broadsideblog

Where stories come from

In blogging, books, business, journalism, Media, work on January 13, 2013 at 12:26 am
Cover of "The Namesake"

Cover of The Namesake

Unless you’re a journalist — or fairly thoughtful consumer of media — you probably don’t think much about where “the news” comes from. Some of it, like elections, natural disasters and mass shootings, are fairly obvious subjects.

But many of the stories you read or hear or see come about through a fairly wide variety of ways, like multiple tributaries feeding into a river.

Here’s my latest New York Times story, out today, one which I suggested — as I do with about 90 percent of my work. The idea came to me because I was getting weary of hearing the usual tales of woe and misery, that being out of work over the age of 50 means you are essentially utterly screwed.

Having watched my own income almost double in the past two years, and I’m 55, working freelance in a lousy economy in a dying industry, I thought, “Nah. There’s more to it than that.”

I decided to flip the script and go find people over 50 who had indeed seen their jobs disappear — often several times — or their incomes plummet, but who had figured out a way to survive, even thrive.

I like solutions!

So my idea made the paper because I’ve got a year-old relationship with an editor there who likes my stuff — this is my fourth major business story for the Times, and I’m working on my fifth. And, clearly, my work is accurate and reliable and well-read. My last one, about college-age men and women being paid $50,000 a year not to attend university, was the third most emailed story of the entire Sunday paper.

Newspapers traditionally run on a “beat” system; like a policeman’s beat, the area each reporter is individually expected to understand and explain in depth after creating a broad network of sources and acquiring a deep knowledge of the issues. These include cops, courts, city hall, statehouse, health care policy, environment, medicine, etc. Many stories come from beat reporters who hear good stuff from their sources.

Some stories also result from press releases or aggressive courting of reporters by well-paid flacks, i.e. PR experts. Personally, I find much of that “reporting” pretty lazy. You’d be amazed (or not!) to learn how many front-page stories start this way.

As a full-time freelancer, I survive financially by coming up with a steady stream of stories I can sell quickly for decent prices.

Here are some of the ways I find and develop my ideas for blog posts, articles, essays and books:

Conversation

Bright, knowledgeable sources passionate  about their topic may make time for a long (45-60 minute) conversation, and digressions from the interview-at-hand often lead down interesting paths. I find some great story ideas this way. It’s an investment on my part, (unpaid time, since the story might not sell), and theirs (am I credible? worth their energy? have the contacts I say I do?)

Other print media

I read fairly widely, in print and on-line, but rarely find much there for me to work on. By the time the national press is on it, what’s new to add? So local or regional outlets are good, as are sources within others’ stories who might have only rated a mention or a few quotes. One of the best sources is letters to the editor — often written by experts in their field who know a topic but may not have a national platform for their insights or views.

Broadcast media

I listen to NPR fairly consistently, to political, arts and business programs, all of which offer good stuff. When I have time, BBC World News (an hour) always covers stories that rarely show up in American coverage.  Ditto for Canada.

Films

On of my most fun stories came about because I sit through the very end of almost every film’s closing credits. At the end of “The Namesake,” I noticed that the film was shot in a town near where I live, which made for a great little story for my regional edition of the Times when I visited the house and interviewed the production designer and homeowner.

Pattern recognition

This demands a lot of consistent reading/attention/linking/clipping. Old school journalists call it “saving string”, as we accumulate verything we think useful to future stories on a specific subject. Only when you pay sustained attention to an issue and read/listen widely to sources about it can you begin to see distinct and interesting patters or trends  — often overlooked by other journo’s constrained by their beats and/ or by daily or even hourly deadlines.

Random encounters

You never know where you’ll find a story. Two of my best came to me out of the blue. My story about Google’s class in mindfulness, a heavily-read national exclusive for the Times, was a tip I got in July 2011 from someone teaching those classes, and for which I negotiated for six months to ensure it was mine alone.

As I buckled my seatbelt for the descent into Atlanta on my way to speak at the Decatur Literary Festival, I casually asked my seatmate, a woman my age, what she does does for a living. Cha-ching! Great business story.

Books

Sometimes a well-written book sparks an idea or helps me better understand an issue.

Blogs and websites

I don’t carve out a lot of time to roam around on-line, even if I should.

Newsletters/trade magazines/conferences

I’m spending tomorrow and Tuesday attending The Big Show, the annual trade show of the National Retail Federation. I know there are all sorts of stories there for me to find.

Observation

I sat in a trendy Lower East Side restaurant this week and saw, several hours apart, two young men wearing almost identical outfits — bare-armed (in 40-degree weather!), thick, furry vests and jeans. One more sighting and I have a trend story!

