If you are interested in becoming a journalist, you may wonder how journalists find their stories. Generating ideas for an interesting story that will capture an audience is more difficult than it seems to be, thanks to the fact that people are bombarded with news 24/7. This overload makes it difficult for journalists to compete and make themselves heard. However, that is not to say it can't be done – or isn't being done on a daily basis. The very existence of so many media outlets can be as advantageous as disadvantageous! In this article, we will consider this at greater length, offering the you a variety of resources for creating your own database of story ideas.
Start With Your Own Life Experiences
People often tend to view themselves as rather uninteresting to the rest of the world. Particularly if you are pursuing a career in journalism. The whole point of this industry is to find riveting stories about the world at large. Certainly the last place you would think to look is staring back at you in the mirror. However, it behooves the journalist to spend some time in reflection about their early years and how they got to where they are now – which is this side of a word processor. Often your experiences are shared by thousands, if not millions, of others and your expertise in massaging them for emotional capital empowers others, as well as yourself. Did you come from a family of divorce? So did 60 percent of the country. Did you grow up in poverty? You, and another nearly 40 million people in this country. Are your family illegal immigrants? Did you overcome adversity, such as a disability? Were you witness to an awe-inspiring event or something simply awful? Did you lose a sibling or family member to addiction?
Indeed, nearly all of the questions posed scratch the surface of something quite painful, but every writer knows there is something very cathartic and freeing about putting those experiences down on paper and sharing them with the world. So, when you start to develop your own index of story ideas, begin from the inside and work outward. Journalism is fact and authentic events. Your own history is as relevant as that of another. Remember, you are the eye-witness to this first-hand account, making it more valid and reliable to the reading public. That is not to say that your story will not benefit from any data or facts you have to support it. For example, if your family was torn about by a parent's gambling, offer the personal recounting of how your parents lost their home and possessions, and then broaden the scope of the story to discuss the devastation that is wrought from gambling addictions. This is a story that could be massaged into a series about legalized gambling and its long-term effects on the nation, as well. You see, once you let your imagination go, you can find a dozen different leads from a single idea. Be sure to keep a notebook – and dedicate a separate page to each idea. Finally, remember as you grow and change, there is opportunity to write about these new experiences. Did you get married? Did you have children? Did you start a new job? How about a new business? Those with the facility of the pen have a unique opportunity to influence and support others with their words. Isn't that why you got into journalism in the first place?
Expand Your Repertoire to Include Friends and Family
Now, you may have exhausted the ideas from your own life that could serve as potential starting points for great journalism, so where do you go next? All of the examples that apply to your life are as relevant to those who are closest to you. Sometimes it is difficult to be dispassionate or unbiased about others, and that can taint a story; so you must be very careful and self-reflective in the writing process. For example, if you have a family member that has a drug addiction, then you may be quite empathetic to him or her, and a journalistic piece written by you on the subject might find you making excuses for your sibling, instead of taking an honest approach to the article. This may cause your readers to be turned off and untrusting of you, as a writer, so be very cautious that your writing always has the sterling ring of truth. That is what journalism is really all about – conveying a message that can be informative or useful to the reading public. It is imperative to remember that you are ethically bound to get the permission of the person you are writing about, before publishing their story. Do not use rumors or innuendo, urban legends, or myths. Journalism is not fiction, and a personal story is always more provocative to the reader. But you are morally bound to ensure that the individual at the center of the story is agreeable to having their personal experience put on display for the world to read, and most likely judge.
The Invisible Public
You know who that is. Every day you walk past hundreds of people who silently go about the business of serving the public in anonymity. Bus drivers, cab drivers, bartenders, street vendors, the policeman walking a beat, the dog walker, the street artist, the cashier at the dollar store. The list is literally endless. These are people that the rest of the world tends to "look through," if not offer the occasional nod of recognition. Yet, just because we don't see them, doesn't mean they don't see us! And what stories they might have to tell! The doorman who opens the door for hundreds of people a day at that lush hotel in the middle of the downtown area must have seen more than his fair share of quirky events, must have engaged in brief conversations with some of the community's most powerful movers and shakers. But no one thinks to ask them.
So when you are creating your ever-expanding notebook of story ideas and people to interview – your jumping off points for your journalistic efforts - leave a large section open for the invisible public. Then spend a day walking around and jotting down story ideas and leads that can be generated from people that the rest of us seem to have forgotten play a quiet, but supportive, role in keeping the world moving.
Observations of the Public That Deserve a Second Look
Now, as a journalist, you may find yourself drawn to the idea of writing daring or cutting-edge articles. This is the type of writing that gets you a byline and public recognition. But the truth is that it can also be very dangerous. You want to write about drug-trafficking? Child pornography? Graft? Homelessness? The truth is, there are no limits to journalistic efforts that are designed to uncover the unsavory parts of life. Many journalists believe this is a heroic calling and there can be no argument that the public will benefit from this. But before setting out on a one-person crusade, do your homework. Speak to, and work closely with, law enforcement to ensure that you are not putting yourself in danger. No story is worth that.
