Intro from Jay Allison: When we hold our community listening sessions and students play their work, invariably the first audience question is: "How did you find that story?" If you're not in the story-finding mindset, it seems like a pure mystery. And, even if you ARE a story-finder, you can use some more tricks, right? That's where Latif Nasser comes in. He's the Director of Research for WNYC's Radiolab, and in very short order, he'll provide you with ideas that will remove any excuse for NOT finding stories...everywhere. You'll start clicking links before you even finish his guide.
The World’s Biggest Scavenger Hunt: A Guide To Finding Stories
I love being a journalist for so many reasons. You get to sniff out secrets. You get to ask strangers inappropriate questions. You get to tell people things about themselves or their world that they had no clue about. But the reason I love being a journalist most of all? It turns the world into a giant scavenger hunt. Except instead of Easter eggs, you’re hunting true stories.
So. How exactly do you find a good true story? One that hasn’t already been written about in every newspaper and magazine? One that makes you think things and maybe even feel things you’ve never thought or felt before?
It’s not as hard as it sounds.
BUT. Like with any actual hunt, a lot of it is about the approach. If you get your mind right, set the right conditions, and are patient, you’ll find something great every time. Or at least I have.
A lot of journalists start looking for a story when they need one. They’re on a tight deadline, assigned to cover a breaking story that everybody else is already covering, looking to find some tiny fresh nugget to differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack. To my mind, this is the worst way to start looking for a story. You are stressed out, crunched for time, and in a half-panic, knowing that you are competing with some of the best story-finders in the business, all scrutinizing the exact same thumbnail-sized scrap of story real estate. For some people that kind of pressure is helpful. For me, it just feels like homework and it makes me want to give up.
Instead, I find it way more rewarding to clear my mind (and maybe also my schedule for a bit) and start from first principles. Begin with the presumption that for all the great story-finding journalists out there — and there are a lot — there is no possible way that they could cover all the great stories happening right now on planet earth. There are more than seven and a half billion people out in the world. Presume that 1% of them have fascinating, dynamic, newsworthy things happening to them in any given week. You think that the Washington Post or Buzzfeed or the BBC, or really all of the mainstream media outlets combined could possibly cover seventy-five million stories per week? No way. And that’s just alive people’s stories! There are also dead people and animals and businesses and ecosystems and microbes and consumer goods and planets and laws and inanimate objects . . . they all have stories, too. Whenever I see a print copy of the New York Times with the phrase “All the News That’s Fit to Print” in the top left corner, I can’t help but laugh out loud.
So, begin with the refreshing certainty that there are, effectively, an infinity of stories out there, just waiting to be found and told. Now all you have to do is find one.
A Bag Of Tricks
There’s no one way to go about finding a story, but here are ten concrete, easily do-able tricks that have worked for me.
1. Set Up Google Alerts. A Lot Of Google Alerts.
I love Google Alerts. I have dozens of them active at any given time.
- On scholars or journalists whom I think are brilliant and whose work often sparks new story ideas for me (for example, Jill Lepore or David Grann or John McWhorter).
- On topics that I’ve long been fascinated with, but have never quite found the right story to match (“alford pleas”).
- On key phrases of stories I’ve covered in the past, just in case there’s something new afoot (“Prevention Through Deterrence”).
- I even have a handful that are just random juicy phrases that I think of as little story lottery tickets that may one day pay off big (for example, the phrase: “the human equivalent of”).
2. Sign Up For Email Newsletters. A Lot Of Email Newsletters.
If I were smart, I’d probably have started another email account just for email newsletters, but I wasn’t and so here I am with 11,000+ unread messages in my inbox. It’s a disaster. And yet, I still treasure all of the email newsletters I receive at all hours of the day.
Many of them are straight news roundups, say from Harpers, Politico, even from St. Louis, MO teenager Gabe Fleisher’s bedroom. (Gabe’s is called Wake Up To Politics and I highly recommend it.)
Others alert me to books coming out or about to come out, such as New Books Network or Publisher’s Lunch, not to mention those from good local book stores or public libraries like the Harvard Book Store or the New York Public Library.
I also subscribe to a bunch of personal newsletters from journalists I love (for example, Ed Yong, Maggie Koerth-Baker, Alexis Madrigal, Jason Kottke, and others) and institutions and Non-Governmental Organizations I really respect (a few include the ACLU, UNICEF, the Anti-Defamation League, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism, and so on).
