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.

The Lioness of Afghanistan

by Genevieve Long for The Epoch Times and the Foreign Policy Association

One American woman’s personal battle to turn back the tide on the Taliban

Sonia Nassery Cole commands a room no matter what the size, and it’s for a good cause.

Cole, who has both Afghan and American citizenship, is founder and CEO of the Afghanistan World Foundation (AWF). The non-profit organization works to assist the humanitarian needs of Afghans and rebuild their country. AWF was founded in the wake of 9/11 in 2002, but its roots go back to the 1980s when Cole became a vocal advocate for her home country. She started by writing a letter to then-President Ronald Reagan to ask for his help.

Sonia Nassery Cole at the Children's Hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Sonia Nassery Cole at the Children's Hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan.

“I never dreamed that he wouldn’t answer my letter,” says Ms. Cole, recalling her first step into what has become a lifetime of advocating on behalf of those who have no voice.

But Reagan did respond, and invited the young refugee to the White House. She organized congressional testimony to arm legendary Afghan rebel commander Ahmad Massoud and his Northern Alliance Freedom Fighters. Massoud, who was later assassinated, was nicknamed the lion of Afghanistan. He called Cole his “lioness” for her work and spirit on behalf of their country. It’s a nickname she has lived up to, and then some.

Cole is as unfailingly polite as she is incomparably passionate about rebuilding Afghanistan from decades of war and the poison grip of the Taliban. And she knows how to be genuinely charming when describing deadly serious situations.

Case in point was a recent screening and presentation in New York City of a documentary she produced about an 8-year-old Afghan boy who is the sole income-earner in his family, called The Bread Winner. Cole surprised the audience by stepping out from behind the podium to give a heartfelt explanation of the story behind the making of the documentary.

But if Ms. Cole has mastered the art of charming an audience, she also knows how to keep the focus on the urgent situation in Afghanistan.

“The country is falling apart because of the Taliban,” said Ms. Cole during the presentation.