How does a story become a story?


These large laminated tags are usually press credentials that make clear who’s allowed into an event and allowed to get close to the action.


By Caitlin Kelly

For those of you who still care about the quality of journalism, a few insights from a career journalist who has been a reporter for three major daily papers and who freelances (i.e. sells individual stories I come up with) often for The New York Times.


The NYC food bank — which I visited in 2015 while working on a story about it

Where do story ideas originate?

Some of the many ways:

A press release from a company, individual or organization. It’s unlikely that only one release is the entire story, unless for the trade/industry press. Journalists, staff and freelance are pelted daily with hundreds of press releases from people who want us to write (favorably!) about them.

A tip from someone inside an agency or organization who wants this information made (more) public and possibly deeply investigated for misdeeds or wrongdoings.

A conversation with someone in an industry or field about interesting or new developments.

A cultural trend we hear, see or notice out in the world on our own.

An upcoming event, for which we write or produce a “curtain-raiser”, a story than runs in advance of the event.

An anniversary of a major event, five, ten, 20 or more years later. What, if anything, has changed since then?

Breaking news: natural disasters, shootings, weather stories, terrorism, crashes. etc.

— We all really want a “scoop” — a powerful story no one else has


carr service01
The New York Times newsroom


How do we know if it actually is a story?

Fact-check. We make calls, send emails and texts, check in with sources we know are smart and trustworthy to confirm or deny the basic facts of the story.

Firsthand reporting. Always the ideal to have a reporter/photographer/video crew on-site.

Talk to firsthand witnesses, but that’s also tricky because they may be lying. It’s happened, which is deeply embarrassing.



The Charlie Hebdo march in Paris

What happens next?


— Every reporter, in every medium, has a boss! That person (or people) have the final say as to whether this story will even ever appear or get the time and energy needed to report, research, revise and edit it that they think it deserves; five minutes on-air (a lot!) or 500 words in the paper or on-line or 5,000 words in a glossy magazine.

— The reporter/producer (teams, generally in broadcast) work together to decide how to proceed and in what  depth and at what speed. Breaking news is insanely competitive so there’s a mad rush to get the story first or exclusively.

— If the story needs a lot of reporting and interviewing (documents, on-site reporting, speaking to sources) the reporter needs to decide who to speak to, when, why and in what order. If the story is controversial or potentially damaging, many people will refuse to discuss it, which means digging for more sources and/or persuading some to speak without using their names or affiliations to protect them.

— If the story is happening very far away from the newsroom, the decision will be made to send a staff correspondent (costly) or possibly use a local freelancer, called a stringer, exclusively or in addition to the staffer’s reporting.

— On truly major stories, there can be as many as a dozen reporters sending in various elements they have gathered and a writer in the newsroom (originally called rewrite) will craft it all together into one cohesive narrative, with credits for each contributor added at the bottom.


My favorite reporting trip! I flew to rural Nicaragua on assignment for WaterAid in this really small plane, so small they weighed US and our baggage!



— For anyone who loves to insist it’s all “fake news”, I can assure you much of it is not. Every major news/publishing outlet has a lawyer either on staff or someone they turn to regularly to make sure the story is safe to publish.

— If the magazine or outlet has the staff and budget, and many do not, they hire and pay fact-checkers to do exactly what the name implies; check every fact to make sure it is accurate, after the reporter is finished.

— Graphics, design, podcast, video and photo editors decide the best ways to present visuals to accompany the story: a drawing? a graph? a map? a photo essay or slideshow gallery?

— For anything going into print, careful space measurements allow for design and page placement of all elements: copy, visuals and the all-essential advertisements that help pay for all of this! For digital, visuals count as well, plus SEO.

My best advice for consuming any form of media/reporting is to choose multiple sources, not only one set of political or national views. I read The New York Times and Financial Times (UK) daily, listen to NPR and occasionally the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. I also see news from many other sources, like Canada’s CBC, through Twitter.


Is there something you’d like to better understand about journalism? Ask away!

31 thoughts on “How does a story become a story?

