How to Find Stories in Unexpected Places
This post originally appeared on Contently’s The Freelancer.
Last month I wrote about crafting the subject line of a cold pitch. A few readers responded with questions about the step that comes before pitching: finding the story. And so, here is my latest advice.
As strange as it might sound, I have a harder time not finding stories. It’s like that line in The Sixth Sensewhen Haley Joel Osment says, “I see dead people.” Instead of dead people, I see stories. Everywhere.
Still, we all hit dry spells. When that happens, I’ve learned, the best thing to do is start talking to people. Anyone. Listen to their stories and see if you think there’s more. It’s something I’ve been doing forever, but I honed the intuition while in grad school at Columbia University.
HITTING THE BOOKS
Near the end the program, one of our professors assigned a profile, and the subject had to be a researcher based in New York. Beyond that, it was completely open-ended. Not knowing many researchers, the only logical thing to do was narrow down what types of research I was interested in. I settled on medicine and started reading through professor biographies at NYU, Columbia, and a few other schools. I was particularly interested in new approaches to treatment.
After narrowing my search to a few researchers who were studying either autism or cystic fibrosis, I emailed them to ask about their current work. Two replied with interesting responses, so I gave them a call. One of the conversations lasted more than an hour. I was fascinated and knew I had my story.
If both calls had been boring, I would’ve gone back to the first step. However, Dr. Kara Margolis agreed to let me come as often as I’d like, meet her patients, and publish some of the data before she even submitted the findings to a journal—all but guaranteeing I’d be the first to tell the story.
Some freelancers may only wait until the perfect idea strikes them, but there are times when you have to grind out a subject.
Discovering the idea came from something as simple as a biographical blurb. In that case, I needed to find a story, so searching it out was necessary. Some freelancers may only wait until the perfect idea strikes them, but there are times when you have to grind out a subject. That way, if a story has been covered, you don’t have to completely give up; just pursue a new angle or advance previous reporting.
Sometimes, finding a feasible idea is a matter of calling a bunch of people; other times I meet people at events. I get the invites the same way I get stories—I call people. Only in this case, they’re public relations people.
My first day at CBS, I started reaching out to tons of PR reps. They were happy to hear from me and constantly sent emails about products and events. Despite their reputation as email kamikazes, these PR reps helped me find at least half of the stories I wrote during my time at CBS.
And even after leaving CBS in June, I kept in touch with most of the reps. They continued inviting me to events, where I took it upon myself to talk to as many people as possible and find stories beyond what the reps were expecting me to cover.
The first event was with Red Bull. I was invited me to be a fly on the wall at a sponsored endurance study. A few of the study’s authors were Red Bull employees, but most were academics. I talked to each of them about their work, and two really caught my attention because they were working on experiments I’d never even heard about. We’re still in touch, their ideas sitting safely in my brain, and eventually I’ll write about them.
Over the summer, a PR rep from Nike I’d kept in touch with invited me to a shoe launch at the company’s headquarters. There was a high school football event taking place the same day, and after noticing a pack of parents sitting along the sidelines, I just walked up next to a dad and started talking. It was an interesting conversation but nothing jumped out at me, so I moved on to the next set of parents.
Two hours of short conversations later, I’d met the mother of one of the most sought-after quarterbacks in the class of 2015. Her son was verbally committed to one college, but a few of her comments led me to believe she wanted him to play somewhere else. There was no way I’d have an exclusive, since the college football beat is so popular, but I knew the athlete didn’t live far from me. I’d be able to spend a significant amount of time with his team—if the coach let me—and I saw the potential to go more in depth than daily reporters could. On the flight home from Oregon I happened to sit next to a former college football player, and we spent the entire flight talking about how the recruiting process has changed. Sitting next to him was dumb luck, but the conversation convinced me the story was worth pitching. I reached out to the quarterback’s coach and his mom, again, and they agreed to be part of the story, and I pitched to a publication I’ve never written for. That story will be out in early 2015, around National Signing Day.
As you meet more people, you’ll be invited to more events, where you’ll meet even more people, have more interesting conversations, and find more stories. Just keep talking until something strikes you. (Also, trust your gut when a conversation is getting boring and you don’t think there’s a story there.)
If you want to know more about something you see or hear, chances are your readers will want to know more. That, above anything else, is the best way to gauge if you’ve stumbled on a story. As freelancers, most of us have that sixth sense. Sometimes you just need to remember to trust it.Image by Ron Phillips