I was sitting in a New York airport last Saturday waiting for my plane to board. Like most people in the terminal, I was reading. A giant flat screen above was blaring CNN, but few were playing attention.
Then the anchor said the magic words of the day. "Tiger Woods."
Every head snapped to attention. People walking by the gate stopped to watch. When the story ended, the heads went back down, the people who were walking by continued on their journey.
Right now we've got a raging health care debate, two wars overseas, an economic crisis... and yet a philandering golfer captures our attention.
Sports stars cheating on their wives is nothing new. (Neither are politicians for that matter.) If A-Rod had cheated on his wife we would have just shrugged.
But this was different. When someone this squeaky clean does something so out of character, the fall from grace can seem like one from Mount Everest.
L'affaire Woods probably gave newspapers a nice infusion of capital and sent TV ratings up for a few weeks. (All across America, News Directors are saying, "He couldn't have run over the hydrant during sweeps?")
Why was this story so compelling during a time when we have so many important stories going on? Because it was such a surprise, and so different from the everyday stuff we see. (And, let's face it, America loves good celebrity dirt.)
If you want to find a watercooler story, you must surprise the viewer. Dig up something that will make heads look up and people stop in their tracks. It doesn't have to be anything sensational like the Tiger Woods stuff, but just something that stands out. It has to be different than what we're broadcasting every day.
Surprise the viewer and you'll surprise a News Director when looking for a job.