Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Finding Stories Behind the Stories

When I was a college senior and a broadcast communications major, I did an internship at a CBS affiliate in Lexington, Kentucky (WKYT, Channel 27). The year was 1987, and I was frequently paired up with a 25-year-old hot shot reporter on whom I had the world's largest crush.

So this reporter (let's just call him Clark Kent) and his side-kick camera guy often invited me to tag along with them on breaking news stories. And as I rode along in their news van, they would impart their wisdom, while I took copious notes.

It was on one of these sojourns that the news hottie gave me the golden advice which has actually served me for two full decades.

The police scanner in the newsroom crackled that there was an oil spill and that a Haz-Mat team was on site on winding, well-traveled Kentucky road. My eyes lit up when Clark cocked his head at me, and with a wink said, "Let's go get a news story." It was about 10 p.m., and we were going to broadcast live from the van for the 11 p.m. newscast once we got there.

When we got to the road in question, the intersection was ablaze with flashing police lights in pouring rain. Cars were lined up for a couple of miles, while a police officer in a rain slicker directed traffic, as the traffic signal wasn't working. But there were no Haz-Mat workers, and the only thing in front of us was a traffic snarl.

The reporter and I jumped out of the van, and he approached the traffic cop.

"I got nothin' for ya!" the officer shouted at us.

"Nothing? We heard there was a spill!" Clark shouted back.

"False alarm -- we had a Haz-Mat crew out here, but they found nothing, and in the meantime, this traffic light went out with the thunderstorm, so now I'm directing traffic," the officer replied.

Clark shrugged, and we hopped back into the van.

"OK," he said, "Tell me how you'd do this story."

I stared at him open-mouthed. Was he serious?

"You are kidding," I said.

"I am not," replied the Boy Wonder.

"There is no story," I said.

"Oh yes there is," he said, eyebrows raised into his forehead. "Think. What do you see?"

I looked outside the rain-spattered windows. "I see a line of cars."

"How far?"

"At least two miles."

"Good. What else?"

"I see rain, and I see a cop directing traffic. And I DON'T see a Haz-Mat crew, like we thought there would be."

"No, but who is in the cars?"

I studied the drivers and passengers.

"Moms and kids!"

He grinned.

"There's your story. There's always a story. How many people, on your estimation looking at this traffic pattern, had their evenings upset tonight?"

I paused to do some calculations. "If the traffic is moving at this rate, and there are on average two people per car, and this has been going on for the past hour ...."

"Right," he interrupted. "We can't really put a number on it for the viewers, but we can definitely say that traffic was backed up significantly because of a false call on an oil spill. People will get home from being on this road and will turn on the TV, wanting to know why they were sitting for 45 minutes at this intersection. And we're about to tell them why."

It was my first -- and probably my most important -- news coverage lesson in my entire career.

Why, you may ask?

Because, like I learned from Clark Kent, there is always a story behind a story. Maybe the story you envisioned isn't the actual story. But there's always one there, and it usually has to do with the disruption of people's lives -- an event that affected their normal routine. And of course we know that anything that interferes with the normal routine -- is news.

Now you may ask, what does this have to do with writing magazine articles?

Simple: Let's take as an example something that happened to me as recently as last night.

My child called out to me from his bed at about 11:15 p.m.  When I checked on him, he was talking in his sleep, although the yell for help was very loud and very real.

A disruption to the normal. Not a news event, you say? OK. Let's fast-forward to 20 minutes ago. We took a break from my work to drive to a comic book store. Every Wednesday, we pick up the latest installment on a Sonic the Hedgehog series. On the way home, as my child was thumbing through his new comic book, he said, "This looks like my bad dream last night."

Now he had my attention. When I pressed him, he described his late-night fears and how his latest obsession with a comic villain was invading his sleep. He'd seen this character on the Internet, and the scene in the comic book looked like what he'd seen in his dream.

My wheels started turning: How many parents might be dealing with their children's fears at night? It's a common issue dating back to the dawn of mankind, obviously, but what do you do about it? Then there was another spinoff story: My child has Asperger's Syndrome and gets abnormally obsessed with certain things. This leads to more stories .... dealing with the fears of children on the autistic spectrum. And what about video gaming? Who comes up with these characters, and if your child plays a certain number of hours per day, is he or she more prone to nightmares? Now I have story ideas for parenting magazines, psychologist trade magazines, teaching magazines, special needs child magazines .... and my audience is other parents, who may just need to hear from psychologists about dealing with night frights.

Do you get the picture?

Always step outside of yourself in any and every situation where your routine has been shattered. In my case, it was a cry for help from my child late at night.

Ask yourself, "Can I make this into a story? More than one story? What are my markets? Who is my audience? What is my angle? Who would I interview? What questions would readers want to know?"

Do this as a regular exercise during your days.

Soon, you will have so many story ideas that you literally will not have enough hours in the day to research and sell them all.

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