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Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Freelance Toolbox

Finding the story in all the right places

By Bret Schulte

Writing is hard. If writing comes easy, my guess is you’re either doing it wrong or you’re a genius, and I’ve never met a genius.

Freelancers are faced with the toughest part of a tough job: finding the story. Beat reporters have the advantage — if you want to call it that — of tending small gardens of public interest, such as cops or schools, in which each blossom might decorate the next day’s publication; but freelancers trod acres upon acres of generally disregarded underbrush.

Is that a white truffle there? Or is it a poisonous fungus that will sicken some poor editor? In the world of truffle hunting, they have trained pigs and dogs to sniff out the good stuff. Journalists are not so lucky, but I do think there are ways you can improve your hunt.

STORY IDEAS ARE EVERYWHERE IF YOU TRAIN YOUR BRAIN TO SEE THEM

That’s harder than it looks, and I still struggle with it after years of story spotting. The trick is recognizing when you encounter something interesting enough to make you go: “Huh.” That is a story-idea moment! And if something is interesting to you, there’s a good chance it will be interesting to someone else, too. A tandem of 12-year-olds just took the bridge tournament at the Grand Denouement Senior Living Center? Huh. Pitch it.

LOCATION MATTERS

If you write for a local outlet, be thinking hyperlocal. Get on neighborhood listservs; prowl the blogs; read the bulletin boards at the local library, town hall or co-op. Scan Craigslist. (Safety alert: Craigslist can be, uh, terrifying.) Read business publications.

Every place I’ve ever lived has more business publications than it possibly needs, and you can make what they’re covering as news stories into terrific enterprise pieces on entrepreneurs and employment trends. A business story on a bump in tax revenue on area restaurants is a feature story for you on a burgeoning entertainment scene.

If you’ve got an appetite for something bigger, again use your location to your advantage. What is happening in your town, your region, your state, that is so peculiar or newsworthy that the entire country might be interested? The wire services will cover politics, breaking news and sports. What editors need you for are the human-interest, trend and enterprise stories that beat reporters are too busy to write, or see.

When I’m pitching stories I regard my geography — I live in northwest Arkansas — as my primary asset. I have relatively little competition, and the area is off the national radar, to put it nicely. It also provides the opportunity to take a national story and give it a geographic freshness that might interest a national audience.

THE BEST, EASIEST PLACE TO LOOK FOR STORIES ARE IN NEWSPAPERS AND MAGAZINES

As a freelancer, let those stories inform and inspire you. What do these stories not cover? Are there characters whose incredible experiences have been reduced to a few sentences? Can you find a profile or human-interest story? Is there another point of view not being covered?

READ EVERYTHING

Modern Dog is just as relevant as CNN when it comes to finding ideas. Do you see a local angle to a national story? Don’t limit yourself to the editorial content. I’ve written at least two stories that were inspired by advertisements: One was in Harper’s for a robot made by Honda (it’s true), and the other was about a family-owned electric supply store that lost to the gentrification of Washington, D.C.

LOOK FOR THE ODD AND SURPRISING

In 2010, an expat Frenchman living in the Ozarks started to build a medieval castle in Lead Hill, Ark. That got a lot of attention. The New York Times covered it as a tourist attraction. I wish I had done the story. However, two years later when the castle came tumbling down — financially, I mean — the story was mine. It wasn’t surprising anymore that the castle existed. People knew. But there was something else surprising, and that became my angle: You could buy a half-built castle in the Ozarks for $400,000! Fifty acres of land included! The New York Times took the story.

Good hunting.

NOTE: A version of this column previously appeared on the SPJ Freelance Community blog, The Independent Journalist.

Bret Schulte is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Arkansas. He freelances for The New York Times. He has also written for Columbia Journalism Review, American Journalism Review, Nieman Reports and National Geographic News. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, the International Herald-Tribune and other publications. He is a winner of three Green Eyeshade Awards, which recognizes the best in Southern journalism, and was a 2012 finalist for a national Mirror Award.

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