Walk around your neighborhood and look closely at bulletin boards and signs. Watch what people are wearing and eating and buying. Eavesdrop! When you visit your hair stylist/vet/doctor/dentist/accountant/bike repair shop, ask them what’s going on in their world.

Pay close attention and start asking questions. You’ll soon find great stories all around you.

My own life

Too many new writers moan they have “nothing” to write about. When it comes to selling journalism, at least, you likely have plenty! I recently won an award (details to come) from writing about my injured left hip, which became a magazine cover story. I later sold several stories about the injury and surgery as well. Over my writing career, I’ve sold stories and essays about professors having affairs with students (not me!), getting married, getting divorced, my dog’s death, physical therapy, trying to rest in a noisy hospital room, why retail work is better than journalism.

Much as we are all special little snowflakes, our lives do tend to follow fairly regular paths — so if it’s happened to you, it’s likely happened to thousands or millions of others as well. Find them, talk to them and write it up!

Related articles

  1. Anything is certainly fair game as a subject. I read and enjoyed your most recent NY Times article. Freelance writing seems like a pretty tough gig!

  2. Thanks. Freelance writing for a living does mean hustling 24/7. So, there’s not much down time!

  3. For some reason I smell another FP article coming for you.

  4. Good for you! I don’t see many bylines anymore. Most news seems to come from AP, Reuters, IANS, and AFP–who is writing for them?

    • Well, the Associated Press (AP) stories can come from two sorts of sources — either AP staff writers (and there are many) or from the newspapers that are members of the AP; i.e. if a story appears in the Boston Globe, it can (if they are an AP member and I am fairly sure they are) it can be re-used by any other subscribing paper, and vice versa. Reuters and AFP have their own staff; a very good friend recently retired after decades of working as a staff writer for AFP, in Japan, Turkey and the U.S. So, who is writing for them? Their staff reporters! I don’t think that any wire service uses freelancers, but I can’t swear to it.

      • Thank you. I was wondering whether to imagine hundreds of underpaid, exploited freelancers who rarely (or never) get any credit for their work, or more secure, salaried staff writers. It’s nice to hear not everything is being outsourced to the lowest bidder.

      • There are hideous content mills out there, but the wire services are still doing their usual work.

  5. 56. I can practically taste your vigor, Ms. Malled – if I wasn’t cushioned by residuals and otherwise preoccupied with ElderCare… I might well return to the AvenueOfTheAmericas and pitch whoever’s running TW’s picture desk on the sort of thing we used to do…

    That said… If I may be so bold… There are better mediums…

    GoWest.

    [NoteToAuthor: I was recently "BlownAway" & "Malled". I'll bet both were considerably 'toned down' in editorial.]

    • I hope to stick to book-writing. I enjoy writing articles, but can’t get much said in even 3,500 words — a length very few people even assign at these days.

  6. Stories are everywhere, no doubt (fiction and non). The lens they’re viewed through and the way they’re written are what make a writer, imo.

    • Very true. There’s a whole ‘nother blog post on filters and how they color what we see or what we consider worthy material. Often, I find, its someone else who will affirm an ides I’m not quite sure about, as I do for others as well.

  7. Such great advice; thanks for sharing your wisdom.
    ~Becky

  8. Interesting. I had read your story from a nytimes twitter link. It caught my attention for the exact reason you just mentioned. I could relate. While I’m a bit younger.. 40. I am looking to re-direct (or wheedle) my way to a new career.. Or return to my old one on a new and slightly different route. Whatever way you want to look at it.. However the one catch is doing it this time as a single mom on a very fixed income. Not an easy task. So while the people’s obstacles were job losses in your article, their goal was similar and age was a common factor. It was encouraging to hear about these success stories. Thank you so very much

    • So glad you read the piece and enjoyed it. My goal in writing it was to show that there are many different ways to reinvent…clearly it is much more challenging as a single parent. Clare, for example, had the freedom to just go to Pakistan and only Ken had small kids to worry about.

      I think the greatest challenge is how willing we are to make a radical shift — in the skills we use, or where we live or what sort of work we do (even for a while.) I worked part-time retail for 27 months. I just needed extra cash. It became a book and that has opened amazing doors to me; speaking, consulting and more. I had no idea of anything beyond extra income from the start. It was really hard work and sometimes really miserable. But the payoffs have been quite impressive and truly have changed my life for the better as journalism is such a mess.

      I wish you the best with it!

  9. It’s easy to see why your work sells so easily…I get sucked into your posts way too often!

  10. Just saw your NYT piece via LinkedIn feed. Nicely done. It seems my love of constantly considering new things – so roundly criticized by family 15 years ago – is now an important life skill. Since 2000, I’ve been through a layoff, self employment, and a few great jobs. No expectation that anything great (or bad) lasts forever. If that’s life, bring it on.

