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Developing Story Ideas - Advice for Reporters

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Developing Story Ideas - Advice for Reporters

Steve Buttry | June 27, 2008

Reporters and editors are partners in developing story ideas. Reporters should present editors with thoughtful, detailed proposals and should not expect editors to embrace every half-baked suggestion. Editors should help reporters develop, focus and deliver stories. Enterprise stories, especially long-term projects, may require considerable reporting and writing before you even decide whether and how to pursue the story. Many of the points presented here apply to almost any kind of story beyond routine daily coverage. The scale would be different if you're suggesting a quick-hit story for this Sunday, a major enterprise story you might spend a few weeks on or a major project you might spend months on. But the principles are the same: Before reporters and editors invest significant time, space and money in a story, you need to develop the idea.

Advice for Reporters

Put your idea in writing. For an important enterprise story, especially a project idea, write a detailed proposal. This gives the editor something more substantive to consider and discuss with other editors. A written proposal demands consideration and response. Writing also starts you on the exercise of focusing your work and writing the story. Sometimes a well-written proposal can become the framework for the overview of a series or the introduction to a story. On a shorter-term story, the proposal may be just a one-paragraph e-mail or a one-page memo, but putting an idea into writing always helps. Propose timely stories. Your editors are and should be interested in newsy, timely stories. Even projects should be timely. In your proposal, address the news peg your story would have. Should it run before, after or during an upcoming event? Would an anniversary, holiday or hearing provide a time peg? Has a recent report or decision given urgency to the issue? If a reporter proposes an "evergreen" story that could be done at any time, an editor could reasonably respond that the story could be done at any time, which often means something else is more pressing now. If your story looks like an evergreen, tell the editor why it is timely now. If you're dusting off an old proposal, look for a news angle and explain why now is the time to do the story.

Propose specific ideas. Don't propose "an in-depth look" at Wichita State University. That's broad and unfocused, as well as being an evergreen. Propose a project comparing the university to its peer schools as many ways as you can measure: reputation, research, faculty awards, student entrance exam scores, etc. The specific focus helps the editor get a feel for the story right away and start sharing the reporter's excitement.

Propose relevant ideas. Explain in your note why this story will matter to readers. Even if you think the relevance is self-evident, tell your editor why this story matters to readers and how you will make that relevance clear in the story.

Explain context. Henry Cordes of the Omaha World-Herald pitched a proposal for a project on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to his editors with the same edge that he eventually used in the stories. He was going to compare the university's mediocre academic reputation and achievement with its athletic excellence.

Consider national comparisons. If you're examining a local issue, find out how the local situation compares to national averages and national extremes.

Consider local impact. If you're examining a national issue, explain how your story will cover the local and regional angles. How does the issue affect the your local area? Who here is involved on either side? Who here is an expert? Are members of your local delegation dealing with the issue in Congress? Will the issue cost us money or generate spending locally?

Consider previous coverage. Read your newspaper's clips. Read coverage in other newspapers. If your paper wrote about this issue a couple years ago or another paper wrote about it a couple months ago, tell how the situation has changed or how this story will be different. Tell how you're going to examine issues the competition has missed. If your proposal sounds like stories your editor has already read, you're not likely to get the go-ahead.

Tell what you know. Do some preliminary reporting, so you can describe the general situation or the scope of the problem. The more you know, the better you can sell your need to learn still more. The more hypothetical or speculative your story sounds, the stronger your chances of being told it might be a good story to pursue "someday." Describe avenues of inquiry. Tell what you need to find out. Maybe you have some tips that you need to check out. Maybe you have a hypothesis. Tell your editor where you expect to look and what you think you might find. You don't need all the answers in your proposal, but you need to know enough to present some good questions.

Outline possible stories. Of course, the information you find will shape the final stories, but include a possible outline in your initial proposal. Say you'll write a first-day main story about the Lost Boys of Sudan who come to your community, with a sidebar on the civil war in the Sudan, then a second-day story about the cultural adjustment that Sudanese refugees face. The outline may change. Maybe you'll decide that domestic violence is worth a sidebar to the story on cultural adjustment. A working outline helps editors envision your final stories and start anticipating them.

