Thursday, September 6, 2012

Where does news come from?

At critique yesterday, I encouraged everyone to be on the lookout for stories that surprise and delight Orion readers, but where do those stories actually come from? The answer is: lots of places.

Other media
Ben Mullin, who wrote the story on 2A about the Bear, found that story in the Chico Enterprise-Record. He didn't pick it up wholesale, of course, but it gave him the idea to call people who knew what was going on with the bar and Chico State and wrote his own story.

Reading other newspapers, watching TV news, listening to radio news (especially public radio), keeping track of local Twitter accounts and Facebook pages, and reading people who blog about the campus and community are all good ways to find stories. Sometimes what you see or read will lead you to re-report a story, but often news from elsewhere will stimulate you to think about localizing or adapting the story to fit your readership.

Ben didn't know where the E-R got its story originally, but he guessed it was probably from a call someone made to the newspaper. He's probably right. Sometimes people have an ax to grind, sometimes they think corruption or wrongdoing needs to be exposed and sometimes they would just like to see something in their newspaper. Having the newsroom phone number in the paper and email addresses at the end of stories is a good way to encourage tipsters. So is putting a message on home page inviting people to submit news items.

Keeping your eyes open
I make a joke with friends about the skills I've developed as "a trained observer," but that really is what journalists are. If you notice that video rental stores suddenly have "for rent" signs in their windows, that trash seems to be accumulating behind downtown businesses or an unusual number of dogs seem to be on the loose in your neighborhood, you could be writing stories about a switch to digital movie delivery, a contract dispute between the city and trash haulers, and the sudden firing of the local dog catcher. Curiosity is probably the most important skill a journalist can develop.

News releases
Too much of the news we read is actually delivered to news organizations by public information and public relations people, but it would be difficult to publish a paper or air a news broadcast without these handouts. When someone calls a news conference, it's probably a good idea to be there. And California's public records laws make it difficult to get details from police unless the department issues a press release. Still, few real surprises come from people who manage the news for a living. And remember that all stories from news releases need follow up reporting to find out what the PR people aren't telling you.

Building relationships
The best stories I've covered have come from what used to be called shoe-leather reporting, running a subject-area beat every day. When I covered cops and courts, I personally stopped at the police station, sheriff's office, highway patrol office and county and federal clerk of courts offices every day. After awhile, those people got to know me, learned to trust me and started mentioning things to me that weren't in the files or official reports. It takes time on a beat to earn that trust, but it can pay big dividends in the long run.

If you aren't running a beat of some kind for The Orion, it's time to sit down with your editor and figure out a beat coverage plan. I think that's really the best way to find stories worth telling.

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