How do journalists find their story ideas?

byCristiana Bedei
May 12, 2020 in Freelancing
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To discover their next big story idea, journalists live, learn, brainstorm and, especially, practice. While finding new stories may come naturally to some, there are easy tactics to apply to overcome any sort of writer’s block.

Original journalism doesn’t mean coming up with fresh ideas on the spot all the time. Finding stories often takes an active effort to discover the untold and the unseen. Tracking important dates and events, receiving press releases or simply reading the newspaper can be helpful when it comes to finding news pegs or inputs, but if you’re still struggling to come up with your next story, we’ve asked some experienced journalists for advice. 

From travel writers to investigative reporters, here are a few tips and strategies to help you churn out new ideas.

Listen to people

“I’d say everybody you know has a story in them and you just need to work out what it is,” says Gaby Koppel, a freelance journalist and TV producer based in London, U.K. That doesn’t mean you need to write or report about them specifically, but you might be inspired to look deeper into a topic because of something they said, experienced or told you about. 

“I have one friend who is a social worker specializing in adoption,” Coppe adds. “We went away for a weekend and were chatting in the car for ages. Soon after that I got a commission to write a piece about people over the age of 50 adopting children, which was inspired by something she said to me.” 

Talk to people about their lives, and listen to them carefully so you don’t miss out on your next big commission.

[Read more: Common mistakes journalists make when submitting pitches]

Look for questions

Even if you don’t find stories based on what people talk about in person, the internet makes it easy to understand what’s on their mind. “I get a lot of ideas from Reddit,” says Los Angeles-based freelance journalist Suzannah Weiss, referring to the popular American website where users can submit content and discuss different topics. “I'll scroll through subreddits related to topics I'm writing about to see what questions people want answered, and what's interesting to them,” Weiss explains. It was through her dedicated use of Reddit that she wrote an article about the myth of multiple orgasms, for example. 

But much of Weiss’ work is born out of her own curiosity: “A lot of my articles are just me asking experts questions that I personally want answered, and then sharing what I find out with the rest of the internet,” she admits. Like when she wrote about the reasons why she prefers long-distance relationships for VICE. 

Cultivate your niche

Lorenzo Bagnoli is a journalist with the Investigative Reporting Project Italy, an  investigative journalism center based in Italy that has recently launched an online publication. Much of his transnational work is the result of tips from the global network of colleagues he’s developed through the years, he says, while some stories were prompted by existing investigations. 

“Let’s say there is an investigation going on in another country, for example, involving names and companies that I find interesting or that I’m familiar with,” he says. “I would do some research on an open-source website like The Open Corporates , and see if any leads come up.” 

Bagnoli also uses business registers and personal archives, including press clippings or papers of police operations, to cross-reference his findings. He adds: “It’s very important to have colleagues to talk to, to mutually help each other vetting information.”

[Read more: 12 tips for writing editorials]

Set alerts

Google Alerts and social media monitoring tools are an easy way to help you keep on top of your beat. However, more specific resources are available too. In his investigative work, Bagnoli says he and his team often use vessel tracking databases, creating  notifications about specific ships and locations. 

“There was this investigation by the French NGO Disclose about a cargo ship that had been at Le Havre port, in France, that they thought had loaded weapons destined to Saudi Arabia,” he says. One of his colleagues, specializing in online research and satellite images, confirmed that the presence of the ship had been registered by others, too. “I tracked down documents and reconstructed its movements, including stops in the Italian ports of Genoa, Livorno (Tuscany) and Cagliari (Sardinia) Italy.” 

With that, he wrote a story for Il Fatto Quotidiano, one of the country’s largest newspapers.

Track official inquiries

Lindy Alexander is a freelance travel and health writer based in Australia, and the founder of The Freelancer's Year, a popular blog about how to earn a living from freelance writing. She loves trying unusual ways to find stories. 

“One that I've used quite a bit is by looking at current senate inquiries,” she says. For example, this list of parliamentary inquiries in Australia. “Often you'll find topics that you've never heard of, as well as submissions and potential experts and/or case studies,” she explains. 

It was through that database that she found out about an inquiry into transvaginal mesh impacts, which are used for pelvic organ prolapse and are thought to have caused chronic pain and persistent bleeding in up to 100,000 Australian women — and thousands more worldwide. “I pitched a story to The Saturday Paper and was commissioned,” she says. "This is the resulting story, and one I'm very proud of.”


Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via Guilherme Stecanella.