Finding Good Ideas

Where great enterprise comes from, and how it grows
By Laurie Hertzel
Star Tribune, Minneapolis, Minnesota

"Most journalism trades in stories so dull and familiar that it makes the world smaller and stupider than it really is."
-- Ira Glass, NPR producer "This American Life"

A couple of months ago, Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post set out to find and profile the town that best exemplifies "the armpit of America." His resulting story was a great read, going from slightly snide premise to epiphany without straying into cruel or sappy.

Last month, a New York Times Sunday Magazine writer followed a calf from birth to slaughter as a way to explore all kinds of issues--bovine growth hormones, the economics of farming, the use of feedlots and antibiotics, the benefits of grass-fed versus corn-fed, and so on. The issues unfolded in the narrative as the calf grew.

In the same magazine, another writer followed a T-shirt--from purchase in New York City to used-clothing shop, to rag vendor, to a Ugandan village.

These were great ideas for stories--topical, unusual, interesting, surprising.

You can't write a great story if you don't have a great idea. Most ideas come from beat coverage, as they should. But even beat-related ideas need refining and focusing. How does an ag writer get from "I need to write about the economics of farming and the potential problems of antibiotics in feed" to "Let's follow a cow from birth to slaughter?”

Where do these ideas come from? How do you prime the pump? How does an offhand observation ("That town is the armpit of the nation!") turn into "Saaaaay, wait a minute, that's a good idea . . ."

I decided to ask around.

Get out of the office.
"Each season, I load my reporters into my Jeep and we hit the road. We cover four suburban communities, so we simply hit the roads of our area, dirt or paved, and look for stories. We did this last fall and came up with 72 ideas. We found some real gems off the beaten path. We marveled at the junk yard/taxidermy/Putt-Putt course operator. We were intrigued by how the sale of a truck, engulfed in weeds, went. We were struck by the odd names of streets and wrote a story not only on the peculiar names, but also on how you can get a street named for you. We discovered, to everyone's surprise, a state-run jail hidden in the deepest part of our coverage area.

You don't know what is going on if you're sitting at your desk. Go out and see the world. We get caught in a rut telling the stories of those who beat down our door or get us on the phone. The better stories are those we hunt down.”
-- Karl Kling, Milford (Mich.) Times

Sitting around jawboning in a meeting can work; we do it here. Also useful is spontaneous brainstorming, where you grab one or two people and discuss your idea, trying to find your way from topic to story. It's hard to think up something good in a vacuum; it's tough to be creative sitting alone in your cubicle. Talking it through with like minds is helpful. Here's what other newsrooms do:

"We have monthly reporters meetings geared toward exchanging story ideas. We sit around for an hour or so and talk about ideas and end up feeding off of each other's comments until we have homned in on a great focus."
-- Vicki Kidd, Sunbury (Penna.) Daily Item.

"An editor suggested a project idea; I wouldn't even call it a full-blown idea. It was more like a topic. We talked it over and then scheduled a brainstorming meeting. We invited a mix of people--reporters (some who would work on the project and some who wouldn't), other editors. We asked them to bring ideas and share their experiences, and, in return, we provided lunch.

I took notes while the managing editor and executive editor kept the conversation going. It was great. Ideas and experiences began bouncing off the walls. In the end, I had several pages of good ideas to add to the mix."
-- Mona Lisa Castle, Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger

Ask key questions.

"I think that any observable thing or phenomena can be turned into a good story by applying at least one of the following questions:

What is it? This, of course, gets at the issues involved in explaining things, i.e., what is weapons-grade anthrax? How does it differ from bovine anthrax? Etc.

Where does/did it come from and where is it going? This gets at history, context, process, future spin, etc.

How does it work? Simply that. The calf-to-market and the T-shirt stories fall into this category and overlap with the previous question.

The end result, I think, are stories that can leave the reader saying, `Gee, I didn't know that.' Are such stories important? Not always, but they can always be interesting and filled with surprise for the reader."
-- Tom Johnson, Boston University

Turn the story inside out.

"We try to do what Narratives Editor Maria Carrillo here calls `turning the kaleidoscope.' For example, we were presented with a family with a child suffering from cancer. And instead of making the child the subject of the story, the story became everyone else in his family and how they were impacted by the cancer.

