Finding Story Ideas that Move You to Action

A frequent question that newer reporters have is, “How do I find good story ideas?” Unfortunately, there is no one answer to this question. Also unfortunately, it is often a process of trial and error.

Some writers swear by jotting ideas down in a notebook for future reference. Other people live and die by a specialized RSS feed of news and information that they created. Some people troll the Internet for prolonged periods of time until they find something interesting to write about.

All of these methods are fine, but in my experience they could result in mediocre stories or no story at all. That idea-notebook trick? For me, it’s like taking an idea and putting it in a drawer that I might never open again.

The best answer to this question also happens to be the answer that is the most difficult to accomplish: get out in the world and find good ideas.

The good news is that ideas for stories are everywhere. When I was home for Christmas this year in Washington State, I kept overhearing people in my hometown (which is the state capitol) lamenting the massive budget cuts in state government. Since I was in a town with about 20,000 state government employees, I just had to be in the right type of coffee shop or restaurant and I could literally eavesdrop on conversations so compelling that I knew there was  a story there. People were stressed out about their jobs and the agencies they worked for surviving the budget cuts. Nobody knew what was going to happen, and so many people were so worried that talk about it was literally in the air.

A story like that–state budget cuts bring tension to small town America–is full of human drama and suspense. And I happen to genuinely care about how my home state fares in the current economic crisis. I didn’t write the story in the end, but it’s an example of how to find something interesting and worth describing to others.

During a journalism conference a few years ago, I sat in on a session with a multi-Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Tom Hallman. His one big secret to share with us in finding great stories? Look for the “ahh! factor.” He told us a series of brief stories on different topics, but only once or twice did the audience literally say, “Ahh!” when he was describing the story’s details. Look for that factor, that fascination, when you’re thinking about whether something is worthwhile.

The other great stories I have found in the last few years have mostly come from my participation in the world. I attend events, lectures, discussions, and see who is there. If someone strikes me as particularly interesting at an event, I track them down later and find out more about who they are, what they do, and why they do it. It’s in this way that I ended up writing about interesting characters like Oscar-nominated filmmaker Tim Hetherington, and Afghan-born Sonia Nassery Cole–who recently shot an entire feature film on location in Afghanistan called the Black Tulip (which is unheard of).

Two things to remember when you’re looking for a great story: don’t be afraid to abandon a topic if you can see it’s a dead end, no matter how excited you were initially, and get out from behind your computer or you’ll never become great at what you do. It doesn’t matter if you live in New York City or Provo, Utah–there are stories everywhere, you just have to look for them.

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