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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!