One of the most important — and consistently underrated — skills a journalist must have is the ability to find and pitch compelling story ideas. This is an advanced journalistic skill that takes time and instincts to develop. Journalists who have good story ideas quickly distinguish themselves from newsroom peers who do not. While editors might suggest or assign story ideas to a reporter when the reporter is beginning their journalistic career, that reporter will be expected to eventually find and develop their own story ideas.
When it comes to finding story ideas, journalists benefit from the fact that they are human beings with their own lives and interests and often exist within the same cultures and places as their sources and audiences. By sharing some of the same experiences and reality as the people who consume their work, journalists develop instincts over time about the communities they cover and serve. They come to understand what those people value, what interests them, and what their information needs are. And, the more they understand their audience, the better their story ideas will be.
It is not uncommon for aspiring journalists to wonder: Where do story ideas come from?
The answer is, for good and bad, that story ideas come from absolutely everywhere. Journalists develop story ideas through a huge variety of means and sources. However, most of these methods are a result of following one’s curiosity and establishing relationships with key people and topics. Journalists also use their professional instincts and their shared understanding of journalistic news values to decide when a story idea is a good one that will serve the needs and wants of the communities they cover. Indeed, part of what defines many journalists’ sense of professional identity is the ‘sixth sense’ they develop about knowing how to find (and then report) a good news story.
Such a sixth sense takes time to develop, though. Here are a few tips for helping aspiring journalists find good journalistic story ideas.
Ask questions. Ask more questions. And then when you’re done, ask a few more questions.
Don’t be afraid to unleash your curiosity, even when you’re in social situations outside of your professional life. If you see an interesting flyer on a wall outside your favorite coffee shop, check it out. If you notice a hole in a story your friend just told you, ask about it. If you don’t understand how a process works, find out.
Some of the best story ideas arise organically from reporters noticing holes, gaps, or problems in the world around them and then following up on those gaps. If you have questions, there’s a good chance other people out there do, too. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and doggedly pursue answers. Your future audiences will be glad you did.
Always listen to the people around you: in real life, on social media, and through your own news consumption. By keeping your ears open, engaging with the people and world around you and learning new things, you will become exposed to new ideas and information that could help you find story ideas (in addition to becoming a more well-rounded person). A potential story idea could come from a stranger’s post in a Facebook group you belong to, from an overheard conversation at the grocery store, or from an anecdote a friend shares at a party. Over time, you will hone your instincts and become more quick and comfortable recognizing story ideas in even the most unexpected places.
Another good way to develop story ideas over time is to dedicate yourself, in part, to a specific topic or community. If you like music, do you have a favorite genre? If you follow local politics, is there a specific movement or topic you find to be under-served? If you like sports, is there a specific team or fandom that you follow?
Going deep on a particular person, topic, or beat can help you familiarize yourself with (and develop relationships with) the key stakeholders pertaining to that beat. Once you have identified a niche, continue to follow it and learn more about it. For example, you might follow a hashtag related to that topic, join a Facebook group about that topic, go to a lecture or reading about that topic, read books about that topic, or go to a performance about that topic. By becoming an expert on that beat, you can ensure that you are able to stay on top of the latest trends and questions, and that you are sufficiently informed to write something insightful about it.
This cannot be overstated: consume journalism! (This is doubly true if you cover a beat. See what other journalists are covering, and how they are covering it.) Consuming journalism will not only help you become more knowledgeable of current events but it will also help you become a more versatile news producer. For example, it can help you learn about different journalistic story structures and stylistic norms.
You can also get great story ideas from consuming journalism. For example, you may come across an interesting story that focuses on the national level, leaving the local angle wide open for you to report on. You may also find that you have some questions after consuming a news piece. Focus your reporting on answering those questions or addressing gaps in the story. (Again, chances are other people will have similar questions.) Oftentimes, an existing news story offers the needed spark for a follow-up that extends or builds upon existing coverage of a topic or issue.
Trust your instincts. Chances are that if you are interested by an idea, your audience (whom you’ll come to know over time as a journalist) will be interested as well. Once you have identified a story idea, think about the news values your idea might fulfill and how the idea might inform and interest audiences. Use that information to form the basis for the next step in the life cycle of a story idea: pitching it to your editor.
While editors may assign story ideas to a journalist during the early stages of the journalist’s career, that journalist will be expected to find and develop their own story ideas over time.
Ideas can come from many places. You are surrounded by them. Some helpful strategies are to encourage your curiosity, keep your ears open, develop a niche, and consume lots of journalism.
Trust your instincts. If you are interested by an idea, there is a good chance that there is an audience out there for it.