Every day I also get a digest of questions and answers on topics I’m interested in from the website Quora. I get a weird factoid from the trivia connoisseur Dan Lewis. (His daily newsletter is called Now I Know.) The periodical Public Domain Review periodically blasts their email list with weirdo treasures from the archives.
The best email newsletters of all, though, are the ones I get in specific subject areas, usually meant for a tight circle of specialists. I get dispatches from intellectual property law firms, from criminologists who specialize in art heists, from historians of education, and so on. The more obscure the field the better.
The important thing to know about email newsletters is that reading them (really, skimming them) should take no more than a minute or two. And even if you don’t read them, you don’t have to feel guilty about it. (In fact, on the contrary, you can delete them and feel for a second like you did something productive by helping to clear up your bloated inbox.) But the goal here is just to see as many stories as you can that don’t make it to the front page of most newspapers, because maybe there’s something in there that’ll spark an idea of something you could cover.
3. Look Up Publisher Catalogs.
Two words that not enough journalists know: “review copy.”
As a journalist, you can ask publishers for review copies of books — even books that haven’t been published yet — in order to “consider them for possible coverage.” And they’ll send them to you. For FREE!! It’s a crazy journalist superpower that nobody ever talks about.
So here’s what you do. Take a look at some of your favorite books. Notice what publishing house published them. Now, every once in a while, go to that publisher’s website and check their catalog of recent and upcoming books. If a title (or let’s be honest, a cover) catches your eye, send an email to the address listed on the website and ask to get yourself a copy.
University presses — which tend to have way smaller PR budgets than for-profit presses, but still send out review copies — are an especially great place to find stories that are probably not getting much coverage anywhere else. Sure the writing may be a little less flashy than in mass-market trade books, but the authors will often be super grateful for your attention and will bend over backward to help you. Obviously, give all authors proper credit, and don’t sell the review copies. But otherwise, it’s a great way to find obscure but fascinating stories with an obvious and willing person who can talk about them: the author.
4. Rummage Around In Oral Histories And Personal Papers.
For whatever morbid reason, I tend always to veer towards stories of dead people. One of the first things I do when I’m even remotely interested in a historical story or character is look for his or her oral history and personal papers. The best way to do that is to search their name (and all aliases) on a website called ArchivesGrid (which is a subset of the library catalog of all library catalogs, WorldCat). Sometimes you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you find.
If you are feeling even more adventurous, you can listen to many, many oral histories online. You can listen on university special collections websites, or even on Youtube. (Just think of it like an unedited podcast.) There are also many oral histories and personal papers at major public libraries like the New York Public Library (the Central Branch as well as the Schomburg Library) and you can just randomly go in person and request to look through them. Rummaging through oral histories in UCLA’s special collections was how I found the story of John J. Bonica, a guy I ultimately did a TED talk about.
5. Always Talk To Strangers.
Strangers are a blessing. Be they plane seat neighbors, people behind you in line at the bank, even wrong numbers. Ask these randos questions about their lives, their jobs, their kids. I’m particularly a sucker for hearing immigrant stories. One time I had an Uber driver in Los Angeles who told me the spellbinding story of how he started — you can’t even make this up — the first ever death metal band in Kabul, Afghanistan.
You should also ask people what they’ve read recently, as well as the new breakthroughs happening in their field that may just change everything. Two years ago, I sat next to a pleasant stranger on a bus from New York to DC. Her name was Lynn Morgan. She’s an anthropologist. I told her that I found the field fascinating, and asked her to tell me about the youngest and most interesting folks working in the field today. She told me about a book, The Land of Open Graves by Jason De Leon. That conversation was the seed for a story that took me and the rest of the Radiolab team a full year to report and produce, and ultimately became Radiolab’s Border Trilogy.
6. Twitter DMs.
There’s a lot of garbage on Twitter, to be sure. But every once in a while you see something — a bizarre personal story play out as a thread, a factoid that changes how you think about an issue, a photo that introduces you to a world — that makes you go, huh, I never heard of that before. When that happens, don’t just keep scrolling! Save them as grist for potential future stories. What I do is DM the story to myself. I do this just about every day. Now, my Twitter DMs from myself have become a de-facto clippings file, a mini-cache of potential story ideas that I can revisit whenever I feel like it.
