During winter last year when I discussed with one of my former colleagues that I was planning to start a website to share my experience with other reporters, she said I should not exchange my tips with anybody. But, I wanted to share my experience, as I believe knowledge is the only treasure that multiplies when shared.
Last time, when I requested Gregg Mclachlan for permission to reproduce list of his "50 places to shop for story ideas," he not only allowed me but liked by idea and gave me access to more of his resources at News College. Had I not tried to share my experience with you and not sought the permission, I would have not been able to find "50 more places to shop for stories".
I hope you'll love this list too. But, again credit again goes to Gregg McLachlan for compiling this list and allowing me to share it with you.
1. Court news: Look at what sentences criminals are receiving. Look for sentencing trends. Maybe, criminals are being ordered to donate to food banks, humane societies or shelters for abused persons. In one case, an illegally killed moose was ordered to be donated to a food bank. Also look at crimes being committed, especially the unusual ones. How does someone shoplift a TV? What are the most common items being shoplifted?
2. eBay: What's selling on eBay that has a connection to your local community? Maybe it's a historic postcard. Or pottery. Or antiques made by some long forgotten factory. Search eBay by using your city/town name. There are treasures waiting to be discovered.
3. YouTube: Just like eBay (see #2), search YouTube. Who's posting what from your community?
4. The Yellow Pages: Think you know your community? You'd be surprised what obscure or niche businesses are operating in your backyard that you don't know about. Start flipping through the pages.
5. Special interest magazines: Live in a rural community? Get your hands on a rural living magazine. Live in a popular eco-adventure area? Get an adventure mag. Live in a farming community? You get the idea. Special interest magazines report on unique issues that likely have relevance to your community too.
6. Visit your local museum: Most people love history about their community, but it's always amazing what we don't know. Exhibits can tell you stories, and give you ideas. Plus, what's not on display can be just as fascinating. Museums rarely have room for public display of everything in their collections. Find out what's in storage too.
7. Real estate listings: Sure, you'll find homes, homes and more homes. But you'll also find businesses, factories, historic landmarks, former schools and churches, bank-possessed properties, and more.
8. Liquor licence notices: Notices from governing bodies that control liquor licences for restaurant and bar owners can reveal not only who's applying for an alcohol licence, but also who's having their alcohol licence revoked because of violations.
9. College, university course guides: Look for the latest course offerings and night classes. Bellydancing? Yes, it's just one of the courses noticed in a college program guide.
10. Tender notices: When municipalities require specialized construction projects, tender notices are issued (invitations to contractors to bid on the work). Find out what work is being proposed. Bridge construction? Sewage upgrades? Sometimes the lowest bids aren't accepted. Why?
11. Insurance claims: Public agencies and municipalities are always settling insurance claims. It could be damage caused to a taxpayer's property. It could an accident involving a municipal vehicle. It could be anything. Find out what's being paid out, and for what.
12. National/provincial/state parks: Most parks operate activities for families, especially on summer weekends. Get a list of the activities planned. Maybe they'll include a late-night owl prowl, rattlesnake education day, or tips on how to survive if you get lost in the woods.
13. Recreational facility users: Find out from your municipality or county which groups are using arenas, ball diamonds, etc. Besides the usual groups, you'll likely find some interesting users. One example of a find: young inmates at a juvenile correctional facility playing hockey at a local arena during early morning hours.
14. Estate sales notices: Often, a deceased person's belongings may be sold at estate sales. Such sales usually advertise in advance in newspapers. You'll get an interesting list of heirlooms, antiques and collectibles.
15. Police auctions: Usually, police forces will annually auction off seized or recovered items, such as bicycles or stolen goods for which owners were never found. The goods sell for bargain prices. And many of the never claimed items leave us wondering . . . I wonder who owned that?
16. Marriage notices: Mixed in with all that standard stuff about exchanging vows, cutting a cake and best men and bridesmaids, you might just find tales of unusual honeymoons (mountain climbing, humanitarian expeditions, etc.), or two people with the last name Smith getting married (yes, Smith & Smith is a true story!).
17. The One Year Ago comparison: You can apply this to almost anything. Take something from the current year and compare it with the previous year. Smog days. Real estate sales. Boating accidents. Business bankruptcies. Fires. Campground occupancy rates. Humane society adoptions. The list is endless.
18. Agriculture associations: Find out what they're lobbying for. Find out about crop yields, the state of crop pests, and general farm trends.
19. Scanners: Most newsrooms have one. But more importantly, what stations are loaded into your scanner, besides police, ambulance and fire? Make sure you have utilities (hydro, gas, etc) programmed too so you'll know about gas leaks, electrical transformer malfunctions, and tricky operations such as the transportation of giant objects via roads which require lifting of power lines, etc). Make sure you have public works departments (the county department that handles flooded roads, backed up sewers, downed trees, etc.) added too.
