Lecture: 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 writing, shooting, 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 the countless pieces of news and media we are subjected to each day. 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 is just the art of discovery,” says Richard Koci Hernandez. “That’s all good storytelling really is in anyway: making a reader or a viewer feel like they’ve discovered something for the first time the way I discovered it.”

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

So where do you find stories? Here are some places to start.

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. But first it was a local story.

Here are some local South Jersey news sources you may want to pay attention to — if for no other reason than you may find story ideas.
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
Following Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest (etc) accounts that can might yield story ideas. Tip: Famous people aren’t going to give you much. Look for social media accounts that are local or issue based. For example, the LA Times did a whole series of videos based the Craig’s List missed connections.

3. Bulletin Boards/Flyers
“There is probably at least one story on every utility pole.” – Kenneth Kobre

4. Pay attention to offhanded comments and follow up on them.
In the book Videojournalism: Multimedia Storytelling, photojournalist Scott Strazzante describes how when he was doing a very traditional news story (people giving gifts to a family in a homeless shelter) he stumbled across a much more compelling story. “On my way out, the manager said to me, `Have you ever heard of homeless soccer?’ There’s something called Homeless Soccer World Cup.'” Strazzante ended up following the team through their training, practices, games and even the death of the assistant coach. Check out some profiles of players.

5. 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, one reporter goes to church not to worship, but to meet people and learn about their concerns. That led to a 10-part series on the elderly

6. Look for ways to localize and personalize big issues
Take a big issue and look for how it affects real people in their daily lives. For example, NPR health care stories

7. Stories about the past.
A few semesters ago a student in this class decided to investigate an urban legend that her dad told her about a whale buried in a local landfill. The hunt for the real facts turned into a story.

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

9. 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.

10. Make your own luck.
Journalists (and journalism professors) love to talk about “making your own luck.” What it means is that the best reporters 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 a lousy multimedia story.

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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