Merging electronic and shoe–leather reporting
Journalists working in a modern newsroom benefit from a steady stream of wires stories, social media feeds, and messaging tools enabling instant collaboration with sources – all delivering information to the desktop.
But before the internet, reporters had to rely on other means for finding stories and verifying facts. And it often meant getting out and about, making contacts, following leads, reaching dead ends, turning round, and starting again. A lot of the skills involved in so-called shoe–leather reporting still hold good today.
If you turn up for the daily news meeting without a story idea, you’re in the wrong job.
News releases, diary events and the wires play their part in the daily news diet – and, sadly, a large part for some media organisations – but the journalism resulting from such sources will always be stimulated and prompted by others.
A journalist should be living and breathing stories 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year. This means that there is no excuse for turning up in the newsroom with a blank mind and no ideas. Real journalism knows no shift patterns – they are there only to ensure that the newsroom works well. Journalism is a vocation, not a job.
So, what were the sources of stories in the days before the web. Here are 24 tips for potential story sources to ensure that you will always have ideas and will never turn up at the morning news meeting looking for a place to hide.
All these suggestions come from the days I was a local newspaper reporter and was judged on what stories I found, rather than the stories I was given.
1: Your foot soldiers and spies
These are the people who, on your behalf, will spot changes and notice the unusual. They include those who are delivering mail, newspapers, milk and groceries. They are particularly useful contacts. But you have to invest time to get to know them – preferably on first name terms. Security staff at clubs, delivery drivers, post-room staff, and local bar staff are all useful contacts. Build a network of these contacts,
2: Window shopping
Local meetings, lost and found items; in fact all the standard hand-written adverts that appear in shop windows could turn into a story. Many are rich pickings, but you will probably have to jot down the numbers and make a few calls before that becomes apparent.
3: Everyone has a story to tell
Start with public figures, but expand to include everyone. Artists, retired academics, shopkeepers, business leaders, union leaders, a cleaner, a road sweeper. Draw up a list. Create a diary. Do at least one interview a week. Some may be rubbish and may never be used. Others could be explosive.
4: Daily calls
It used to be called “doing the calls” on my first newspaper. Every day, one of us would be sent to call at the front desk of the local police, fire and ambulance station. We could have done it on the phone, but we wouldn’t have got half the tip-offs had we not knocked on door and chatted about events over a cup of tea. This personal touch could also mean that you get an early heads-up when a big story is about to break.
5: What’s on at the local court?
You have to be careful here in terms of legal issues, but if you know your patch you will know some of the names listed. This source of stories is more about being aware and alert. Always ensure that you have the court listings. Once you have the listings you can do some background digging. You won’t be able to publish your background research as a story until the case is over and the verdict delivered, but once it is, you will be ahead of the rest with a background piece.
6: Planning and development
The local planning office is often a source of great stories. It’s there where you will be able to find out what’s been approved, rejected, and what is subject to appeal. Check the names of the developers. Look through the records. Jot down the areas where an appeal is under way. Go to the site and talk to residents about what they think about the decision. Keep digging; you will find some great stories in the local planning department. Look out for new building work and then go through the records to track the planning process. Look for the unusual.
7: Original surveys
Buy a cheap clipboard and write down 10 questions on a burning local issue. Then go out to shopping areas, railway stations etc and invite people to take part. Try to interview 50 people. If you can stretch it to 100 all the better. Read it all back and think through what the survey is telling you. Think about who you should talk to next to turn your research into a story. Make sure you ask those you question whether you can quote them. Some will want to remain anonymous; that’s fine as long as the quote is real and you can stand by it.
8: Local concerns
Again, get out in the street and ask people what concerns them most, what they would like to see changed, what annoys them the most, what they would like to see happen in the town. What they like, what they don’t like. Categorise the topics raised into issues. So, for example, if someone is concerned about the time it takes to see a doctor or get an appointment for an operation, list that under ‘Health’. If someone is angry that the last bus home is at 10pm, list that under ‘Transport’. Try to find 10 local issues with 10 local topics under each. Then work through them producing original journalism addressing local concerns.
9: A year ago today
Recording recent history: Keep your own news diary each year and jot down all the stories you covered along with relevant contact details. Then always look back at what you were covering six months and a year ago. Check with the contacts you spoke to in the past. Ask them whether anything has changed. A responsible journalist will always follow-up on important stories. Your follow up will probably present you with a new exclusive – and you will have some great archive material to support the news update.
10: Local statistics and trends
Turn numbers into stories. Think through how the town you are working in compares with neighbouring towns, such as whether it is growing, shrinking, has more or fewer people in work, has a younger or older average age, has more expensive or cheaper property etc. Talk to local politicians. Don’t just take the statistics at face value. Ask questions. Keep pressing until those with the information give you what you want.
Trends can also be a great source of news. Talk to academics, business leaders, the man and woman in the street. Get to know about how things are changing and find out why they are changing. What do the old think of the young and what do the young think of the old? What are the benefits, what are the risks, where are the opportunities, where are the threats? Keep gnawing away at the bone to ensure that you get all the meat off it.
