Cheat Sheet: Developing Story Ideas

Jul 9, 2012

Even among reporters, there are sloppy note takers.  So, as a service to folks who attended the work session on "Developing Story Ideas" during the PRNDI Conference in Houston, here are the notes used by presenters Erin Hennesey of KPLU and Kelly Griffin of Colorado Public Radio.  

"We’re here to share some best practices from our newsrooms and to offer some tools and exercises that you can take back to your shop to help generate great story ideas. We also would like to hear about what works in your newsroom, or what you’re finding challenging. Before we get into the Q&A part of this session, Kelley and I would like to give you speed-dating version of some of things that have worked for us."

It all begins with newsroom culture.Set the bar high when it comes to generating story ideas. Encourage reporters to come to the table with ideas for the day, week, and long term. One way to do this is through a “Story Lists” Google doc that everyone in the newsroom reads and updates. We use this list to prep for our weekly sit-down news meeting. Everyone has their own section where they list out their story ideas for the week. Then they come prepared to talk about them (in an abbreviated fashion) at the Monday AM meeting. This supports accountability, transparency and taps the power of brainstorming with colleagues.

Online influencing on air.“Why should I care?” is a term we often use when vetting a story idea. We’re now adding “Why should I share?” Sometimes thinking about framing a story that would be interesting to people on Facebook helps us think about telling a story in a more interesting way period. And that’s how doing your online story first - before finishing the radio piece can be helpful. It’s like that slightly catchier headline may be a catchier lead, too. It’s speaking to “you” in a much more intimate way. So, it’s an interesting exercise to go through and say, “What would be the angle to this story that people want to talk about?”

Elephant in the room. I gave every reporter in our newsroom a little plastic elephant this year to put on their desk. It’s a reminder to think about “the elephant in the room” when they’re coming up with story ideas or asking questions during an interview. What are the taboos? What are we all thinking that no one is mentioning? That also includes questioning assumptions. Do we really all agree that “education is broken,” for example? It’s sure said a lot but that doesn’t necessarily make it true. (I was also looking for a little plastic emperor with no clothes on, but I couldn’t find one.)

AM assignments.Our newsroom - and others I’ve known - find this part of our business kind of soul crushing. It’s demanding and usually event-driven. I do it from home, in communication with our Morning Edition team. I do a daily scan and also refer to our “Story Lists” Google doc which helps me remember what reporters have lined up for the week. Before 8am, I send out an email with a tentative line up of spot news for the day. Of course, this can and does change as the day progresses, but at least it’s a road map that everyone can depend on. And when reporters can worry less about the “day to day” it frees them up to think more creatively.

Making each day full of “I never thought of that!” Our newsroom fosters that type of curiosity and energy by telling reporters to work smart, stay within their hours, and then get out of the office and live life. That’s where a lot of the great story ideas come from anyway. And if you’re lucky, those story ideas will be shared in the news meeting with some colorful anecdotes thrown in. And let’s face it, if a reporter can get a group of grumpy news people to care about a story idea on a Monday morning before everyone’s had their second cup of coffee, then it’s likely that story is a winner…especially if it prompts someone to say, “I never thought of that.”

Getting inspired from other people’s work outside of the station: Reporters tell me this really helps them generate story ideas and try new things. At KPLU, we encourage this by having a monthly listening session called “Analyze This!” This is a brown bag lunch-time thing where we listen to a story and analyze it. Sometimes we invite the reporter in to talk about it with us. We’ve analyzed stories by Susan Stanberg with a focus on our arts reporting. And we recently had Jessica Robinson in. She’s a reporter from our Northwest News Network regional reporting team. She  in to do a session with us on two of her stories that we liked - one was an investigative piece about a mining death, and the other was a no-narration story with two brothers talking about mental illness in the family - one of the brothers has schizophrenia. Finally, there’s a great online site that does this sort of thing, too, worth sharing with your news team. It’s called “howsound” and as it says on its homepage it gives “the backstory to great radio storytelling.” Howsound  - produced by PRX -also has a bi-weekly podcast.

Usual suspects and then some  Put a story idea in front of some news people and ask them how to cover it, and they’ll probably rattle off very similar lists of key sources. These are called the “usual suspects” for a reason - they really do need to be heard. The trick is to not stop there. The Story Wheel is a process to get your news minds into some new territory, ferreting out sources and angles that you might have missed otherwise. It works for a breaking news story or for a major project.  You simply draw a circle with the news/idea in the middle, and start throwing out people and institutions connected to that idea, coming out like spokes from the wheel.