Also. Keep those DMs open. Sure it opens you up to random vile internet toxicity, but I can’t tell you how many interesting folks I’ve met through those DMs that I wouldn’t have, couldn’t have, met any other way. (Admittedly, it’s much easier to say this as a straight man, so maybe women and LGBT folks should gauge for themselves.)
7. Wikipedia Surf.
To me, the perfect way to procrastinate is to go to the Wikipedia homepage and click the “Random Article” button. (It doesn’t really jump out at you, but if you look at the menu bar on the left side, it’s five items down.) From there, the game is to just keep clicking whatever seems like it might be the most promising link on the page until you get to something you never knew existed.
A few highlights from my last year of Wikipedia surfing (*not fact checked, so take with a grain of salt):
I should also say that I end up doing this so much that I set up a regular monthly payment to Wikimedia. And if you do, you should too!
And while you're at it...
Help Transom get new work and voices to public radio by donating now.
8. What Do I Want To Know?
This one isn’t a technical trick so much as a helpful mental game.
A lot of times, you’ll find a story that interests you, but when you start to probe a little bit deeper, you realize that it has already gotten some coverage. So you try to read everything about it you can find, and you have to suss out whether the story has already been done (or even overdone) or whether there’s any room for you to add anything new on the subject.
Any time I’m in that sort of situation (or really anytime I read a non-fiction story, period), I imagine myself standing in a room with all of the story’s main characters, no matter whether they are willing to talk or alive or dead or speak English or are single-celled organisms or the President of the United States. I imagine if I could ask them any questions I’d like about this story, what would I want to know? The questions could be technical, emotional, philosophical, whatever. But I force myself to try hard to articulate them.
From there, I ask myself two questions about those questions. One — have the people who have already written about this story answered those questions? And two — do I think I can actually get answers to those questions, and if I do, will they actually be interesting? If you think the most interesting stuff has already been covered or is un-coverable, don’t waste your time.
I remember doing this exercise in the early stages for a story I did for Radiolab called Staph Retreat, about two scientists who discovered a medieval medical recipe that seemed to work in the fight against antibiotic resistant bacteria. The story had been covered very widely — in National Geographic, the BBC, the Washington Post, and so on. But none of those outlets had asked what to me was the most central question of all — how the heck was it possible that a thousand-year old medicine could kill a superbug that only came into existence within the last few decades? I felt like with that question about germy time travel, I had something to add to the story, which is why I (and my editors) decided to do it.
9. Bee Line For Boring.
Every once in a while, read books and articles about topics that you are convinced there is NO WAY ON GOD’S GREEN EARTH you’d ever find interesting. I’m talking the kind of reading material that you have thus far in your life worked to avoid having to read. The most boring stuff possible.
But here’s the twist. Make a game out of it. The object of the game is to find a way to convince yourself — in spite of your very strong reservations — that there’s something meaningful and worth paying attention to in these pages. Work hard to find a story or detail in there that will make you care, and will make you want to hear more. Use your reticence to your advantage; if you can convince yourself on a topic as sleep-inducing as this one, you can probably convince anyone.
I had this experience with Anthony Lewis’s book Freedom for the Thought We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment. When I first picked it up, I have to admit I figured nothing could be more technical or legalistic or boring than the history of the freedom of speech. It’s just people arguing about arguing, right? How could that be narratively satisfying? Partway through the book, I found, tucked inside, the story of a man named Oliver Sipple. Sipple saved then-President Gerald Ford from an assassin’s bullet, but in the media frenzy in the aftermath, his friend the activist Harvey Milk outed him as gay to the press, ruining Sipple’s relationship with his family and ultimately, ruining his whole life. I think it’s one of the stories I’ve made that I’m proudest of, and it came from a book that I expected to be a slog but is now one of my favorites.
10. The Screenplay Seminar Scene From Adaptation.
If none of these tips work, and you are still despairing about your ability to find stories (a spot even I find myself in from time to time), I pull up the screenplay seminar scene from the movie Adaptation and pretend I’m Nicholas Cage’s character. Besides being one of the best written movie scenes of all time, it’s a glass of water to the face of story-finding paralysis.
To quote Nicholas Cage’s character, “Okay thanks.”