We recently recognized the anniversary of a military crash that killed 21 men. Instead of revisiting the families a year later (as we typically do), we revisited the field and the farmer where the crash occurred to see what the year has been like for him. That made for an interesting story, I thought. So, I suppose it's taking a routine story and just looking at the other players involved and seeing if they would provide another story."
-- Denise Watson-Batts, Norfolk Virginian-Pilot

"Taking an uncommon look at something common is an effective technique. Ken Fuson wrote an award-winning series when he was with the Baltimore Sun that was a simple idea: following the lives of the kids in a high school play from auditions through the production. Of course, their real-life drama was lots more interesting than the drama on the stage, especially when told by Ken.”
-- Steve Buttry, Omaha World-Herald

"An editor once assigned me to go to the first day of kindergarten and check out all the weeping kids and overwrought parents. Instead, I focused on a little girl who was very composed, didn't want to kiss and hug her mother good-bye in front of the other kids and was obviously keen on starting school. She was peeved that so much time was being wasted the first day--she told me she was ready to learn how to read and wanted to get to it. The story was much better than if I had focused on the usual angle. Especially with the ordinary assignments or the ones that are annual stories, it's important to look for things that are out of the ordinary."
-- Nancy Weil, IDG News Service

Read the fine print.

"It sort of depends on the job, but a lot of times in my old job (at the Boston Phoenix) I used to get them from the Yellow Pages . . . I used to have to do these profiles with alarming frequency--a 700-800 word feature every other week. I must have been stuck on the B's because I did baby models and bronze baby shoe salesmen and baby modeling agencies."
-- Ellen Barry, The Boston Globe, quoted in "Best Newspaper Writing 2002"

"My best pieces when at the paper trenches came from classified ads sections of paid and free newspapers and official dailies of the Public Administration (where the bills, rules, licenses and fines are published, at least in Mediterranean and Latin countries)."
-- Antoni M. Pique, Journalism professor, Universidad de Navarra, Spain

"Billboards. You'd be amazed how many ideas can come out of those: Either subject, appropriateness/taste, etc. I, too, agree with classifieds and add obits to that list. And, while we are talking about the paper, read the briefs from all sections. A 2-inch brief about a shooting or an award can lead to something bigger."
-- Yvette Walker, The Kansas City Star

Chat up strangers.

"The people in our communities are the best sources of information for new ideas. Strive to talk with someone new every day. Go beyond the local sheriff, the town supervisor and the school board president. Visit the local diner and talk with the old timers sipping coffee. Chat with the gadfly who attends every village board meeting or school board hearing. One of the favorite bad jokes of Humboldt State University journalism professor Mac McClary: What do a reporter and a French chef have in common? They are both only as good as their sauces.”
-- John Hatcher, Oswego State University, Oswego, N.Y.

Carry a notebook.

"Obviously, reading your own newspaper carefully is a good one, but I also think the plain and simple advice of keeping a notebook in your car and jotting down things that interest you is too often not done. We stop being reporters when we go home, and we should be always on the lookout.”
-- Maria Carrillo, Virginian-Pilot


"An editor of mine used to hold a Monday morning meeting and ask everyone present what people (neighbors, friends, churchgoers, PTA members, etc.) were talking about over the weekend. Usually something from that conversation turned into a story."
-- Yvette Walker, The Kansas City Star

"Pay attention. Listening to what is being said around you, no matter where you are, and keeping your eyes open will lead to tons of good story ideas."
-- Nancy Weil, IDG News Service, Boston

"I try to go early to games I'm covering, sit in the parents' section for awhile and listen to what parents are talking about. Parents are often very tuned into what is going on with a team, and they like to show off to their friends what they know. I've learned all sorts of things about players and teams this way--from athletes struggling with illnesses to coaches getting ready to quit.

Pay attention. This sounds obvious, but I don't see enough reporters doing this. This is why you are paid to sit in the stands for three hours covering a game. Is the starting five different tonight, why? Is the team playing a different defense, why? Is that kid who was a scrub and barely playing last season, now starting, why? A reporter's best friend is an inquisitive mind.”
-- Eric Bursch, Rapid City (S.D.) Journal

Stay 'til the end of the meeting.

