Developing Story Ideas - Advice for Editors

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Jun 27, 2008 em Journalism Basics

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 Editors

Respond promptly. Reporters need to hear quick responses to their story proposals. Silence is an unacceptable and unprofessional response to a reporter's proposal. Acknowledge the proposal immediately, even if you will need more time to give a meaningful response. If you will be too busy for a while to give a story fair consideration, admit that and give the reporter a date when you can discuss it at length. And keep that date. If you have to delay again, make the delay short and tell the reporter promptly that you have to delay. Few things are as harmful to relationships with reporters as being unresponsive or inconsiderate about matters of importance to the reporter. "Someday" is not the time to pursue the story or to talk about it.

Show enthusiasm and appreciation. Even if a reporter gives you a poorly developed proposal for a bad story idea, express your appreciation for the initiative. If this reporter is going to be successful (and if you are going to be successful as this reporter's editor), the reporter must show initiative and come up with good story ideas. Coming up with bad story ideas is an important first step in the right direction. Even as you explain the problems with the proposal, you must praise the initiative. Or maybe it's a good idea that's poorly developed. Show some enthusiasm for the idea itself and for the initiative. Help the reporter develop the proposal better. And if the reporter gives you a good story idea that's well developed, by all means show lots of enthusiasm, even if you're unable to turn the reporter loose on the story right now.

Don't say no. Ask questions. With rare exceptions, you won't know enough from a reporter's proposal to reject it immediately. Ask questions that will help you make a better decision. Does the proposal sound too expensive? Ask whether this is the only way to get the needed information. Does the proposal sound like it's beyond this reporter's abilities? Ask how he would surmount the obstacles that you see. Does the proposal not seem timely? Ask what the news peg would be.

Don't say yes. Ask questions. If a reporter has a strong proposal that excites you immediately, you still need to help the reporter develop the plans. Identify potential obstacles and ask how she expects to overcome them. Ask about the news peg. Ask about possible data that might be available or travel that will be necessary. Ask whether the reporter has consulted reporters with overlapping beats.

Be honest. Tell the reporter why you are passing on a story idea. Maybe you have something more important for the reporter to pursue. Maybe you like another idea the reporter has proposed better. Maybe you don't think the reporter is ready for this challenge. Maybe you think another reporter is the appropriate person to tackle this story. Tell the reporter honestly. The effort and initiative the reporter has shown deserves nothing less than a candid answer. A candid answer may lead to an unpleasant discussion with the reporter, but that's part of your job. Try to turn that unpleasant discussion into a challenge that will help the reporter prepare for such a story in the future.

Consider scope. Maybe the reporter's idea is on target, but you can't spare the time, space or money to address it on the scale the reporter has suggested. Or maybe the idea is timely and demands more immediate attention. Discuss with the reporter whether the idea can be addressed quicker or on a smaller scale. Or if you think the reporter's proposal isn't ambitious enough, ask about other questions to pursue. Or ask whether some computer analysis is in order.

Don't automatically assume it's too expensive. A good reporter will propose ideas that will seem expensive to a good editor. If you're not responsible for the budget, don't assume that an idea is too expensive. Help the reporter develop and perfect the idea, then pitch it to the editors who hold the purse strings. If you are responsible for the budget, discuss cost problems candidly with the reporter. Make sure you're hearing the best case for why you should spend the money. If you simply don't have the money or aren't convinced this story is worth it, discuss whether the story can be done another way. If you would sacrifice quality by doing the story on the cheap, discuss whether the story can wait until the budget isn't as tight. If the story has a strong news peg, it may be wise to do a scaled-down version now and take the deeper, more expensive look later.

Don't delay indefinitely. If your answer is "not now," try to be specific. If you think the reporter isn't ready to tackle this story, tell him what you'd like to see him achieve first. If you think the news peg is weak, say so and suggest some circumstances when the story might be more timely. If you want the reporter to tackle another story first, say whether this is next in line (acknowledging that circumstances could change before its turn comes). If you don't expect this reporter will ever do this story, say so and say why. As irritating as "never" is, it's less annoying than a "not now" that means never.

Stretch your reporters. If you doubt a reporter's ability to deliver on a story, discuss your reservations candidly. Identify what in this proposal the reporter has not done before or what in this project resembles something a reporter tried before and didn't do well. Identify the specific skills this story requires that this reporter has not demonstrated. Discuss how the reporter might be able to take the project on: perhaps teaming with another reporter who has the skills or experience the reporter requires, perhaps with closer supervision than normal, perhaps a scaled-down version of the story. You need to maintain a balance: You want to challenge and stretch the reporter, but you want the reporter to succeed. Don't cut the proposal down to the level of the reporter's current ability, but don't let the plan exceed the reporter's likely grasp.

Read up on the topic. Check your clips and other newspapers to see what's been written on the subject. Visit some Web sites and background yourself on the topic. You need to help the reporter sharpen her focus and distinguish between new material and old, between background the reporter must understand and details the reader wants to know.

Consider photos, graphics and online. Ask the reporter about possible photos and graphics that could accompany the story. Schedule a meeting with people from either or both departments to plan how to proceed on the total package. Schedule a meeting with online editors to discuss the online presentation.

Consider a timetable. Discuss whether the reporter should work full-time on the story or juggle it with other duties. Discuss news pegs and possible publication dates. Discuss what you need to achieve by when to make the publication date. Discuss whether other reporters should be involved and how much of their time would be needed. Maybe you should do a "backout schedule" right away. At the least, you should discuss how much time the story will demand.

Consider specific stories. If the reporter is talking about a project of multiple parts, discuss individual stories, or at least avenues of inquiry that could result in stories.