Original journalism: Finding stories

Original journalism can conflict with the demands of daily news output. BBC Belfast journalists show you how to spot stories in the most unlikely places.  

Journalists have to produce more output now than ever before and this pressure can persuade you that the job is more about processing than investigating. The oceans of information and misinformation that are now accessible through social media can drown anyone trying to get at the truth.

But there are stories out there and both up to the minute and more traditional methods can play a part in helping you to discover them. 

Original journalism doesn’t necessarily mean coming up with a brand new story out of the blue. Sudden scoops or revealing information that comes from a long-term investigation are great, but developing original thoughts by assessing existing stories and picking out a new line or angle are equally important.

Social media and internet tools

Whether it’s a Google advanced search, Twitter hashtag thread or a Facebook community, social media sites can help you to source original stories, new case studies, contacts and pictures. But social media and the internet present new journalistic challenges. The information may be easy to access but you need to ensure that it’s genuine and the people authentic.  

So they are a great resource to enhance traditional journalistic skills rather than replace them. Here, journalists in Leeds and Belfast set down their thoughts on finding good stories without a smartphone in sight:

Mindset and curiosity

Originality takes work, time and application - but the story begins with curiosity. 

"If you’ve never come to work with a story that is your own, you need to start practising the art of finding a story,” says one producer in Northern Ireland who remembers an editor who used to walk the length of a street and issue the challenge that in a 500-metre stretch he could find more stories than anyone else.

He took in the amount of litter, standards of parking, number of new cars, what traffic wardens were up to, and so on. All the observations he’d make had the potential to spark a line of enquiry. Yet how often do we pass building sites and never ask 'what are you building?'

Look to develop a mindset that makes it impossible to listen to someone, read a newspaper or walk down the street without thinking 'that looks or sounds odd - I wonder what it’s really about?' 

"Sudden scoops are great, but developing original thoughts by assessing existing stories and picking out a new line are equally important"

Listen to your initial reaction to any story or event. Will other people think that? What happens when you challenge that reaction - where does it take you?

Where to look

The non-news pages of everyday newspapers can be a rich source of original stories so long as you read them with your antennae waving. 

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Classified and small ads are always worth spending time on; people sell or want to buy strange things. The billionaire investor George Soros once advertised in the classified columns of the Economist to buy an entire, fully equipped hospital.

And stories of local personalities facing hard times have come out of local paper ads selling off stage props or medals, for example. You could make it a daily or weekly habit to scan the ads pages.

Notices

Look out for notifications of bankruptcy and ads for liquidation sales. When a big local name goes under, that's a story. When a number go in succession, that's a big story. Watch for patterns and keep track.

Legal notices

Legal and public announcements can point to major developments that haven't yet been made fully public. Apparently innocuous applications for 'changes of use' or to 'rights of way' can indicate something bigger.

Letters

Letters pages and blog comments are an obvious source of stories, especially when there are a lot on one subject. But look beyond the obvious - are there patterns?

Think about what the story could be behind a personal or emotional letter. The story is often in what the writer doesn't say or what underlies an otherwise obvious top line. If you feel there's something more to find out, make the follow-up call straight away before you persuade yourself there's probably nothing in it.

Follow the lead

A better story sometimes lies concealed behind a quite good one.

Phil Squire, a former BBC assistant news editor in Leeds, recalls how his breakfast programme once interviewed a guest who wanted more government support for families who'd had a relative die abroad. The guest's son had died while on holiday, which made his situation a story. He talked competently about procedure but it was his reaction to a question about how he felt he was treated by officials that made it powerful radio. “The guest took us on an emotional journey to the immediate aftermath of his son’s death. That’s what made people want to listen - not the top line about the campaign.”

Get a life!

Journalists can get locked into their own world - dealing with press releases, official statements, briefings, picture feeds, editing… It's important to talk to people who don’t work in the media and hear what’s going on in their lives. 

"There is absolutely no substitute for getting out and meeting people,” says Paul Robinson, a senior programme producer in Belfast. “Listen to what 'real' people are talking about: on the train, in the pub, at public meetings, when they have you round for dinner.

“News is what people are talking about - not what we think they should be talking about."

Another Belfast producer had first-hand experience of this to take to one morning meeting. "I had a great chat with an old guy at a bus stop,” she told her colleagues. “We talked for a few minutes and I said 'you seem to be in a great mood?' - to which he replied: 'I certainly am - my grandson's just been appointed organist at St Paul's Cathedral!'"

Listen carefully

Listening properly to another person means thinking not about yourself but what they are saying. Concentrate on the words they choose and the tone. People only take in a small percentage of what someone is saying. They make assumptions and finish their thoughts for them. By doing this, you will occasionally miss out on a big story.

Let 'the Heseltine incident' of December 2002 be a warning. This was the occasion at a BBC Christmas party when Lord Heseltine, former deputy leader of the Conservative Party, circulated from groups of top editors to groups of top correspondents, telling them that the parliamentary Conservative Party should 'go it alone' and elect its own leader in defiance of the party constitution giving ordinary members the last word. He was astonished that no BBC journalist picked up his inflammatory suggestion to run as a story. He repeated it several days later in an interview in The Independent – and suddenly the story was everywhere.