function on your phone or in a small notebook you always keep with you -- do it before you forget and your mind moves on to the next thing on your to-do list!