The genesis of a story idea comes from something as innocuous as an overheard remark. It can also be derived from questions raised over an existing news story, or stem from personal experience. Story ideas are one of the biggest must-haves of an investigative journalist, but possibly also the toughest part of the job. It is not easy to generate good ideas all the time, but here are a few tips to help with that.
First, dispel the romantic notion that story ideas land in your lap. Some of us dream of receiving a stack of confidential documents in dark alleyways, which reveal some explosive secret that ends up being front-page news — and a byline in bold accompanying it, with praise, recognition and awards to follow. Yes, sometimes that happens. Watergate began with an anonymous tip-off that ultimately led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation. But, by and large, anonymous phone calls or top secret documents about political corruption are rare and need to be checked thoroughly. Watergate is not just a well-known example of political skulduggery, but a testament of the hard work put in by the reporters involved.
Secondly, never go ‘off-duty’. An easy way to generate ideas is to keep your eyes open. Many times, a story has its origins in a reporter noticing blocked drains along the road as he walks to work long queues for passports at the immigration office, or even a nurse’s harsh treatment of patients at a clinic Not all of these observations will necessarily yield a story, but they give you a starting point to do some digging. Jot down your ideas at the back of your notebook, including the questions you think may arise. Better yet, record them on your mobile — snap pictures, draw diagrams and keep a digital copy so you can bring your investigations with you on the go.
Third, trust your senses. Even after visiting a site and talking to newsmakers, some reporters may find that others do not share the experience and dismiss the preliminary research. But something that seemingly only happens to you is no less valid as a starting point for a story. Reporters are their own best witness, and it is always good to have first-hand experience and observations to shape a story. Your experience may turn out to be a fluke, but do not let that stop you from doing your preliminary checks.