Saturday, January 25, 2014

Journalism FAQs: Where do you get your stories from?

A common question I get is "where do you get your stories from?" The short answer to that is 1) sometimes the newspaper gives stories to me and 2) sometimes I am responsible for pitching my own stories. Each outlet has its own system of doing things and in my experience, the best publications use a mix of both options with their freelance reporters: Not allowing your reporters to add their own story ideas into the mix deprives yourself of an untapped resource but you can retain and grow good reporters by giving them good stories.

From the reporter's perspective, option #2 allows you creativity but it can be exhausting and slow you down in terms of volume. I am more than capable of pitching my own stories but my creativity is a limiting factor in terms of volume: I can only produce so many story ideas and not all of those ideas successfully make it out on the other side of the pitching process so having assigned stories gives me more output.

In terms of where I get stories from, I have a few media lists I'm on (i.e. the Arlington Arts Museum, Arlington Chamber of Commerce, D.C. film office, National Building Museum), I crowdsource (ask friends, friends of friends, people who might know a lot about a certain field), and I occasionally go back to the well on something interesting I wrote before.

I also am not afraid of making a phone call. I once was writing something about the marketing of the film "Les Miserables" and rather than just look it up somewhere, I decided to try calling Warner Brothers Studios. It led to a number of story ideas.

It might sound hokey and cliched but my biggest piece of advice is to keep your ears open. There are often interesting things occurring in your vicinity as you go about your daily life. The difference between myself and a person who doesn't self-identify as a reporter is that if something interesting happens, a light bulb will go on in my head and I will go check it out. I have a business card on me so I can say "hey, I'm a reporter and this story interests me."

Often, this happens retroactively. I was driving down a highway and saw a motel that didn't anything like its neighbors and didn't think to actively go inside and find out why but several months later when I needed a story idea, I thought about that hotel.

I'm not saying that if you follow this advice, you'll leave your house tomorrow morning and a meteorite will land in front of your doorstep, but in my case, the first two thoughts that would go through my head if that happened would be "I wonder who might publish this" and "I wonder who would give me the best deal for it?"

I have been published in somewhere around 20 publications and have published between 100 and 150 stories (if you count school newspapers). In the next installment, I will discuss some of the specific stories I've written and where I got those story ideas from.

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