An idea is an angle about a subject that you believe will interest the readers of your newspaper. Without new ideas the editorial pages would be pretty dull. But where do ideas come from? And how do you find them?
When you are lucky, an idea can sometimes find you. But more often you have to search for ideas. This sounds difficult, but it doesn’t have to be. Every writer has their own way of developing ideas. The longer you work for a particular newspaper, the more attuned you will become to the type of ideas that will interest your readers.
By cultivating an alert mind and training your powers of observation, you will acquire the skill of spotting suitable material. Wherever you are and whatever you are doing, think about every person, every experience and every event in terms of a potential story. Talk to people. Be interested in new subjects. There are feature ideas everywhere. It’s just a case of realizing them. When you find them, write them down.
People relate to a wide range of subjects. Many are common to everyone, including relationships and emotional issues, work, money, family, health, education, self-improvement, local and community issues, children, transport…..The list is endless. The only limits are your imagination and your ability to make an idea relevant
Your own eyes and ears
Reporters have a special duty to keep looking for the next story. But everyone who works for a news organization should be feeding the news machine with stories: things they’ve seen and heard for themselves. The staff is first resource of newsgathering.
The Emergency Services
Newsrooms should have systems in place to make sure they learn quickly about anything of interest, by contacting the emergency services frequently. It is advisable to have a list of the main telephone numbers in a prominent position in the newsroom, and a schedule for calling them.
Readers, Listeners, Viewers and tipsters
Encourage your listeners, viewers or readers to call in with potential stories and help them make the news. But always double check any information they provide. They are not journalists and may have misinterpreted an incident. Such types of tipster are important source for news stories right from civic problems to at times source of major story ideas.
Ordinary people who see extraordinary things provide a sense of immediacy and a human touch of colour to the facts. However, they may be in a state of shock – and are often unreliable as far as hard facts are concerned.
When you have read all your newspapers, magazines and useful websites, listened to the radio and watched TV, yet find yourself still struggling for a good idea, what can you do next? Pick up the telephone and start talking to some real people!
From the outset of their careers every journalist should have established a contacts book or file. Each time you meet someone new, carry out an interview or find out background information, record the details in your book or on your computer file. The file should be organized in an alphabetical system, so that the data is easy to retrieve.
Enter the full name of the contact, their occupation, their home and business addresses and all phone numbers. If the person is not someone whose name you are likely to recall easily, but they have helped you with their expertise on business issues, for instance, cross-reference their entry under ‘business’ too.
Your contacts book should be jealously guarded. People give you their private phone numbers and details because they trust you. Some people lead very private lives and do not want to be pestered by constant phone calls. Don’t leave your book lying around for others to use.
If you treat them courteously, contacts become one of the best sources of new ideas and information because they multiply. You may have 100 contacts and each one of those 100 will have 100. The numbers start to build dramatically.
On days when it is difficult to find inspiration, make a few random calls to people in your book. Ask them what is happening. Are they doing anything new? Have they heard information about anything in general?
This is hugely useful when you write for a specialist feature section, like health, for instance, since your contacts will work and socialize with many hundreds more in that field, giving you the best chance of a scoop.
Ideas from newspapers
When you read each edition of any newspaper, including your own, ideas for features should leap out at you from almost every page, provided you think laterally and allow your imagination to wander a little.
Let’s start with news stories, which can provide a wealth of feature ideas. Read the news with a feature journalist’s eye. Think about the story and the people who are quoted. Is there a wider issue that needs to be discussed? Is there an interesting personality who emerges from a news story and is worthy of a feature in their own right? Is there an element missing from the news story, one which could be expanded into a feature? And the most important question of all – will your readers be interested in it?
Television and Radio
The world continues to shrink as the internet and satellite broadcasting bring people on different continents in instant contact with information and news reports of events as they unfold.
If your readers have access to television and radio, you should keep a keen eye on the content they are watching. It is forming an additional agenda in their lives, of which the newspaper needs to be aware.
People who appear on TV become popular with your readers. These personalities are useful to interview for features. Television and radio also produce documentaries, which are the elongated versions of newspaper features. Programmes such as these can fuel new ideas.
Other printed material – books and magazines
If books and magazines are sent into your office, make a point of reading them, with a view to finding ideas. If they aren’t, buy them or find them in a library. In addition to books, libraries usually keep copies of national and foreign magazines and newspapers, plus reports and academic journals.
Books can provide ideas because they are likely to have been researched over a long period of time and authors will have dug out interesting stories on a wide variety of issues.
For example, if the history of a shipwreck off the coast of your country had been uncovered in a new book, you could interview the author for a feature. You could also talk to the team of divers who uncovered the secrets of the wreck, and even seek out descendants of any survivors of the disaster.
Magazines may focus on subjects as diverse as economics and politics or fashion and beauty. They might be glossy, national publications or stapled, community-based pamphlet-style magazines. They are useful background reading.
By using lateral-thinking skills, you will find a whole range of ideas to develop and adapt. For example, women all over the world enjoy buying clothes and looking their best. If your newspaper has a feature page which is geared towards fashion and beauty, magazines will help you spot trends to pass on to your readers.
Ideas from newspapers: Advertisements
Although you are more likely to find feature ideas from news stories, there are other sections of a newspaper which will give you inspiration. Reading the advertisements often sparks the imagination.
