Finding story ideas: Peel the Onion

I’ve written before about how to pitch a story, develop sources, and what not to do in editorial meetings.

However, it does all start with the idea itself and how you dive into that topic that might be as big as a Hash House A Go Go dish.

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I see in a lot of forums questions like “HELP! I need a story idea!” or I get questions from my own staff about needing a story idea for that day.

First, it starts with knowing how to dig. Yep, it can be seen as the most boring part of it – going through data and documents and talking to experts that bore you silly – or you can look at it as learning and growing in your journalism craft.

BOOKMARK: Journalist’s Toolbox

I like to start with things I don’t understand. That way I am going to learn more about something I don’t know well, making the process more beneficial for me and in turn my community.

Then I like to go to “What are people complaining about?”, formerly known as “That’s what people are talking about.”

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I personally feel that MOS (man/woman-on-scene) isn’t really relevant in most cases any longer due to the MOS being the sole purpose of social media. You know what people are going to say one way or the other. I like to look at the complaints and truth test them, whether it’s someone saying, “Science proves masks don’t work” to “Biden/Trump is the worst President ever”. Just telling an MOS story is looking at the onion across the room.

For example, in my community right now there is a Health Alert for overdoses. Fentanyl-laced cocaine is killing people. When I say that sentence, what comes to your mind? People doing drugs in dark corners of crack houses? A 20-something living off mom and dad’s dime in college? A homeless person with an addiction? A stressed-out executive trying to keep the energy up?

I proposed taking over a newscast, the 6 pm, to do a full in-depth look at what this crisis really is and whom it’s impacting. Not just scraping the skin of the onion but peeling it back layer by layer and taking a deep whiff of the smelly underbelly that can make you cry.

Layer 1: The problem

Layer 2: Whom it is impacting, who are the faces, what is their story?

Layer 3: What is Fentanyl and why is it so dangerous? (Researching this will scare the crap out of you.)

Layer 4: Narcan and how to get it

Layer 5: Where do our community drugs come from? Can we talk to someone in prison for this to tell us how the pipeline works?

Layer 6: Talk to an addict. Why is it so hard to walk away? Why risk your life when you don’t know what’s in the drug you are taking?

And the list goes on.

I think it’s important to take BIG topics and don’t just do the event of what is happening or do a throwaway story with bites from officials.

If you put a gun to my head and said, “Get me cocaine or you die”, I wouldn’t know the first way to find it. It’s not like you can put a sign up saying “I want cocaine.”

I once worked in a newsroom where someone dropped what was called “a bag of weed”. It was brought to me, and as I took the bag to the powers-that-be, I said “We need to find out if this is marijuana” and a certain high-power person said “Why can’t you just tell by looking at it?” and I said “I would think it’s a good thing I don’t know what pot looked like.” I was concerned I was making a big deal about oregano someone brought for their lunch-at-their-desk pasta or something.

With any big story, there are layers. Talk through them with your friends, staff, colleagues, mentors, etc. Talk to experts. What do THEY want to tell people? I’m sure there’s someone in the crime lab who could tell us about the burden these cases bring or a hospital worker who has watched 3 people her son’s age die in the past month.

Other ideas right now?

EVENT: Hurricane Ida

IMPACT: Dig into global warming, all sides of the story. Is the worse to come? Are we building up to a Michael Bay movie trilogy of bigger disasters with each year? Dig into how people in plains states are trained to help in hurricane areas, as they don’t deal with it day to day, but go there regardless. Talk to the Red Cross about the process of emergencies. Look at similar emergencies in your area and what is the preparation for them? How much does it cost? Help someone budget out a stash for the next “big event” in your area? There’s a great viral video out there right now of an anchor getting emotional on camera when addressing people asking her “Why do you choose to live in a place with so many disasters?”. Her answer was “This is my home.” There isn’t a portion of this country free from tragedy or natural disasters. We accept certain risks in our area. How do you build off that? The love of NOLA and Cajun life is so palpable.