Freeze-Dried Series (just add title and promos). This is just a way of thinking about stories you will be doing that may not necessarily feel like a series. When the legislature started in 2009 with a one-billion-dollar deficit to contend with, we knew we’d be doing lots of stories about every facet of the discussion - how we got there, what choices they had, how cuts would affect different aspects of the budget. We decided to label them so listeners would know each story was really a part of something bigger, but we didn’t map it out fully to begin with because we just knew stories would crop up. We did launch with a couple of explainers about just how hard the process was going to be (one reporter played a budget balancing video game with the creator, and a reporter drove around with the state finance chief and 100 pennies to illustrate how much of the budget goes to different services, 43 pennies went in the can when they stopped at a school, for instance). We call it “Budget Breakdown,” put all the pieces in one page on our website and ran promos about each story and mentioning there were more. Other examples - “Coming Home,” ongoing stories about soldiers returning after end of Iraq war, facing family issues, PTSD, job problems, successes.

Let the public do the work. We created a series called “Here’s What Happened” asking people to share a story that they often retell. We ran lots of promos inviting the stories (and I like the sound of just running the promos because it invites people in and also invites them to think). We got a great array of stories. We collected them through Public Insight Network, or you could invite emails or set up a voice mail box (or push through the station’s Facebook page). People were so practiced it was easy to bring them in and have them tell it. We heard one about a dog calling his owners on a cell phone (he accidentally dialed while chewing), a woman who delivered her baby in the car, a woman who grew up with a chimpanzee as her sister (“My Hairy Sister”. . . favorite headline). It was a weekly series for six months; in hiatus now. We’ve just started “Words that Speak to Me” - quotes you love from Grandma, Ghandi or Lady Gaga as our promo says - and we’ve gotten dozens of responses, enough good material for a year-long weekly series. These get some of the most hits on our website.

Engaging reporters to think a year out.When I do annual reviews and set goals for the coming year, I work with reporters to identify one or two big reporting assignments/enterprise/series they will work on so that they can spread out the effort and also so we can plan to accommodate enough reporting time as needed as the projects come together.

Project planning steps - Will share the document (below), but gist is brainstorm, set deadlines, even if they are far out, make clear who is assigned to do what, and don’t forget social media, PIN, and on-air promos starting early in the process. Gives a clear map for reporters, can share with everyone in the department who isn’t involved so if they know something about it they can chime in. Also the two music stations can get in on promoting, and marketing has a long heads up to prepare any outreach they are going to do.

Series swap  (Great series out there – can be applied to any market - check out other public radio news websites to see what they're doing! Also, Investigative Reporters and Editors ( posts “how-tos” from people who have done enterprising stories, often using databases and public records searches and some good how-to if you want to check out how the data look in your state, eg pattern of parking tickets dropping off in rainy weather, poorest schools having the least experienced teachers, etc.)


Series Planning Checklist (CPR style)

Being more deliberate about our series planning will help everyone to manage their time, will give us more time to look at the pieces together, and help us make sure listeners and others in the public are aware of what we’re producing.

Here are the steps

1. Once an editor agrees to the series idea, call meeting of key players: editor, reporter(s), PIN, CM, web (until we have a web person, just know that web considerations should be part of that initial meeting). Lead reporter (or editor if that’s who initiated) should provide at least a general pitch about the idea at this stage.

2. At that meeting, should aim to:
  * decide on series focus
  * decide on series pieces for air (feature, CM, newscasts), web
  * decide on PIN approach
  * set timeline, starting with airdate and working backwards to include:
            - Air date
           -  What stories assigned to whom (including CM interviews)
    - deadline for story outlines (this is an additional step than in most stories, but allows better coordination of the overall series)

- When PIN query would go out

- Social media plan (or deadline for finalizing a social media plan), to include call-outs as part of reporting, as well as promotional/sharing content.

- What are the web elements, deadline for editing, posting

- deadlines for scripts (Scripts should all be edited before the first one airs so assign deadlines accordingly; exceptions can be made if there is a tight turnaround, but that usually won’t be the case with series.)

-schedule follow-up meetings to track progress, discuss obstacles

- promo - who is writing, who is voicing, date it will begin to air and date it needs to be filed.
For any of these items, if they are not finalized in the meeting, meeting convenor should set deadlines for the remaining items. The lead reporter would send out a pitch for the series - if more reporting is needed before the pitch, then set a deadline for the pitch to go out. Meeting convenor should establish a google doc describing the plan and deadlines, and share that with news department and with Marketing and with Chief Content Officer (for promotions). This can be put together as the meeting progresses Editor puts stories onto whiteboard (a google doc).

3. Reporting, collaborating, revising.

In this process, the reporter(s) research, review PIN responses, collect tape, consult with editor on story structure.

PIN analyst is collecting responses, weighing whether there is a debrief element.
Web elements come together.

4. Final stage

Week before air date:    
Promos are written, produced, aired
Social media previews go up
Stories are edited, produced (scheduled one a day for edits) in time for at least two days to assess the entire series and make tweaks for flow, etc.
Web elements collected, article created and edited
Promos to outside sources (blogs, newspapers, etc.) go out
“Post-mos” - promos that run after telling people about the series, directing to website are written, produced and put in rotation.
Reporter(s) and PIN analyst track responses for possible letters segment or follow up stories or debrief on the air.

5. Accept Peabody, Murrow and DuPont awards.