20. Emergency plans: Most counties have official emergency plans that are always being updated, scenarios being added. Find out how your county will handle epidemics, disasters, etc. Is your local hockey arena the designated morgue if an epidemic hits and hundreds die? Find out. What about vaccinations? Who's where on the priority list? (Sorry, journalists aren't likely No. 1)
21. Campus life: College and university campus life has its own culture of newsletters, websites, bulletin boards, etc. Tap into campus life (no, we're not talking about the beer).
23. Job statistics: Find out which government agency compiles job data about your marketplace. When you get the data, you’ll be able to see which career sectors dominate your area, which sectors are lacking workers, and whether your area is diversified enough. It can all add up to telling data about whether your community is stuck in neutral or diversifying its employment offerings.
24. Pauper burials: Every community has pauper burials (ie. Burials where no relatives of the deceased have been found, and there are no funds available from the deceased for the burial). Communities allocate X amount of funds for such burials. Tell the story of one pauper burial: it’ll take some digging (sorry, it’s a bad pun) but there might be a touching story there about someone who has left this Earth with barely a goodbye from anyone. Who was Mr. X or Ms. X? Find out.
25. Hunches: Good reporters develop hunches. Many prize-winning stories have been broken because a reporter had a hunch. Maybe it started with a simple "something doesn’t seem quite right here." Or maybe, "I wonder if the government is doing this today because it will eventually pave the way to implement XXXXX next…..?" Or, perhaps, "this is really odd. I think there has been XX break-ins at churches in the past six months. I wonder if they’re connected?" Take your hunches and start sleuthing.
26. Buried leads: Read other reporters’ stories, especially your competitors. In a perfect world, reporters perfectly structure their stories, leaving nothing buried. Truth is, buried leads happen. And when they do, they represent an opportunity for an eagle-eyed reporter.
27. Old magazines, newspapers: Look to the past to reintroduce or update an idea for today. Story themes of the past often have relevance today.
27. What would you like to see in the newspaper?: It's a basic person-to-person question that often leads to someone saying, "Why don't you do a story about...?" Congratulations, you've just used your readers as a source for ideas.
28. Check out Newseum: This is a one-stop website for quick hits about what other newspapers are doing. Visit www.newseum.org/todaysfrontpages. It's bound to generate some ideas, or at the very least, some inspiration.
29. Advice columnists: Read about the problems facing average people and how they are being addressed by advice columnists. It might be the lonely bride bemoaning the husband who still insists on hanging out with pals at the neighbourhood bar on Friday nights. Or it may be the family who has a dog with bad manners that makes social visits with friends an uncomfortable affair. No matter what is discussed, you'll likely find oodles of social dilemmas that are common for many of your readers.
30. Whatever happened to...?: Readers often wonder about whatever happened to....? And we often forget to tell them. It can be people, places or events.
31. Unsolved crimes: Every community has them. Sometimes they're long forgotten crimes. Or sometimes they're stories we wrote a month ago and then let slip. Long forgotten cold cases can make for fascinating reading. More recent unsolved crimes simply beg being revisited: Has anyone been arrested? Has the investigation grown cold?
32. Anniversaries: We're not talking Uncle Jed and Aunt Sally's 50th wedding anniversary (although, there might be a story there too!) We're talking about anniversaries such as the 20th anniversary of a tornado that destroyed a town. Or the 25th anniversary of a $1 million lottery win by a local couple. Or the 10th anniversary of the closure of a community's major factory. All these dates represent the opportunity to reflect on the actual event when it happened and how life has changed years later. A smart editor or reporter will log important dates and be prepared for such stories.
33. Use a newsreader: Many websites today offer RSS (Really Simple Syndication) news feeds. Popular newsreaders include www.NewsGator.com, www.Bloglines.com, www.FeedReader.com. Just Google 'newsreaders' and you'll have many options (some free, some paid). Newsreaders are great ways to customize which newsfeeds you receive so you can tailor information to your beat or just general interests. RSS lets you stay on top of the latest news or blogs.
34. Use social bookmarking sites: Facebook (see #22) is so vast and useful it's worth being its own source for story ideas. But there are other social bookmarking sites that specifically track and circulate popular website finds. www.Digg.com, www.StumbleUpon.com and Del.ico.us are sites where users share and categorize their favourite websites. It's an excellent way to find what's hot with web surfers and stay current with what's trendy.
35. Google Alerts: If you don't have time for other Internet websites or online services for story ideas, do the basic thing: Go to Google and create Google Alerts. You can get Alerts sent to your email inbox for anything, such as news containing the name of your home town, favourite team, favourite sports athlete, politicians, etc.
