Williston Herald News Editor Jerry Burnes had a good question for me this week: How do you help editors and reporters develop good story ideas?
On the surface, this is softball. Reporters come up with stories from their beats, right? You go to the city council meeting and you write down what sounds important. You hear a bunch of bleeping on the scanner and run out to the fire. You look at the game schedule and cover that soccer match.
Well, true. But we all know that is the low-hanging fruit, the scheduled coverage. Much of that will be blurted out over social media before your newspaper hits the street (or before you even get back to the office). Jerry was really asking how to impart the values that lead reporters to less obvious, more important stories.
Sorry to say, I had a sorry answer for him. The truth is that story selection and knowing a meaty story when one crosses your plate is more art than craft. I don’t have a recipe for news judgment. …
The key, I think, is curiosity and understanding how your community fits in the wider world. That requires constantly monitoring other news sources and knowing a good bit about your community. Good reporters also know when to let go of their original premise in favor of something grander.
Say your high school football coach says the league is limiting full-contact practices for the upcoming season. That’s a fairly straightforward story if that’s all you write. But if you do that, you are missing the boat. The reason for the rule change may have to do with lawsuits in the NFL, scientific discoveries among those who study concussions or even budget cuts at the district. You might want to ask pediatricians, mothers and players what they think of the change. You might want to ask for injury statistics that you can graph by heat map corresponding to area high schools.
In other words, simple stories worthy of your newspaper are almost always part of a web of other stories and making those connections is the job of a good newspaper.
Here’s an example from the pages of the Half Moon Bay Review. Reporter Julia Reis set out to do a story about our u-pick ’em farms, because, well, it was that time of year. What she found, however, was that the berries were slim pickings this year and that was related to the ongoing statewide drought. Consequently, the top of her story read:
A sign of the times sits in the window of Phipps Country Store in Pescadero.
“No strawberry picking!” is scrawled on a piece of paper posted in the storefront where patrons pay for the berries they’ve picked on Teresa and Tommy Phipps’ farm, a staple on the South Coast since 1969.
“Closed for olallieberry picking Mondays and Tuesdays,” reads a smaller sign just above the first.
In the Phipps’ 45 years of maintaining the Country Store and farm and offering lush berries for the picking, they’ve never seen a summer quite like this one. Pescadero Creek, which many Coastside farmers rely on as their primary source for watering their crops, is running low due to the second consecutive winter with below average rainfall. …
That may seem obvious, but many a lesser reporter would have kept a tunnel vision on that first, easy story and largely ignored the wider implications. For another example of bigger thinking, please see this week’s edition of Our Best.
Curiosity. The willingness to pivot. And an understanding of the world and your place in it. Those are hard qualities to teach, but they are priceless.