Consider usefulness. Think of ways this story will be useful to your readers and explain in your proposal how you will make the finished product easy for readers to use.

Consider photos and graphics. Visual elements need to be part of your plan from the very first. Think about statistics you might find that should be presented graphically. List possible maps you would need. Identify events or interviews that should be photographed. If you have no illustration ideas, admit that and suggest in your proposal that you and the editor should meet soon with the photo and art departments to brainstorm and begin coordination. Maybe you should involve a photographer or artist in your original proposal.

Consider online presentation. Think about ways to present the story online. What sites should the story link to? Could you provide supporting data in more detail than the printed version, or can you set up a searchable database that readers could use?

Consider travel and expenses. If you need to travel, include the plans in your proposal. If you'd like to do some polling or hire an accountant, engineer or other outside consultant, explain what you would need and why. Don't expect editors to spend big bucks without a strong explanation from you about what the paper would get for its money. And don't assume that editors won't spend the big bucks.

Consider computer analysis. What data are available that could explain some aspect of the topic you are examining? If you don't have the computer expertise to analyze the data, you will need to learn and/or involve a colleague who does. But your initial proposal should address data that may reveal a problem or prove a point. You might want to consult a reporter who does more work with data to brainstorm how data may be used.

Consider other beats. Does your proposal overlap with someone else's turf? Tell the other reporter as a courtesy, or ask the other reporter's advice on angles to pursue. Ask whether the other reporter wants to collaborate on the proposal and the story.

Consider a timetable. How long would it take to do the project as you're proposing? Acknowledge that delays can happen, but suggest a timetable, dealing with your news peg and with realistic expectations of how long the proposed work could take. Maybe you are proposing something that is immediately timely but also requires a longer-term inquiry. Suggest what you could do right away and how long it would take for the deeper look. Would the deeper look still be timely when it's finished? What news peg might you have at that time?

Consider your daily duties. Can you juggle this story, at least for a while, with your regular duties? Your editor is going to have to consider this question. Help her out by explaining how much, if any, of your regular duties you could continue while working on this story. If you need to be fully detached, state that clearly.

Think big. Your proposal is no place to scrimp on time, space or money. Propose the best way to deliver the best package possible for your readers. Propose spending as much time as it takes to do a thorough job, but not so much that the story won't be timely, or that someone else will do it first. Propose devoting as much space as it takes to do a thorough job, but not so much that you bore your readers or distort the importance of the issue. Propose spending whatever money it takes to do a thorough job. The editors may trim your plan back in terms of time, space or money. And maybe they should. They are responsible for the budget, the balance of the paper and for deploying the staff. Your role here is to advocate for a story you believe in. The editors' role is to fit that story into the paper's big picture.

Think small. Don't lose enthusiasm for the plan when editors don't adopt your grand design. Make adjustments. Decide what's the best way to do the story with the time, space or money the editors decide it's worth. If your basic idea is good, you need to maintain your enthusiasm for the story.

Don't say no for your editors. Propose doing the story as thoroughly and aggressively as you think you should do it. You aren't responsible for the budget. You don't make the decisions about space and use of your time and taking on tough targets. Your editor might say no to travel or consultants or time or space that you propose. Your editor might not want to take the story on at all. But if you think it's a good story, propose doing it the way you think you should. Make the editor say no. Rarely will an editor tell you to do more than you propose.

Don't give up easily. If you really believe in a story idea, but your editor doesn't want to do it, ask why. Try to learn specifically what your proposal is lacking. Be open to the possibility that the editor is right. Maybe you got excited about the idea and lost perspective. Or maybe you failed to include some important points in your proposal. Maybe you need to do more research to convince your editor of the local impact. Maybe you forgot to give the proposal a news peg. If the editor raises valid objections that you can address, maybe you can agree to pursue the story. Or maybe you should propose it again at a later date when it is more timely.

Keep the ideas coming. Learn whatever lessons you can from the discussion and rejection of a story idea and try again. Your best defense against bad story assignments from editors is to keep your editors considering your own good story ideas.

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