Story ideas are literally all around you. You need to be alert and imaginative in recognizing and pursuing them. You can generate story ideas by looking in a variety of places:
News. By the nature of our business, most story ideas will come from the news. Don't fall into the trap of simply covering the events or the debate. You're not a board secretary recording what happened. Think of other ways to cover the news. Should you write a blow-by-blow narrative of a big event where you've provided incremental daily coverage? Can you take a different approach to a news event or issue by writing an explanatory piece, a follow-up, looking ahead, assessing the impact, placing it in context of other events or historical background? Will a behind-the-scenes account add insight or interest? Is a person involved with the event or issue worth a profile? Can you tell an interesting story about a power struggle or personality clash behind the surface issue?
People. The people in your readership area are interesting and important. Many are worthy of stories just by themselves. And they know the stories that are interesting. Spend more time outside the newsroom, talking to your sources and developing new sources. Ask them what's important. Ask what's the best story that ought to be in your paper that hasn't yet. Ask what they do outside the office. Ask what you're missing. Ask who the most interesting and colorful people in their office or agency are. Ask who's shy or modest and might not tell you something interesting if you don't ask. If someone's routines or behavior catches your attention, consider whether you should inquire and find out whether she's worth a story.
Paper. Boring reports often contain nuggets of information that can lead to an exciting story. Take a closer look at the mountains of paper produced on your beat. Ask someone to explain some of reports, to help you cut through the statistics and jargon to what's important. Look at some documents that aren't going to turn up on your regular rounds. For instance, if you're a courthouse reporter, you probably spend little time looking at probate files or bankruptcy cases. But maybe a probate file will reveal a huge fight brewing in a prominent local family, or a frugal old lady no one knew was a millionaire. A bankruptcy file might turn up some prominent names or lead you to a poignant story of broken dreams. You probably report on a big lawsuit when it's filed and when it comes to trial. But most suits are settled and might be noted just briefly then, if at all. Take a look at the motions and depositions that follow the initial suit. Maybe that's where the story is. Look over the affidavits filed with a search warrant.
Data. What offices on your beat keep data that might reveal some interesting stories through computer analysis? The National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting publishes books of examples of CAR stories published by other papers. Or check http://www.ire.org/datalibrary/online.html for a current listing of recent CAR stories available online. Might the same data be available on your beat in your community? The reporters who do such stories are almost always eager to discuss the challenges and obstacles they faced in obtaining and analyzing the data.
Internet. Stay familiar with your community resources on the Internet. Sometimes a Web site itself may be a story. Or it may reveal information that will launch you on a story. Maybe a local business is finding customers around the globe because it is using the Internet wisely. Maybe a clever Webmaster gives the electronic world an entirely different view of the company or organization that's known locally as stodgy and old-fashioned. Maybe a service available online is putting people who used to provide the service in person out of work. Context. Put a news event or issue into context by asking whether other communities or people or agencies are experiencing the same things. If so, maybe you have a trend story. If not, maybe you have a "first" story. If it's a trend story, see whether other communities have learned any lessons that might apply in your community. The flip side of this, of course, is localizing a national story. Is this trend happening here? How will this development affect us here? Are local people involved in this national event?
Impact. Who will be affected by the issue or event you have written about? Who will be inconvenienced? Who has to pay? Who profits? Who's harmed? What's likely to happen a year from now as a result of today's news? Or five years from now?
Conflict. Who won't like something that's happening? Who will try to prevent it from happening? Who had to be pushed aside to get it accomplished? If a group is having a convention in your community, see whether some internal conflict might provide a better story than the sweetness-and-light image leaders portray. Who are the dissidents and outcasts, and will they make their presence felt with a rump convention or by making a stir on the fringes or the convention floor?
Repetition. If you encounter a single issue again and again in different news stories, maybe you need to take a broader look at that issue and its widespread importance or impact. If you hear a tip a second or third time, consider whether it's a better or more urgent story than the first time you heard it.
Inquiry. Find answers to your questions (and always have lots of questions): Why is that? Who's getting away with something here? Why doesn't this work? If you're wondering, your readers may be wondering, too. The answers are probably a story. Ask some readers and sources what questions they have about your community.
Technology. How is technology changing things on your beat? How do these changes affect the public? Might the new gadgets you see on your beat be showing up in other parts of society?
Silent voices. Are you writing about an issue on which some interested parties may be reluctant to speak out? This is common on social issues such as substance abuse, sexual abuse, sexual orientation, welfare, abortion, unemployment, immigration, domestic violence. Seek out these people, using third parties such as counselors, pastors, advocates and interest groups if you have to. Win their trust, listen to their stories and tell their stories.