Here’s an example: You notice that a number of shops are advertising cut-price sales at an unusual time of the year. When you think about it, you wonder whether people are short of cash, causing a down-turn in trade. You telephone a couple of shop managers who confirm that their profits are suffering and that they are trying to boost trade by offering bargains.
Think about what feature ideas you might get from these advertisements and write them down before going onto the next page to see how your ideas match ours.
News agencies are companies which provide news to a number of outlets for a fee. Stories used to be delivered via a telegraph wire to a printer in the newsroom; hence the alternative name wires service.
The World Wide Web is an invaluable and unprecedented tool for journalists. Never before have we had so much information at our fingertips.
Search engines are useful in helping you to unearth masses of information on the subject you are researching. And, of course, you can remain instantly up to date on current affairs by using reputable international news sites, such as the BBC.
There is, however, a downside. The internet throws up so much information that it can take valuable hours to sift through the mass of data to find what you need. And not all internet content is reliable. Pick and choose your sites carefully, cross-checking your facts with other information sources when you are in doubt.
In general, however, looking for feature ideas on the internet can be far more convenient than any other method of research. Many newspapers and magazines publish their own websites.
As well as the most familiar aspect of the internet, the world-wide web (WWW), the collection of millions of pages of text, pictures and often sound and video, there are groups discussing thousands of subjects. They are all a potentially rich source of information and contacts. Official web sites – of companies, organisations and government departments – are an excellent source of facts. Unofficial web sites are a great source of gossip and rumour. They are notoriously unreliable.
When information is received about events that are happening in the future, this should be written into a diary so that those working on the day are aware of it.
There will surely be a national or international story that you could find a local angle on. This is called ‘localizing’ the story.
You can also revisit one of your major recent stories that have gone a little quiet. What has happened while everyone’s attention was elsewhere?
If budding authors had money for every plot they have thought up for a brilliant novel in the middle of the night, but failed to write down, they might all be rich. It is the same with features.
When an idea occurs to you, write it down that instant. You can be sure you will not remember it if you leave it to chance.
Keep the ideas in one notebook or one computer file, so that you can browse through it from time to time. The idea may not be useful immediately, but something may happen in the future to trigger its use.
Organized journalists will take their ideas file one step further by filing away relevant newspaper and magazine cuttings, press releases, emails and website printouts in folders with each idea.
Chances are that if you get excited by an idea – and so do the people around you – then your readers will too.
Public Relations or Press Relations departments in government organisations and businesses are staffed by people who have a three-way function in life.
These PR departments will set up interviews and supply background information for your features, which is useful and saves you time.
The same staff will also ‘sell’ you a story. They will telephone, email and send you press releases. They will also invite you to events to celebrate the launch of new products or premises, or policies.
It is important to realize when you are simply being sold an advert and when there is a real story worth printing. There is sometimes a fine dividing line between the two. You must decide whether there is a story worthy of public attention or whether it would be giving a product or organization free publicity by mentioning it. Decide too whether you need to question the basis of the PR department’s story.
Where the information is factual and interesting, press releases can be a useful source of news. However, the content is more usually bland and worthless corporate puffery, dressed up as interesting editorial.
The journalist should be selective about which conferences are covered and which information is reported. Sometimes they are vital; other times irrelevant.
If it’s boring, leave and go and find a real story.
There are plenty of other things happening in the world!
Ideas are not difficult to conceive if you open your mind to the possibility that they can come from all around you. Be alert and train your powers of observation. Start to question everything that you see. Ask yourself how, what, where, who, when and why? You will start to look at the world in a different light. But when you are thinking of ideas, don’t select only the ones that appeal to you. Writing features is not a self-indulgent pastime. Think of your readers. Are they likely to buy your newspaper to read the feature you are planning?
Newspapers Both your own, and other people’s newspapers are a constant source of features ideas. Read news stories to look for missed or new angles. Read advertisements and look through what’s on diary of events.
Magazines, books and other publications Read through magazines to spot trends and features that might adapt for a newspaper readership. Books often produce good story angles, particularly if they focus on real-life events.
The Internet The World Wide Web is an invaluable source of information. But not all of the information contained in it is reliable. When in doubt, cross-check with another source.
TV and Radio Both television and radio are popular worldwide since satellite technology made them more accessible. If your readers are watching TV, it is useful to know what they are likely to view. Features can include interview with personalities from TV or spin-offs from documentary and factual programmes
Contacts There is no better source of ideas that are likely to produce exclusive material than your own contacts. Every journalist should cultivate contacts from the moment they start in the job. Keep a book or a file with the personal details of everyone interesting you meet or interview.
Ideas File The world is full of people who had a brilliant idea in the middle of the night, but forgot to write it down. Organized journalists jot down ideas for features immediately. Even better, they create files, with cuttings from newspapers and magazines, printouts from the internet, emails and other relevant background information.
PR Departments These will try very hard to ‘sell’ you an idea for a feature. The more space they gain for their client, without having to pay advertising charges, the happier the client becomes. Although good PR departments do come up with well-targeted ideas, beware that you are not being duped into carrying advertising material. Remain objective.
Diary Events All newspapers keep a diary in which to record the dates, times and places of future events. These may include visits by government ministers, major criminal trials, protest meetings, sporting events etc. Writers will find it useful to browse through this list, making a note of events that might lend themselves to feature treatment. ( Source: BBC i-Learn)