EVENT: Afghanistan

IMPACT: Do you know the difference between the Tablian, Al-Qaeda, ISIS, ISIS-k, etc.? My own research shows there are SO many of these terrorist groups out there – we just haven’t heard from all of them in a while. Knowing this information is good for your journalism but can educate your viewers. The only synonymous part of these things is their lust for American blood and desire for power. Also, I heard in the news conference yesterday certain items were “Demilitarized (a word even the expert stumbled over twice)”. What exactly does that mean? What’s the process? When you talk to people from Afghanistan in your area, don’t ask the surface questions only. Dig into “What’s a day in life like in Afghanistan? What’s the favorite part of your home country? Were you ever recruited to be in a terrorist group? Were your friends? Tell me about a few times you feel you’ve been treated differently because of your nationality?” Etc. Get to layer 3-4 before you start even thinking of writing that story. What is the *real threat of terrorists in your community? What are the targets? What is the community plan? What is your workplace plan? What is your personal plan if you should fall victim? In the coming days, we are going to hear a lot about the 20th anniversary of 9/11. What are the stories in your community? How did this event impact life-as-we-know-it (like you used to be able to meet people at their gate at the airport)? It was even a popular discussion point in “When Harry Met Sally” about if you should or shouldn’t meet people at the gate. The war is “over”, the memories of the day are now mostly discussed from an “I was in 2nd grade” than “I had a friend in New York that day and cried wondering where he/she was.” Talk to people in your area with 20 years on you and ask how the horror of that day still haunts them, no matter where they were. It was a break in everything we thought was safe and secure in our country. These things happened in “other” places, not here. In 2001, we weren’t as open about things like “Burnout”, “Anxiety” and “Emotions” as we are now. We sucked it up and went on, for better or worse.


IMPACT: There are breakthrough cases. How does a vaccine work that someone inoculated can get the virus? What happens in the immune system when the virus strikes? I know from personal experience, as someone who was SO careful about COVID, but I ended up getting it, my first search was “COVID day-by-day”. I had done a billion stories on COVID, but never dug into what to expect each day. There are so many random side effects (COVID toes, incredible rashes, it’s not a linear illness meaning one day you are great the next you are sick for 4 hours then you are fine then you feel like you are about to pass out.” Things you need if you get COVID: Pedialyte (saved my hydration levels!), an Oximeter (just buy one now, very cheap and help measure your own oxygen levels but putting it on your finger. It helped lessen anxiety when I was coughing a lot to know if my oxygen was low without having to go to the doctor), plenty of hand soap (you’ll never wash your hands more), an emergency contact given to someone trusted in case things go south quickly, Cough Medicine (I am fairly certain my Instacart guy thinks I am making Purple Drank with as much Robitussin and Diet 7Up I’ve ordered), Cough Drops, clothes you are comfortable living in for days (because showering might be the farthest thing from your mind), and if you own a dog – get plenty of toys and treats. They’ll need to be distracted because walks won’t be as plentiful. Is that a story? COVID survival kit? Also, I now wonder – when can I get a booster since I had COVID? What is my immunity now? Talk to people who had COVID if you’ve managed to avoid it and get those story ideas. If you’ve had it, go back through your search history. Every question you asked Google is a story idea (good for COVID and maybe literally anything you Google ever.)

EVENT: A random crime you covered months ago

IMPACT: Look up court documents on that now. I found a great update on a story that happened here when I searched the name and found the details of a Search Warrant. It answered ALL the questions we had at the time but couldn’t get. The family that wouldn’t talk then, will they talk now? (You saved their information, RIGHT??).

EVENT: Social Justice

IMPACT: Many governments, universities, and businesses brought in people to head up Equality, Diversity, and Exclusion. What is their progress? What actual changes were made in your community? Lookup arrest reports and focus on race/age/gender.

And when it comes to digging into ANY story, I heard a line used at the IRE virtual convention that every journalist should repeat in their head when they feel like they’ve hit a wall.

If something is enforced, inspected, licensed, or purchased, there is probably a public record. 

Good luck digging, my friends. Remember, there is ALWAYS a story idea out there – but don’t just hold the onion, peel it back in your mind and in your work.

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