Not every article a journalist writes has to be a headliner. People need to be informed about the very common, and even mundane, things that are happening in their communities. So, as a journalist you may consider making the rounds of the public buildings, such as courthouses, health departments, city hall, and more. You can make appointments to speak with representatives and make it a habit to sit in on open meetings. This gives you the local flavor of a community and the efforts it is making to improve life and circumstances for all of its citizens. Community newspapers print news you might not find anywhere else, like the names of the recently deceased, property that has been seized, or remains unclaimed, drunk driving and other arrests, and construction projects. These are just a few of the many ideas that are seedlings for stories that would be of interest to community members. In addition, they could form the foundation of larger stories. For example, you may start with a story about drunk driving in the community, and then expand it to offer a view of the problem on a broader level, such as state or national. The inquisitive journalist is able to look at almost anything and see a story lurking underneath!
Do you still have that notebook going? Remember some ideas in the notebook can languish for years, before becoming the basis for a blockbuster investigative piece. You may be inclined to weed out ideas over time. But a better approach might be to start a second notebook!
Follow-ups and Series
It seems there is always so much breaking news in the world that it's all we can do to internalize the most recent headlines, let alone remember what happened yesterday. But, yesterday's news was important, and may continue to be so for days, weeks, months, or years to come. For example, a headline put out by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention might announce that the occurrence of autism has increased by a significant percentage in the last quarter century. Then this headline disappears to be replaced with one about a plane crash or military incursion -- or something.
But the story about autism is important. It has long-term ramifications for families and communities and potential parents. It is a story that warrants follow-up, if not an ongoing series about the subject. A follow-up can also be a look at what happens next in a story, or the how, why, when, and where that may have been omitted from the original article. Follow-ups and series offer the writer an opportunity to delve deeply into a subject that is of interest to the reading public. Journalism can be likened to a service industry in this way – dispensing information to an interested audience. Many journalists do not realize that series and follow-ups are an infrequent, yet a very valuable, form of writing. All too often, the writer thinks that once a story breaks, the public will no longer want to read about it. But this is simply not true. There are many journalists who make a living exploring the story behind the story for the benefit of the reader. This is certainly an idea that has merit for placement in your writing ideas database. At the same time – always be inventive in your thinking about ideas for articles. All too often, the obvious has been covered, so turn the idea over and over in your head looking for new information that the public would be interested in.
The World Wide Web – an Infinite Resource
A journalist reads. That's what he or she does. A journalist's responsibility is to gather as much information on a subject as possible, before rewording it and distilling it for the reading public. Of course, he or she observes and writes, as well, but reading is the single most valuable tool for keeping your writing ability fresh, competent, and professional. Today there seems to be no better resource for reading than the Internet. It is endless. You can close your computer and when you open it, it's still there and stuffed with new information – unlike books and magazines that have limited pages. That is not to say that everything on the Internet is a worthwhile resource, or that print media is nothing short of excellent, in most cases; but the Internet can certainly kick-start the investigative juices! Knowing as much as you can about a subject on which you intend to write is the essence of investigative journalism and your professional duty. Reading keeps you mentally nimble and more capable of detecting untruths and problems in the real world. Be an active reader and learner. Always be expanding your knowledge base, and don't take information at face value – instead, always be in search of the truth. There is no denying that the Internet has the breadth of information available from a thousand libraries in a single device. This cuts down on the time and energy required to research library stacks for a kernel of information, and makes investigative journalism more timely. With Wi-Fi available almost universally across the country, the Internet as a resource is almost limitlessly available. Remember that the time you say uncovering information via the Internet opens up the ability to spend it immersed in what might otherwise be considered stodgy and boring information. Learn to read, take notes, reflect, and reword.
Don't Overlook the Obvious – the Public Domain Is an Excellent Resource
Information that is not copyrighted and is available to the public at large belongs to the public domain. This includes print material, images, inventions, music, and more. Other sources of information that are valuable to the journalist are about public figures, such as government officials. There are usually many documents, biographies, resumes, and personal histories written and available that further explain the background of these people. The same is true for people who are in the business, education, health care, and similar professions. The good journalist makes it a point to do at least a cursory review of these persons and what brought them to their successful appointments. These people may become valuable contacts or resources when you are writing an article on a related subject, so don't begin by alienating them; but at the same time, do not curry favor. Be neutral in your approach.
Follow the Money
More often than not money is an excellent subject as a starting point for investigative reporting. It is valuable for the journalist to become knowledgeable about finance in order to understand the inner machinations of business and government dealings. The public is always interested in knowing that their tax dollars and other monies are being spent prudently.