Stop and Smell the Stories

Posted on April 9, 2011


I would not be surprised if my Ohio State journalism students have nightmares about the phrase “story ideas.” In all of my classes–news writing, multimedia, social media, magazine writing–each student has to come up with what must feel like 100 story ideas (actually 5-10), and it seems to torture them.

It’s not merely the idea–it’s the hook, the news value, what would make such a  topic interesting to others.

I met with a long and nerve-wracked line of students today from all four of my classes–some stressing over a pending article, others challenged by the article they had just turned in. Two classes submitted news profiles for their first assignment, and the biggest challenge seemed to be how to make a profile instead of a news story. The idea of a focus on a singular subject that contained a news hook for the OSU community (we are all trying to get our pieces in The Lantern as much as possible) proved a challenge, most often because we could not decide what we wanted the readers to know. In a story profiling of an OSU event, we need to see the history of the event, its goals and how it achieved those goals–not just a bunch of people saying it will be fun. If we are going to profile a person who spoke on campus, we need to actual interview them beyond their prepared comments.

Talking to interview subjects is so scary for those who have not yet done it often. What if they don’t want to talk, or get mad, or give me bad answers. They may not, they might and if they do, ask better questions. Guiding an interview is a tough job. Asking questions conversationally instead of reading them off a sheet of paper or staging an interrogation takes a soft hand and confidence that comes with time.

But the most important thing to remember is stories are everywhere if you know not just where to look, but how to look.

My friend Mike Thompson at WOSU Radio shared with me through Twitter that one of his reporters found a story idea on a bathroom wall, which led to this piece, proving the adage that stories are often right in front of you. Ask “why” about everything you see. Seek “how” something is done. Understand “what” actions or events or people mean in a  given circumstance. “When” something happens can help with news value.Figure out “where” it’s happening and who it impacts. Ask yourself “how” something impacts your reading public.

Do these words look familiar?

Every beginning journalists learned they must answer the Who, What,Why, When, Where and How questions in their writing–first off in the inverted pyramid, and within a graph or two in feature writing. We also call it the “so what” factor–what is it people want to know? Sniffing around to  answer that question will uncover story ideas.

Wake up everyone–look around you and see the world. See what makes it interesting. And then stop and smell the stories!