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Home > Publications > Quill > Finding Stories Off the Beaten Path


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Tuesday, November 4, 2008
Finding Stories Off the Beaten Path

Nicole Garrison-Sprenger

Lane DeGregory, a features writer for the St. Petersburg Times, gave a room full of journalists at the 2008 SPJ Convention & National Journalism Conference these tips on how to find stories off the beaten path.

DeGregory’s done plenty of digging off the beaten path, finding a forgotten feral child, Bingo Bob and a dress diva. Take her tips and learn to use your own journalistic compass to find the hidden stories. A little wandering goes a long way.

Finding Folks

Talk to strangers. Be a nosy neighbor. Sit by the old woman on the swing. Everyone has a story.

Play hooky. Roam aimlessly. Let someone else drive. Ride the bus. Walk the docks. Look around.

Read the walls. Check the bulletin boards at libraries and Laundromats. Buy bad papers. Scour the classifieds.

Sit on the bench. Be a fly on the wall. Eavesdrop at beauty parlors, eat lunch alone.

Make unusual friends. Opposites attract. Befriend photographers. Use your friends for ideas and contacts. A friend in advertising turned DeGregory on to a story about Lee, a former military man who longed to be a woman and eventually had a sex change operation. But it wasn’t Lee who DeGregory ended up talking to; it was Lee’s husband, former bodybuilder Charlie Kemp. Through Charlie, she learned about Lee’s adolescent struggles with her sexuality and her desire to be a housewife. Though Charlie wasn’t attracted to Lee as a woman — the two were lovers before the sex change — he loved Lee enough to propose and make her wish come true. Few who knew the married couple knew the secret. When Lee fell ill with lung cancer and Alzheimer’s, Charlie stayed by her side until she died in 2006. A year later he disclosed Lee’s secret, his lie: the woman to whom he was married for nearly 30 years was born a man.

Get a life. Eat dirt at the drag strip. Join bowling leagues, not junior leagues. Go to festivals.

Ignore important people. See who’s in their shadows, who’s holding their coattails. Write around celebrities. That’s what DeGregory did when she was asked to cover Miss St. Petersburg. The beauty queen was a regular on the pageantry circuit, so DeGregory looked for other stakeholders involved in the pageant who might make for a better story. DeGregory considered the caterer who had the arduous chore of preparing food for a bunch of ultra-skinny girls. The caterer wouldn’t play ball. Then she asked herself, how about the evening gowns? Turns out Miss St. Petersburg’s dress diva was none other than Jeffrey Allan Brown, a 39-year-old pageant-obsessed guy who’s carved out a niche as a wardrobe consultant for beauty queens. Instead of writing about Miss St. Petersburg, DeGregory wrote about Brown.

Celebrate losers. Dreams don’t always come true. Ask people about their failures and lessons learned. Good stories come from people who had to regroup after a failure or after they discovered they weren’t who they thought they were. Darrell Blackwell, a man DeGregory describes as “a knot of rage and self-pity and pain,” was the son of an angry drunk who blamed his father for his shortcomings. A year after his father’s death, Blackwell set out to prove that the man wasn’t his dad. Instead, he discovered that his father beat his baby sister to death when she was 6 months old. Blackwell set out to make him pay for Alice June’s death. He maxed out his credit cards and borrowed money from a friend to fly himself and his other sister, Alice’s twin, to Washington, D.C., to convince the Air Force to drop his father’s discharge to dishonorable, dig him up and move him to a civilian cemetery. DeGregory chronicled his quest. Blackwell is still waiting for that wish to be fulfilled.

Wonder: Who would ever? Here’s to you, Mr. Golf Ball Picker-Upper. Someone has to do it. Why is that?