Challenge. When a source gives you that tired old line about only writing about the bad news, challenge her to fill you in on a positive story that's just as important or just as interesting as whatever negative story she's complaining about. Maybe you'll get a lame tip, or maybe you'll get a valuable one. Or take the initiative. If you're covering a murder, scandal or disaster in a small town, you can take for granted, whether you hear it or not, that people are thinking the press only cares about them when it's bad news. Tell the people you deal with that you're interested in good news, too, and give them business cards with a specific plea to let you know when something important, good or bad, is happening in town.
Persistence. Sometimes a good idea will not pan out because the central character doesn't want to talk. Try again later. Maybe the time wasn't right the first time. Maintain contact. Show interest without being a pest. You might get the story eventually.
Theft. Steal good story ideas wherever you can. If you see a story you admire in another paper or on the wire, ask whether the same story could be done in your community. Call the reporter up and ask how he came up with the idea and how he went about pursuing the story. If you see a story that reflects a really clever idea, even if the story itself couldn't be replicated in your community, call the reporter up and ask how she got the idea. Read Poynter's annual books on "best newspaper writing" and consider whether the same ideas could be pursued on your beat. Join IRE-L or another e-mail discussion list of journalists, and steal some ideas from your colleagues. Steal ideas from sources, too. Ask what else they know of going on in the community. Ask what stories they would assign if they were the editors of your paper. (They will give you some bad ideas that you can discard and still get points for asking and listening, but you also might get some good ideas.)
Share. If you hear tips or think of ideas for stories on a colleague's beat, pass them along. Maybe a few tips will come back your way.
Different perspective. Tell your readers how people in other parts of the country view something that is a source of pride, embarrassment, amusement or anger in your community.
Humor. If you hear something funny on your beat, consider whether it may be a bright story to be shared with your readers, rather than just repeated to colleagues.
Questions. The questions we learned our first week in our first journalism class remain fundamental to developing good story ideas? Who's responsible? What's going to happen next? When is that likely to happen again? Where did the money go? Why wasn't anyone watching? How can we prepare ourselves for the next time? In addition to the traditional 5 W's and How, include at least two others in your list of basic questions to ask for each story, and to use for generating story ideas: So what? and How much? Come up with your own questions to ask.
Story elements. OK, I've mentioned how important the W's are, but let's think beyond them, every step of the way, starting with the story idea. What are the elements of a story that we learned in 8th-grade English? Think in terms of setting, plot, character, conflict, climax, resolution. Each of those story elements might suggest some stories to pursue or some fresh angles to pursue on a continuing story.
Looking back. Of course, important anniversaries are a journalism staple. But unimportant anniversaries can sometimes provide interesting stories as well. Or anniversaries that are important to a few people but might be overlooked without your enterprise. Or you can look back as a means of accountability. What did a politician promise during the last campaign? Did he keep the promises? What goals did the school board set in hiring a new superintendent? Did she meet those goals?
Follow the money. On virtually any beat, you can find good stories by following the money. Who's paying for this? How much will it cost? How much will it raise my taxes? What will need to be cut to pay for it? Did the people who benefited from this vote contribute to the campaigns of those delivering the votes? Source development. Spend time with prospective sources so they know you're interested in doing a thorough job. Seek out sources who aren't the "usual suspects" on your beat. If you always find yourself talking to white men, find some women or minorities who might bring a different perspective to your stories and steer you toward different ideas. If you find yourself always talking to the professionals and bosses, spend some time talking to the folks in the trenches. If you spend most of your time talking to liberals, seek out some conservatives. If you spend most of your time talking to people your age, seek out some younger or older sources. These people with different perspectives will point you to different stories. Look around the agency you cover for the people or office who attract the least attention. Spend some time there to see if you'll hear some different tips. Don't seek information and story ideas just from the officials on your beat. Seek out the consumers, the former officials, the gadflies.
Prospecting. Take time to go "prospecting" for stories. That means to take a trip or set up an interview with no particular story in mind. You're visiting a source you haven't seen for a while or a community or agency you haven't covered for a while. You go just to familiarize yourself, to take someone to lunch or chat in the office or home a while. Maybe you'll come back with a terrific story you never would have known enough to pursue. Maybe you'll come back without a particular story, but with some tips to pursue. Maybe you'll just come back with a valuable source to contact in future stories. At the least, you'll gain a greater understanding of your community and your beat. Prospecting almost always yields stories and is always time well spent. You just can't tell the editor in advance what it's going to produce. As Chip Scanlan says, when you get out of the newsroom, "the chances increase of finding stories in the world that no one has yet told."