Inspiration for finding the story

Guest blogger: Bret Schulte 

Writing is hard. If writing comes easy, my guess is you’re either doing it wrong or you’re a genius, and I’ve never met a genius. (If I’ve met you, no offense.)

Freelancers are faced with the toughest part of a tough job: Finding the story. Where beat reporters have the advantage – if you want to call it that – of tending small gardens of public interest, such as cops or schools, in which each blossom might decorate the next day’s publication, freelancers trod acres upon acres of generally disregarded underbrush.

Is that a white truffle there? Or is it a poisonous fungus that will sicken some poor editor?  In the world of truffle hunting, they have trained pigs and dogs to sniff out the good stuff. Journalists are not so lucky, but I do think there are ways you can improve your hunt.

Story ideas are everywhere if you train your brain to see them. That’s harder than it looks, and I still struggle with it after years of storyspotting. The trick is recognizing when you encounter something interesting enough to make you go: “Huh.” That is a story-idea moment! And if something is interesting to you, there’s a good chance it will be interesting to someone else, too. A tandem of 12 year olds just took the bridge tournament at the Grand Denouement Senior Living Center? Huh. Pitch it.

Location matters. If you write for a local paper, be thinking hyper local. Get on neighborhood listservs; prowl the blogs; read the bulletin boards at the local library, town hall, or co-op. Scan Craigslist. (Safety alert: Craigslist can be, uh, terrifying.) Read business publications. Every place I’ve ever lived has more business publications than it possibly needs, and what they’re covering as news stories you can make into terrific enterprise pieces on entrepreneurs and employment trends. A biz story on a bump in tax revenue on area restaurants is a feature story for you on a burgeoning entertainment scene.

If you’ve got an appetite for something bigger, again use your location to your advantage. What is happening in your town, your region, your state that is so peculiar or newsworthy that the entire country might be interested? The wire services will cover politics, breaking news, and sports. What editors need you for are the human-interest, trend, and enterprise stories that beat reporters are too busy to write, or see.

When I’m pitching stories I regard my geography – I live in northwest Arkansas – as my primary asset. I have relatively little competition and the area is off the national radar, to put it nicely. It also provides the opportunity to take a national story and give it a geographic freshness that might interest a national audience. A few years ago, when I came across a quarterly report from a brokerage that handles the buying and selling of newspapers, I found that corporations were selling off their small papers. Buying in: family owned chains. Mom and Pops. A total reversal of the trend of the ’90s and ’00s. I just discovered a national story! But I thought I might be able to ratchet up the appeal by finding an example of the trend somewhere off the beaten path. I thought I could take the readers somewhere special. Somewhere like Manhattan, Kansas.

Columbia Journalism Review liked it, so I drove the five hours to Manhattan, ripping across the Kansas plains and taking most readers somewhere they haven’t been since closing the cover on In Cold Blood. Spoiler alert: In my story, the family lives.

When an editor from National Geographic News contacted me about writing a story on the Keystone XL pipeline (I had done energy/environmental reporting in the past), she did so because of where I lived – not despite of it. Next door is Oklahoma, home to the oil pipeline crossroads of the country in the little town of Cushing. I wanted to do as much with geography as possible, so I drove to Cushing and spent a few days meeting with residents of Cushing as well as protestors of the pipeline scattered across the state. The story carried as much local color as it could bear and that reporting changed its shape and direction.

The best, easiest place to look for stories are in newspapers and magazines, where full-time journalists have already done the hard work for you. As a freelancer, let those stories inform and inspire you. What do these stories not cover? Are there characters whose incredible experiences have been reduced to a few sentences? Can you find a profile or human-interest story? Is there another point of view not being covered?

Read everything. Modern Dog is just as relevant as CNN when it comes to finding ideas. Do you see a local angle to a national story? Don’t limit yourself to the editorial content. I’ve written at least two stories that were inspired by advertisements: One was in Harper’s for a robot made by Honda (it’s true), and the other was about a family-owned electric supply store that lost to the gentrification of Washington, D.C. The owners posted an ad for a going-out-of-business sale in The Washington Post, which I read everyday because I wrote for it.

Look for the odd and surprising. In 2010, an expat Frenchman living in the Ozarks started to build a medieval castle in Lead Hill, Ark. That got a lot of attention. The New York Times wrote it up as a tourist attraction. I wish I had done the story; I didn’t. However, two years later when the castle came tumbling down – financially, I mean – the story was mine. It wasn’t surprising anymore that the castle existed. People knew. But there was something else surprising, and that became my angle: You could buy a half-built castle in the Ozarks for $400,000! Fifty acres of land included! The New York Times took the story. Of course, every good freelancer does his/her due diligence to make sure the publication has not already run the story. And if it has, that you have a fresh take on the subject.

Make smart friends who will help you. Look, it’s almost impossible for my friends not to be smarter than I am. Still, I consider myself blessed. And if you have smart friends (I know you do), you’re also blessed. By having smart friends who know you are looking for stories, you have just multiplied your reach and operation and analytical skills. My piece for the Times about Teach for America alums settling in the Delta came from friends who had traveled to the Delta, who were smart enough to see a story when they saw it, and who were generous enough to let me know about it.

When I worked full-time in the news industry a veteran reporter who trafficked in tips like no one’s business told me his secret. “Before I’m done talking to anyone, I always ask them what they know that is new.” His best source of stories were people.

Good hunting.

Bret Schulte is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Arkansas.

He freelances for The New York Times. He has also written for Columbia Journalism Review, American Journalism Review, Nieman Reports, and National Geographic News. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, the International Herald-Tribune and other publications. He is a winner of three Green Eyeshade Awards, which recognizes the best in Southern journalism, and was a 2012 finalist for a national Mirror Award.


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