  11. Interesting story for the NYT – we (the universal variety) have a similar sense of anxiety here in Korea. Among the English teacher community, of which I am part, many of us are looking at our years of experience and wondering if we can transfer our skills to some other industry so that we, essentially, earn more money and build a better standard of living for ourselves. It can be pretty daunting task, especially seeing as its hard to recognise the universality of teaching pronunciation to six year old Korean kids… Anyway, humble-brag moment here, I’ve a similar article coming out “soon” (so says the editor) looking at a number of former teachers who have now moved on to different careers in jobs which they feel more connected with for their own reasons.

    Why is this relevant other than my showing off? Well I got the idea because I was looking at myself and asking the same questions quite seriously. I was going to write a blog post on it, and then I thought to myself, no – hold on a second, there’s more to this issue than my own aspirations, something can be really learned from it.

    • Congrats! I bet your article will be very well read and helpful to many others.
      Your story sounds really interesting — I have wondered many times where the 24,000 journalists laid off in 2008 have ended up and I know that someone has written a book with 11 people interviewed who did just that.

      I think it’s really important to look ahead, no matter how depressing. I spend half of my day in shock at how terrible my industry has become and the other half scrambling really hard to find other ways to make money. For the moment, these also include creating a solution for retailers; consulting; public speaking; writing books and possibly planning a conference. No one tells me what or how to do it. I stitch my damn parachute every day as I fall.

      The NYT article has generated more than 250 commments, many of them deeply negative and angry that I did not address the underlying issue of age discrimination. I am quite well aware of it but think there is little left to say. The government couldn’t care less about enforcing those laws.

  12. I’ve enjoyed every minute of freelancing. I’m still only published in local magazines, but hey! I’m published! In print! So far, I’ve had the opportunity to interview my childhood hero, a well-regarded family therapist, the local stay-at-home dad, and the leader of a grassroots education movement. I’ve met people I never thought I would mix with, followed a dream, and made a little money doing it … all worth it. And I never seem to run out of ideas, because they are all around us!

    Thanks for writing this piece – I like knowing that someone else gets it.

    • It is fun when or if it is not your sole source of income and you do not have a high overhead to meet every month. If you have to pull in $2-4,000+ every month (and that includes paying 15% to FICA and saving 15% for retirement), you have to hustle hard all the time. I like what I do, but am pretty fed up of having to work twice as hard for half the income. Freelancer rates are LOWER than they were three years ago. National magazines are paying $1/word — I got that pay back in the 1970s and 1980s. So I’m not terribly impressed, no matter how much I enjoy the content I produce.

      With the insane increases in the cost of gas and food, to name only two categories, it is not amusing to have to scramble for more work (i.e. higher volume output which is exhausting.)

      • That’s a good point. I don’t rely on freelancing for my income, so I don’t have the same amount of pressure. I didn’t realize how far pay rates have dropped; why do you think that is? The introduction of digital media?

      • Yup. Ad revenue has fled from traditional print to on-line. And online pays extremely poorly as well while trying to demand print-level quality and time from writers. I’ve been asked to produce news stories (which would include actually leaving my home and paying for gas and interviewing people) for an online version of a local major NY paper for $75. Get real. I typically turn down any work assignment paying less than $400-500+ unless it can be done in an hour or so.

  13. I read that article earlier today and didn’t think to look at the writing credits! As someone who is effectively turning into a freelancer for a bit, I was much heartened by some of those stories. So many strong, inventive (I should say “innovative” but coming from the industry I’ve just left, I am “in hate” with that word), resilient people out there, and great coverage from your end. Really enjoyed this blog post too – some of those links you posted at the end are getting me thinking about alternatives to the straight and narrow that exists in my head, so thanks! Looking forward to hearing about this award :)

  14. Encouraging advice to a teacher/writer. I’m not quite ready to retire from teaching but keep hoping I can seamlessly flow into full-time writing when that day arrives.

  15. Bobby Paine, hunched over at a microphone at a meeting where Bethlehem officials were asking for workforce concessions to stem the corporations declining fortunes, told this story. The “bean counters” at the Bethlehem Home Office were putting pressure on managers to reduce inventory to a minimum. The young Quarry manager responded by reducing the amount of crushed stone the Quarry had ready for delivery or pickup. Bobby noticed that the Quarry began to turn away customers who needed an immediate load of stone, because none was available. Bobby went in to the new manager to talk to him about increasing the amount of stone inventory so they wouldn’t lose roadbed customers. I might mention that Bobby ran a fairly successful nursery business on his home property and had a lifetime of business savvy.

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