The art of story hunting

Not Everything We Call a “Story” is a Story
The writer and writing coach Jack Hart has noted that journalists have a habit of calling almost everything we do a story whether or not it has any narrative elements.

But…

A fact is not a story.
Information is not a story.
A place is not a story.
A person is not a story.
An event is not a story.

All of these can be the starting point for finding a story, but you have to do some work to uncover one.

Finding a Story is the Hardest Part
Before you get to the work of shooting and editing and putting your story together, the real work is learning to how to identify and pursue story that is worth your time and the audience’s time.

This doesn’t seem like it would be the case given that many countless pieces of news and media each day in the form of texts, messages, tweets, feeds, blog posts, online article, photos, podcasts, and videos. But in a digital age, information and media are fleeting. We consume them and then quickly move on to the next thing. A truly engaging and memorable story is rare.

As a multimedia storyteller, your goal is to find compelling stories and tell them in the most accurate and vivid way possible. This does not mean the stories have to long or intricate or earth-shaking (although at times they can be all of those things).

The best multimedia stories are engaging, surprising, informative, and provide the audience with an “experience” of being a witness to the events themselves.

This takes time, effort, and often a good bit of luck. The main task is to practice, learn from the experience and keep practicing.

Ways to find stories (Chap 2 preview)

1. Pay attention to local news stories
In 2012, the New York Times ran a story about a South Jersey man named John “House” Taylor, a 6′ 11″, 500 lb. football player. It got a lot of attention. But they didn’t report it first. It was first on a small TV station CBS21 then was picked up by Yahoo Sports, Deadspin, SBNation, and others first.

Here are some local South Jersey news sources you may want to pay attention to:
Philly.com Southern New Jersey
Courier Post
Gloucester County Times
Daily Journal
Press of Atlantic City
NewsWorks New Jersey
South Jersey Magazine
NJ Spotlight
Jersey Bites
Jersey Arts
NJ Arts News
Weird New Jersey

2. Social Media (start following Facebook/Twitter accounts in the area)
LA Times ICU series from Craig’s List missed connections

3. Events/Bulletin Boards/Flyers/Off-hand comments
Visiting a homeless shelter lead to a story about a homeless soccer team
Scott Strazzante’s blog

4. Cross the tracks
Go places our aren’t familiar with. Do things that make you feel uncomfortable (safely, of course). Go places where people meet, gather, and do something.  For example, going to a church led to a 10-part series on the elderly

5. Look for ways to localize and personalize big issues
NPR health care stories

6. Pay attention and write it down what you observe
Richard Koci Hernandez’s Multimedia Journal

7. Talk to people. What makes them excited, nervous, uncertain, worried?
In order to find a story, you need someone to talk to and a situation to discuss.

Give your idea the “And what’s interesting…” test
If you think you have a story idea, then follow the following advice from NPR radio producer Alex Blumberg for determining if a reporter is on the right track to a good story. He  calls it the “and what’s interesting…” test.

He writes:

You simply tell someone about the story you’re doing, adhering to a very strict formula: “I’m doing a story about X. And what’s interesting about it is Y.”

So for example… “I’m doing a story about a homeless guy who lived on the streets for 10 years, and what’s interesting is, he didn’t get off the streets until he got into a treatment program.” Wrong track. Solve for a different Y.

Y = “… and what’s interesting is there’s a small part of him that misses being homeless.” Right track.

Y = “… and what’s interesting is, he developed surprising and heretofore unheard of policy recommendations on the problem of homelessness from his personal experience on the streets.” Right track.

Y = “… and what’s interesting is, he fell in love while homeless, and is haunted by that love still.” Right track.

Y = “… and what’s interesting is, he learned valuable and surprising life lessons while homeless, lessons he applies regularly in his current job as an account manager for Oppenheimer mutual funds.” Right track.

In other words, who the hell knows what you might find out. Just don’t settle for the story you already know. Find the exciting or surprising or unusual moment, and focus the story on that.

Here are some other takeaways from the article:

  • Don’t confuse a location or premise with an actual story.
  • Trust the first question that comes to you. Figure out what question you want to answer or what story you want to hear. If the question seems obvious, chances are it’s a story.
  • Just because something is a story or takes the form of a story doesn’t mean it’s an interesting story.
  • Don’t pursue a story just because it’s story you’ve heard before. In fact, do the opposite. Look for the story that is the most surprising and unexpected.
  • People often tell you the boring part first. Sometimes they think it is exciting or think it’s what they are supposed to tell a reporter. Dig deeper. If you are bored, your audience will be bored.
  • Everyone has a story, but it’s not always that interesting or something you can adapt. If you don’t have a story, find someone else.

“Make Your Own Luck”
Journalists (and journalism professors) love to talk about “making your own luck.” What it means is that the best reporters are prepared, quick to respond, and put themselves in situations where they might encounter a good story.

Seek out places that have action. Go to places where people gather, interact, perform, dress up, make money, lose money, debate, create, fight, participate, compete, protest, educate, and worship. Someone who sits in an office all day and works on a computer is good for background information or a quote, but they generally make for lousy multimedia.

Talk to more people than you need to. Ask your questions. Then ask them what questions they think you should be asking. Then ask, “Who else should I talk to?”

If something strikes you as odd, surprising, or too good to be true, check it out.

Spend as much time as you can reporting. If you can revisit a place more than once you often find new information that you did not get the first time.

Pay attention.

If something doesn’t pan out, then either dig deeper or move on.

Above all, be curious.
 

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