  1. I love learning more about more of the behind the scenes process from you. I’m sure most of us don’t always consider all that goes into having a story published, from beginning to end.

    1. Thanks!

      I am never certain this is interesting to non-journo’s — but I also think our process is often so opaque to outsiders and there are so many misconceptions, like reporters NEVER write their own headlines. Freelancers typically are expected to do so for digital stories and magazines, but not if you work staff at a newspaper — those duties are spread among a much larger team

      I also forgot to mention how STERN copy-editors can be., challenging and questioning any element of a story they feel is weak or possibly wrong. Thank God for them!

      1. I can only speak for myself, but I find it very interesting. I think that people have no idea how things actually happen behind the scene. it may help them to be less critical to know all that is involved, and that all decisions are not made by the writer.

      2. It can seem a bit shocking to non-journos how FEW decisions a writer (or TV or radio reporter) make without someone above them having the ability to make significant changes to a story’s length and direction.

        I absolutely LOATHE the “nightly news” on ABC and NBC TV (don’t watch CBS) and wonder what on earth its producers are thinking…so many local/regional stories (usually crime) that, to me, absolutely do NOT rate national attention….while many many important stories covered by the BBC or CBC or NPR (foreign news, always) are utterly invisible to American TV viewers who think “well that’s the news.”


        It’s a tightly edited corporate-controlled version of reality. Always.

  2. This Canadian thrives on CBC, NPR deserves honourable mention. I’ll never shake the conversation I had with two Americans while working as a manager at a Hilton hotel during Obama’s first presidential run. Their complaint began as outrage over CNN displayed on a TV screen in the bar. I held my tongue as they protested “weak ass “Canadian support for CNN,, rendered speechless when one of the snarled “Communist News Network” and took delight in informing them Fox News wasn’t considered credible in Canada.

  3. Jan Jasper

    Thanks so much for this detailed description of how journalism works. It was fascinating. I greatly value journalism and am extremely worried about what’s going on, with ever-lessening resources to support it. Not to mention Trump and his idiot supporters making their comments about journalists being the enemy of the people. I fear it is only a matter of time until a journalist is seriously injured.

  4. In that short story I wrote that I asked you for help with the research part, the reporter gets a tip/has a conversation from someone in a particular field (so to speak): his son, who tells him about a mysterious figure on social media the other kids at school are talking about that has him freaked out. Glad to see what I put into the story isn’t too far off from reality (because as we all know, most of what I write is).

    1. Awesome!

      For sure we are getting a lot of ideas from social media — the challenge is that all our competitors are also seeing them as well, so the question of exclusivity becomes even more compelling now.

  5. I enjoyed reading about the behind the scene life of a journalist and how stories are made. I found the article to be very educational for a non-journalist like me.

  6. Jan Jasper

    I’d be interested in hearing about how journalists handle ethical issues, such as a source’s sensitive personal details.

    1. Great question.

      It really depends how the interview is negotiated — on background, off the record, not for attribution, on the record. The last one is the only agreement where the source knows their full and real name and affiliation will be used.

      It also depends on “sensitive” — they might lose their job, security clearance, residence (ie. DHS or ICE), even their life. If it is super sensitive, it’s definitely negotiated with senior staff of the media outlet, not only with the reporter.

      For example, when I write freelance for the NYT — even after decades — they will not allow me to use any unnamed sources, which is perfectly standard for some staff writers, especially those covering the White House, for example.

  7. Pingback: [BLOG] Some Monday links | A Bit More Detail

  8. I’m trying to write a book but I don’t know where to start nor making the chapters 3000 to 5000 words long..Any advice you can give me? Can you read my unfinished story and tell me what I’m doing wrong

    1. I can’t read your work without compensation, sorry. I live in the U.S. and work independently so my health insurance costs are prohibitive. I don’t do pro bono work now.

      The best advice I can offer is to borrow or buy some books on how to write a book if it’s fiction, you can take a class or join a writers’ group and the same for non-fiction. There is a lot of great information out there and several magazines for writers and many many websites filled with advice for writers.

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