Whether you’re an intern new to a community hoping to impress your boss or a long-time reporter hoping to avoid writing about air conditioner and ice cream sales this summer, knowing where to look for original local story ideas can be a game changer. The best way to avoid being given bad assignments is to be busily working on better ones. Luckily, there’s a wealth of such story ideas available right from your cubicle. Here’s where to look:
This classifieds service has more to offer than missed connections and old couches. But looking in those places could yield a few unusual story ideas. Did someone lose something particularly sentimental or is someone selling something that would make the appraisers on “Antiques Road Show” grin with glee? Look under the community bulletin board section for what people are complaining about these days. Pull up the jobs page — and resist the urge to work from home and make $$$, it’s probably a scam but may be a story ideas (are their legitimate work-from-home jobs in your area? whose doing them?) — look for companies hiring a bunch of people or for weird types of positions. Are they hiring movie extras? Are their other interesting stories buried in the job pages, like the one I found that advertised they need staff “after an appearance on the Food Network”? I’d never heard of the place before, and there wasn’t any information in the local paper about said appearance. What got them on the network, what show, when will it air again? That could be an interesting piece.
Chances are you’re checking this once or twice a day anyway, why not put those mouse clicks to good cause. Search for groups linked to local schools, towns, businesses or establishments. You might stumble on the class of [insert interesting year/decade relevant to holiday or topic]. Or there might just be a fun gathering of minds talking about the old days, when Rapidly Growing Town X had 500 residents, which could be an interesting story to tell about urban sprawl or a way to get into a census story. Other potential leads: As we head into another election season next year, see if there are local groups already organizing on the network — these guys will have insights into voting trends and will know before you when big candidates are headed your way. Did your school district recently lay off staff and are parents rallying a facebook fundraising campaign (this is a true story from my education reporting days).
They’re an oldie but a goodie. When you get a new beat or get to a new town, you should search out and follow at least a few local bloggers. Their missives might be missed opportunities for local talkers. They may have been at the scene of a local fire, or their scathing review about bugs in the soup might lead you to a health-department condemned restaurant — and a great story. Or their commentary about local laws or political pandering might be the germ of a story about stronger dissent, this is doubly so if the blog belongs to a politician or other public figure. In fact, if those blogs exist you should be following them if only to see what the official message is or if they slip up and release some bit of news that’s not out supposed to be public knowledge yet. Otherwise, just search for locals who might make for interesting profiles. Maybe you have an Extreme Couponer in your midst or someone who has chronicled their battle as they lost 200 pounds or cooked and blogged 100 meals from ramen noodles. You get the idea, not go find these people.
If you’re a reporter not on twitter, quit reading this and go join. Now, start a list of locals you find on the network and at least skim through it. Search for local businesses, politicians, teachers/principals/administrators, restaurants and average people. There are tons of great ways to follow zipcodes and hashtags and phrases that 10,000 Words has covered before so I won’t go into them. But keep this hat trick close by during the next severe storm or plane delay, as it will help you collect anecdotes and sources for your stories. Follow the same bloggers you found in the last group on Twitter, where they may lead you to others who share the same interesting hobby. Those political organizers might drop hints that Obama is headed your way days before the campaign confirms it (true story), the couponer might be leading an upcoming workshop on the hobby or post about being denied service at an area store, or the politician who hasn’t opposed a bill on the floor might come our railing against it on Twitter.
There are thousands of other sources of story ideas (police blotter, bulletin boards, etc.) beyond the web, so don’t limit yourself to cubicleville. But don’t ignore these potential gold mines either. The important part is you should be watching and listening everywhere for the germ of a story or sources to complete a story idea, and the web offers quick and effective ways to find them.