Most stories develop from a reporter’s own areas of interest, from questions raised in an earlier story or from current events. It could be inspired from something read somewhere, or it may stem from personal experience, a conversation or a chance remark by somebody. Here, it is important to understand that it is not easy to generate good story ideas consistently and at every time. It might be even the toughest part of a journalist’s job.
First, there is the romance factor: Budding investigative journalists often begin their professional journey with fantasies of being approached in dark alleyways with confidential documents. Once the contents are revealed, a resulting story makes the front page, with, if all goes well, a byline in bold print. Praise, recognition and awards follow. And sometimes it does happen that way. Watergate began with an anonymous tip-off that ultimately led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation. But generally, anonymous phone calls or top secret documents about political corruption are rare and need to be checked extremely well. Watergate is cited not only because it is well-known, but because of the inspired and determined work conducted by the reporters involved. It is also a great story of political skulduggery at the highest level!
Second, a journalist is never off-duty. They have to keep their eyes open and notice blocked drains on the road as they travel to work; long queues at the passport office; the rudeness of the nurse at the clinic. There may be more story ideas than seen at the first glance, requiring an investigation and some probing. Keep an ideas section in your notebook and jot down everything you observe or the questions that arise! Better: Record them on your mobile!
Third, reporters complain ‘I don’t have enough evidence!’ even after visiting the site of a story, talking to people and recording details. But this is already evidence. Something that happens to you is no less valid as the starting-point for a story than something that happens to someone else. The advantage is you know it is happening because you experienced it. Reporters are their own best witness, and it is always preferable to have first-hand experience and observation to help in shaping a story – backed up by detailed notes taken at the time. Never rely on memories! A mobile phone with a powerful camera is a huge advantage. So photograph that leaking sewer as soon as you see it!