11: Garden maintenance workers
Talk to the garden maintenance workers. They often have a van and a trailer stacked with rakes, spades, bits of trees and shrubs etc, and they usually take lots of tea breaks. Catch them at the right time and they will often be happy to chat. They have some great stories; treasures found, most unusual shrubs, biggest snakes, decline of one species and the flourishing of another. Perhaps there are invasive species taking over. Those working in gardens will be happy to tell.
12: Pest-control officers
There will be companies in your town specialising in pest control. The biggest wasp nest in the most unusual place, the fattest rats, the worst cockroach infestation – all are the makings of great stories. And those dealing with pests are usually well-informed and keen to talk about what they have found.
13: Rubbish and recycling
What are the trends? What is being reused? What is being thrown away? What are the door-to-door recycling teams looking for? What happens to the material? Who buys it? In what ways could people recycle more? Look for the extremes – the biggest, the most valuable, the strangest etc.
14: A day in the life of
This can provide a rich source of local-interest stories. Everyone has a story to tell. Ask permission to follow someone around for their working day. Ask them questions all the time. Watch what they do. Look for the unusual. Their lives will touch on the lives of others, too, so bring them into the story.
15: Who goes where
Which airlines use the local airports? Where do they fly? Is travel on the increase or decrease? Who is travelling? Are they leisure or business travellers? What are the business links? The same with railway and bus stations. Who is going where to do what? Sounds simple, but this, too, can uncover some interesting leads that may be worth expanding on a slow news day. It’s amazing how much people will talk in the arrivals hall of an airport if they have had a) a great trip b) an eventful trip c) a bad journey.
16: Local infrastructure
Is the town expanding? If it is, how will it cope? Roads, schools, policing, hospitals, doctors, utilities etc. Good news for the politicians, the businesses and the banks may not always be great news for the community. Don’t get carried away with all the hype. Is the infrastructure sufficient? Is the water supply adequate? You will get a steady stream of PR (public relations) press releases. Don’t take what you are given on face value. Dig deeper.
17: Charity shops
Junk and jewels: Is trade up or down? What is most in demand? What is the most common donation? Have they found anything unusual? Money in pockets, rare stamps, expensive heirlooms. Charity shops are often a useful barometer of the local economic climate and can reveal stories of hardship and social struggles – as well as generosity.
18: DIY stores
What is selling most? You can then check out how that is affecting local tradespeople. Get permission from the manager to talk to staff about DIY disasters – these always make great stories. Talk to customers, too. They may be prepared to let you go round to their homes and take pictures. You are looking for the unusual. I once came across a man who had a fully plumbed bathroom suite surrounded by a hedge at the bottom of his garden because he liked to wash in the open air. Strange man, but he was happy to talk about it and it gave me a front page lead.
19: The marginalised
You should be representing the whole community. Find out if anyone is getting a rough deal. Are some shunned and avoided? If so, why? Who are they? What is being done for them? Visit them and get their side of the story. Then seek out any other side. Talk to people at the job centres or those hanging around during the day.
20: Local petitions
The usual stuff: speeding, accident black spots, dog mess, litter, bonfires, noise pollution, immigration, travellers etc. Find out who is campaigning, ask why, and then look for all sides of the story. Every town has local pressure groups. You need to know who they are, what they are campaigning about, and what their diaries look like.
21: Health and safety
Keep in touch with the watchdogs for alerts and ailments. Food standards agents carrying out restaurant checks, building regulations officers monitoring so-called cowboy builders, the trading standards officers who are keeping an eye on dodgy goods etc. Don’t wait for the news release. Make contact with those who carry out the checks and talk to them regularly. It can take such departments a couple of days to agree and write a news release, but they may tell you what they are investigating earlier in the process and you can get the exclusive.
22: Lost and found offices
There will probably be one at the local airport, the main railway terminal and bus station, there will certainly be a room at the local police station full of lost (and stolen/recovered) goods; the lost and found office is often a treasure trove of great stories. Ask for permission to be taken round, interview one of the staff and take pictures. If you get too many stories, keep some for a thin news day.
23: Hospitals and A & E
Many people visiting your hospital’s accident and emergency waiting room could be a potential story. People with their hands stuck in jars, children who have swallowed coins. Not all will talk, but it’s amazing how readily some people will tell you how they came to grief. People can often wait for hours to be seen and might be happy to natter to you because they are bored.
24: Farmers, food and famine
Always find time to talk to farmers. This is a tip recommended by Jonathan Marks.
Those working the land will always have a story to tell. It could be about a new pest that’s destroying crops, it could be about the benefits/unfairness of government policy. It could be about cheap imports destroying their livelihoods. Make time to talk to them to find out what is the story behind local food production.
And if you fail …
If you try all these leads and still end up without a story idea, you are probably not cut out to be a journalist. You might find a career in processing information prepared by others, but you are probably not the sort of person who is going to produce original journalism that digs where others don’t, shines a light in dark places, and reflects the real issues facing your audience.