36. Subscribe to PR Newswire: This is an invaluable free service for receiving press releases about companies and products which are often produce excellent leads for news stories. One corporate press release spotted recently was a warning about counterfeit Colgate toothpaste finding its way into the marketplace. Another release touted concrete canoe racing (now that's a story to sink your news sense into!). Sure, it's PR and you'll get corporate spin, but that's why we're journalists who sort the spin in order to come up with story angles. Use either www.prnewswire.com or the journalist-specific http://media.prnewswire.com.
37. Check out those oddball stories: We all get a good chuckle and raise an eyebrow at some odd stories. Sometimes odd stories present an opportunity to get local reaction. When the Vatican released its 10 Commandments for Good Motorists in June 2007, it was an ideal opportunity to do just that. What do motorists in your community think about Thou Shalt Not Make Rude Gestures, or Thou Shalt Keep Your Car in Good Shape? Ask them. A good source for odd stories is www.reuters.com/news/oddlyEnough
38. Columnists: Columnists who share ideas may actually plant the makings of a news story. For example, a columnist who is critical of efforts to halt the spread of the exotic invading Asian carp in the northeast United States, may provide the theme for a issues-based news story based on the premise: Are we doing enough to stop the Asian carp? Look for potential story lines in columns.
39. Hospital statistics: Hospitals keep statistics. Tons of statistics. Number of babies born. Number of visits to the ER. Number of MRIs performed. Revenue generated from in-room television rentals. Parking lot revenues. Even numbers for specific injuries (lawnmower injuries, backyard trampoline-related injuries, etc.)
40. Your own newspaper's archives: This should be required reading for every journalist who starts a job at newspaper. Have the reporter spend an hour or two flipping pages in the archive room. They'll hopefully gain an appreciation for the newspaper's history, and no doubt, stumble upon an idea worth resurrecting or revisiting in terms of what it means today.
41. Put your own curiosity to work: Good reporters are curious. They have an insatiable appetite to know why something is the way it is. Or, simply what if XXXX happened? Chances are, your readers are curious to know too. It's no coincidence that curious reporters are the ones called diggers.
42. Use your newspaper's searchable database: Most newspapers have a searchable database of previously published stories, but many journalists often forget to use such a database. That database is essential for getting up to speed on a subject, and getting the mandatory background information you'll need for your story. It's also your vital tool for what's on the public record. For example, don't take a politician's word that he/she has been an active proponent of XXXXX. Search your newspaper's database. What did your newspaper report a year ago, or two years ago about this politician? What was he/she saying back then? You might find some contradictions. Too often we let politicians talk a good game in the present, and forget to challenge it down the road.
43. Club notes: Once a fixture in many newspapers, club notes (those little briefs handed in by men's or women's clubs and social groups) often get passed over when we read a newspaper. "They're just taking up valuable space," we might say. "Nobody cares if these people met for tea and had a 50/50 draw." Well, yes, it's often bland, but sometimes there are story ideas sandwiched between those dry paragraphs about calling a meeting to order and what was served for dessert. Once spotted in a women's club hand-in: preparations being made for a meeting with a Belgian prince.
44. Family get-togethers: Spend an evening around a campfire with family, or sitting at at table for a reunion dinner and you'll be guaranteed to get story ideas. What usually begins as family-specific chatter often morphs into a bigger picture discussion. Yes, that little small talk about how grandson Bobby got a concussion heading a ball on the soccer field soon evolves to be a conversation about how heading a ball should be banned for young soccer players. And there's the potential theme for a story: Should young kids be heading a soccer ball? Family get-togethers allow greater time for discussions to expand into something more than just family talk.
45. Ethnic communities: Is your newspaper telling the stories of many communities or just a few? Each ethnic community has issues that are unique. Before you can tell those stories, you need to go to those communities to get the story ideas.
46. Ask your readers to call: Make sure your newspaper invites readers to call in news tips and story suggestions. All it takes is a small blurb that appears in the paper on a regular basis: Got a news tip or story idea? Call XXXXXXX. Sometimes readers need to know their ideas are welcome, before they'll pick up the phone.
47. Meet with Al every morning: Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute has an invaluable free offering. Every morning, Monday to Friday, you can receive an email appropriately called Al's Morning Meeting. It's where Tompkins checks out the headlines and offers suggestions for localizing stories.
48. More story ideas: Check out www.Holdthefrontpage.co.uk. This UK site is operated by journalists. One recent story idea was suggested as a spinoff about a story involving a woman caught stealing toilet paper from a hotel. Holdthefrontpage asks: What about shampoo and shower gel? When does helping yourself to the odd freebie become stealing? Lots of ideas at this site to inspire you.
49. Read show summaries in your television guide: In your TV guide you'll get quick story themes of sitcoms and dramas. And perhaps some inspiration to spin a real-life story.50. Read fine print: It's so small that people often never read it. But they might be shocked if they did. Drug advertisements. Travel brochures. Insurance documents. Contracts. All those little stipulations in very small text can have some major impacts on your life.