"While newspapers nationwide rely too heavily on meeting coverage to fill their pages, often the best stories that can be found at meetings go overlooked. They are the sleeper items that often fall under sentences like `In other news.' Pay attention to the parent who shows up because she is mad that the bus won't stop in front of her house. Talk to the little old lady who's worried about the snow plow that goes too fast down her street. These same issues may be on the minds of many other people. One of my favorites was a story about an elderly couple who came to complain to their city leaders because one family on their street refused to shut off their Christmas lights, spreading yuletide cheer even in the middle of June. Attend meetings of more obscure groups as well--like the local library board or the area volunteer fire company. You might be surprised what comes up."
-- John Hatcher, Oswego State University

Examine ordinary things.

"Look in all the normal places: backs of cereal boxes, classifieds, small print on Pepto Bismol bottles, your parents' will.

Or: Take two words at random, type them into a search engine. I did this with TOILET BOWL once and got the damndest results. Did you know there are companies that custom design and decorate toilets? Swans and eagles and gamboling ponies and flowers and . . . do you know there are a jillion plumbing helper Web sites? I wonder what that's done to the plumbing business?

Or: Make somebody else's idea your own. Mostly, editors' ideas suck. When the reporter gets a bad one, tell them to make it their own. I once was sent to cover a Saturday Boy Scout Canoe Race. How, I thought, can I possibly write about this so anyone but the Scout master and the winner's mother will read it? So instead of writing what amounted to a sports story, I waited to see who came in last. The final canoe crossed the finish line two-and-a-quarter hours behind the winners. And when they crossed it, they were going backwards. The story ran out front."
-- Bill Luening, Kansas City Star

Get out of your routine.

"Take a different road to work once a week. Doesn't have to be a huge detour. Could be just a few blocks. I often see things I haven't seen before--or see things from a different perspective. Case in point: One of my reporters is working on a story about a billboard that has been taken down, a fact I noticed while driving last week. The billboard used to say this, in big blue letters: `Someone you know is gay or lesbian.' The advertisement was paid for by PFLAG, the parent advocacy group for gay men and lesbians. It was up for about three weeks. It's gone now--and we're trying to find out why. We think it's because conservative politicians who drive by the sign every day pressured the billboard company to take it down or face reworked zoning codes banning billboards near freeways.”
-- Jeff Haney, Salt Lake City Deseret News

Keep a tickle file.

"The best antidote to an idea drought is to expect it and plan ahead. Idea dry spells are a form of lack of confidence--like writer's block--and they happen to us all. You could spend a lot of time analyzing why, but that's probably less interesting to you than a solution. (One likely reason: Overwork. Lack of time to daydream and simply observe. When you are weary, it's hard to be creative.)

Plan for these dry spells by keeping a clipping file. Read every local publication--shoppers, alternative weeklies, self-published magazines--and clip anything that seems as if it could lead to a follow-up story or a profile. Ask yourself if the story you're reading suggests a larger issue. Scribble a thought or two in the margin. The fatter this file gets, the sooner you'll regain confidence in your ability to generate ideas."
-- Rosanne V. Pagano, University of Alaska, Anchorage

Buy a different magazine each week.

“Buy a science magazine, such as Discover, this week; a literary magazine, such as Tendril, next week. Try Trailer Life, Backpacker, Money, Fortune, Mother Jones. Read them, the ads as well as the text. Tear out the most interesting articles and carry a small file of those to read in spare moments so that you can extend your world."

-- Don Murray, from "Writing for Your Readers." The chapter "Seeing the Obvious" has 13 other suggestions for generating story ideas, including always carry a book; sit in one place for an hour and observe people; and pursue an interest outside of journalism.

Excerpted from Above the Fold, May 2002, Vol. 2, No. 5

"Above the Fold” is a monthly newsletter produced for the employees of the Star Tribune. Unless otherwise indicated, its contents are the work of Laurie Hertzel, team leader and writing coach. Copy editing is by Paul Walsh, Kyra Cross Jaavaid, and Steve Fisher. Design by Mike Carroll.