Wednesday, September 8, 2010

How to find a story

In 1988 photographer Rick Pennington and I were hustling back to the station when we both spotted a school playground filled with dozens of kids playing.

No big deal, but they were all playing with hula hoops. I hadn’t seen anyone with a hula hoop since the 60's.

The next day we drove back and discovered the school had a very low athletic budget, so the phys ed teacher had gotten creative with a stash of hula hoops she’d found. The woman had created some bizarre backyard games that the kids thoroughly enjoyed. Rick shot some great video, I found some vintage black and white film of hula hoops, we edited the thing to some doo-wop music, and we had a package.

It won the Associated Press award for best feature. All because we were paying attention.

That’s just one way to find a story.

There are many others, but you have to know how and where to look. So stop looking at the Assignment Editor.

The AE has the toughest job in the news department, and these days many people assume this person has the duty of coming up with all the story ideas and handing them out. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. It is a reporter’s responsibility to find stories that will interest the viewer. One month into my career, I complained to my first News Director that the assignments I got from the desk were boring. He told me, “Then come up with something better.” From that day on, I found my own stories.

Now that you’ve stopped looking at the Assignment Editor, put down the local newspaper. That’s not the answer either.

The one thing they don’t seem to teach young reporters is how to dig. The reliance on the local newspaper and the police scanner has become a crutch, which results in the typical press release/scanner driven newscast that bores viewers to death. To get the viewers back, reporters have to give them something unique.

Finding stories is really simple. You just have to do three things.

Open your eyes, talk, and read.

Reporters spend a lot of time in the car, so make good use of it. Don’t just fall into highway hypnosis, look around and really see. Recently one of my clients found a great story when he spotted a man sitting on a toilet in his front yard. Turned out the guy was protesting a proposed sewage plant. He got the attention he wanted, and the reporter got a good package.

People post signs for just about everything these days, whether they’re selling something or protesting. Check out the light posts and telephone poles. Rick and I once found a great story that way when he spotted a sign that read “Handmade Rifles” with an arrow pointing down a dirt road.

Take a different route to work if you can, then pay attention. You might see a story, or just something that inspires you to think of one. When you’re in a news car, take a different route back to the station if you have time.

Did you just see a group of people assembled outside? Stop and ask why. Did you spot a person doing something unusual? Don’t just keep driving, stop and ask.

Which brings us to the “talk” part of this assignment. As a reporter, you should know that everyone has a story to tell. But you’ll never know unless you start a conversation.

Stopping for gas? Ask the attendant if there are any good stories in the area. Eating lunch off the beaten path? Chat up the waiter or waitress. Going grocery shopping? Wear something with a station logo and you’ll be amazed at how many people come up to you. Talk to the person next to you in the checkout line.

And for goodness sake, those business cards the station gave you aren’t doing you any good in your desk. Hand one to every single person you meet with the phrase, “If you ever have a good story, please give me a call.”

You interview several people every day, but that doesn’t mean you only have to talk about one topic. When you’re finished interviewing the guy about high gas prices, just ask, “Got any other good stories I should know about?” Rick and I were wrapping up a story with a guy who designed fiddles for country music stars when Rick simply asked the guy, “So, do you play?” Turned out the guy did and was playing a benefit for a handicapped children’s summer camp. We added that to his story, then did a series on the camp... which we didn’t even know existed. One story can turn into another, and another.

And finally, you have to read. A lot. Yes, you have to read the local paper, but taking stories from that source doesn’t count. With the Internet at your disposal you can read just about every newspaper and magazine in the country. Take a story from another city and localize it. Read the little weekly papers from the outlying towns in your market; they are usually chock full of features. And don’t just read the news section. Be well versed in money matters, pop culture, consumer issues and anything that would interest the average viewer. And check out the local classifieds. You can find anything from wild court cases to great features.

You won’t develop this skill overnight, but eventually these tactics will become second nature to you.

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