Finding new ideas

Earlier this summer, with the arrival of the Journal‘s team of intrepid intern reporters, I put my mind to explaining how to generate story ideas — the result, a lunch-hour presentation involving reporters and editors from throughout the newsroom, can be found here.

Even after my pre-brainstorming session brainstorming, however (how’s that for temporal confusion?), I couldn’t help thinking the art of coming up with story ideas is a learned one, heavily reliant on familiarity with your city or beat, and conversations with coworkers, family, friends and people you encounter while doing other stories, at parties, and generally out and about. There isn’t really an equation to it, there are no guarantees, and there are days it can feel like throwing spaghetti noodles at a wall and hoping something sticks. During my first summer in Edmonton, in 2005, I spent many a night poring over the websites and local newspapers of very small northern Alberta communities, then making endless phone calls. The effort resulted in familiarity with the geography of northern Alberta, at least one trip outside the city (Slave Lake!), and general skills that would prove handy when later assigned to the crime bureau.

So this presentation, to our crew of talented new reporters, offers just some starting points.

As newsrooms shrink, sometimes journalists worry over what we ought to say to incoming or graduating journalism students. I can’t help thinking there is more room today than ever before for student journalists and freelancers to pitch story ideas that end up under the radar on a busy news day. Whether freelance budgets are flexible enough to buy the pitches is another matter, of course. But I happen to have bottomless faith that, when a story meets a certain criteria of absolutely necessary to the public good (while still objective and non-partisan in its outlook) and fascinating to read, it will always find a market.

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