Hang out at bars (or coffee shops). Check out different dives. Different bars have different stories. The people hanging out at a martini bar are different from the folks you’d find at a sports bar or the crowd at a hip-hop bar. DeGregory suggests checking them all out to get a mix of perspectives. But don’t forget about the neighborhood bar where everyone knows your name and the bartender keeps you on speed-dial. A phone call from a bartender friend led DeGregory to Bingo Bob, the lead singer of a local band called No Name Storm. Bingo Bob had just found out he would open for his favorite rockers of all time, Molly Hatchet. The 45-year-old and his crew didn’t get their name on the marquee and didn’t even get paid. They were playing for the exposure and the chance to hang out with the members of Molly Hatchet before the gig. When Molly Hatchet didn’t keep their end of the deal, DeGregory was there to capture Bingo Bob’s disappointment. She also stayed to watch No Name Storm take the stage and rock the house.

Getting the Goods

Give everyone your phone number. Keep in touch, don’t diss PR people, and ask what else is going on. A call from the public information officer for the Hillsborough County Children’s Board led DeGregory to the tragic story of a girl named Danielle who’d been neglected so severely in her seven years of life that she couldn’t speak, hold a doll, walk or even make eye contact. Social workers who rescued her called her a feral child and thought she’d have to live the rest of her life in a nursing home, but a family that had been hoping for a daughter adopted her. DeGregory’s tipster brokered the initial interview with the family. DeGregory followed Danielle as she became a part of her new family and showed signs of improvement. The piece turned out to be one of DeGregory’s most popular among readers, she said.

Be late. Old news is good news. Sometimes, it’s easier to talk after the arrest. Remember to ask, “Whatever happened to …?”

Work holidays. Relish rituals. Find faith. Be with others who can’t celebrate or with those who are celebrating for the first time, or just honoring traditions. A fun example of a holiday story: DeGregory wrote about a frat house mom for Mother’s Day.

Take stories no one else wants. Make other people care. Write for other sections. Find a way it hasn’t been done. When the American Heart Association sent a press release about its Red Dress campaign, DeGregory called the association and got connected with Stacey Karavokiros, a 17-year-old who had open heart surgery and two heart transplants. Designers for the Red Dress campaign were making Karavokiros a red dress for prom. DeGregory intended to go with Karavokiros to her prom and write about the night; instead, she joined the teen in the hospital her body started to reject her new organ. But Karavokiros didn’t miss her big night entirely. She wore her red dress in her hospital room, and a big group of friends came by to dance and celebrate with her before they hit the prom. DeGregory was there to capture it all.

Look for the bruise on the apple. Ask uncomfortable questions. Celebrate conflict, even if it sucks for them.

Lie on the floor, climb on the cabinets. See stories from a new angle. Write from a different perspective. Seek other stakeholders. DeGregory credits her kids with this unique approach. As babies and toddlers, we see life from a different perspective than adults. That kind of thinking led DeGregory to ask herself who military chaplains share their fears with in the line of duty. She interviewed Maj. Jeffrey D. Hawkins right before Christmas to find out. The answer? “No one wants to see the chaplain down.”

Listen to the quiet. Pay attention to what doesn’t happen and questions not answered. Sometimes the best quote of the day comes after you put your notebook to bed, DeGregory said. Be prepared for it and don’t be afraid to pull that pen and pad back out again.

Go along for the ride. Invite yourself over, scan the bookshelves and ask for photo albums; vacuum the scene. DeGregory said she asks subjects of her stories if she can come along with them while they grocery shop or go to kids’ soccer games. An example is DeGregory’s character profile on 18-year-old Michelle Dowdy, who landed the understudy gig for the lead role in the Broadway musical “Hairspray.” DeGregory didn’t just interview Dowdy and her mother in Florida; she made three trips to New York City to talk to the producer, stage manager and music director and to watch Dowdy work.

Play dumb. Repeat the important questions. Ask, “Why don’t I get this?” Find the crux of the biscuit.

Don’t be afraid of yourself. Share your life. Open up, tell stories and take risks. Wherever you go, there you are. t

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