A former editor of The Times tells of a test he used to work out whether a fact, or set of facts, was worthy of being turned into a news story. ‘You need to ask yourself: is this new, is it relevant, and is it interesting? If the answer to all three questions is yes, then, chances are, what you have before you is a news story.’
I’ve always remembered this, because it’s surprising, when you look at a given set of facts, just how frequently two of these three are in place, but not the third.
‘A possibly revolutionary new drug is entering a trial phase.’ (New and interesting, possibly, depending on the drug, but not relevant, because many drugs enter the trial phase and fail.)
‘A new technology may increase jet engine efficiency by up to 15%’. (New and relevant but ultimately not that interesting. A news editor I worked under at the Times had another test for ‘interestingness’, which was: ‘Is this something I would likely tell this to friends down at the pub?’ If so, then it’s interesting.)
‘London is hosting the Olympics.’ (Interesting, very relevant, but not new. It’s not a great example: more commonly you’ll chance upon what is an interesting story in your area, only to find someone else has already written about it. News should be new, by definition, but depending on your publication, it may be willing to run something after someone else. It depends on context. If you are the Telegraph, and the Guardian has run the story in question a month ago, that would most likely kill your story. If it’s only been reported in a little-known blog, on in a foreign language, say, the chances of your publication ‘following’ another – often with attribution – are higher.)
Another test (from yet another news editor) was to ask: do these facts, when you consider them, make you sit up in shock. My take on this has always been: when I’m reading something, am I internally – or indeed externally – exclaiming: ‘Bloody hell!’ If so, you’re getting ‘news-story warm’.
Of course, all this is easier in theory, than practice. Fleet Street is littered with examples of news organisations failing to spot stories, one of the most recent being the story of MPs’ expenses scandal, which was offered to multiple titles before The Telegraph eventually agreed to run it.
One of the challenges is that, before news becomes news, it often doesn’t look like much. An exploding volcano that is forcing residents of neighbouring villages to flee may well incite you, as a bystander, to take a picture – perhaps pick up a notebook and go ask some questions. But the vast majority of stories have none of this drama. Quite often, beforehand, they don’t look like anything at all. They’re a set of PDFs. Some rows in a spreadsheet. A single email, or note, which, read out of context, or without other relevant facts to hand, doesn’t amount to much. They have no headline sitting on top of them, none of the scandal, none of the manufactured shock and outrage which is the journalist’s stock in trade.
How to find them then?
When I was a reporter, I operated in what you might call two ‘modes’: prospecting, and digging.
Prospecting was, as the name suggests, a sampling exercise. I read lots – often obscure publications, on and offline. I would browse the less frequented pages of government and other websites. I would ring contacts in my industry and take the temperature of their world, making sure I was aware of things on their horizon, or things that they might have come across in their travels that I could use.
Digging was more focused. I was investigating something in particular, and I needed to find out more. I would establish which information sources and/or which people were most likely to be able to shed more light on this thing, and I would hunt them down. I’d make calls, which mostly led to yet more calls. I’d badger people for phone numbers; I’d ask them if they wouldn’t mind sharing something with me – often that they could attach to an email: a report, a statistic, whatever. I’d read page after page of material. I’d often ask a news editor for guidance. (A fresh pair eyes is almost always extremely helpful.)
Generally, in either mode, the next step to be taken was somehow taken as a response to the question ‘Why?’. As long as you are constantly asking why, and formulating actions or next steps in response to that question, there’s a good chance you’ll be headed in the right direction.
Knowing when to kill a story – when you’re flogging a dead horse – is important, too. Often I’d do this by playing out the course of the story in my mind: ‘With the facts I have so far, what is the best available top line?’ (Thinking in terms of headlines was very much the practice when I began reporting ten years ago. It’s arguably slightly less true today.) If the answer to that question was not that exciting – by the former
Times editor test, then I’d consider moving on to something new.
As for practical tips, everyone develops their own methods. Here are a few I found helpful:
1. Know the power of Google Advanced Search. It’s amazing how few people harness the full, extraordinary power of search: domain-specific queries, search terms nearby to other search terms, the list goes on. Google Insights for Search is also worth exploring.
2. If you’re operating in a particular industry, or geographic area – a particular council, say, know who everyone is in that world, and follow them. Organise people into lists which makes tracking their comments more manageable.
3. Read their blogs and other relevant news sites. If you like, pull these streams into an RSS reader so you’re not constantly having to visit lots of pages. It’s amazing how many people you meet who say they’ve ‘swapped’ RSS for Twitter. I’ve never understood why. As a reporter, you need both. Twitter is fantastic, but it’s a synchronous tool, which has its own drawbacks from a story-finding point of view. From an information density perspective, it’s also not blazingly efficient. I still know of no other page where I can see as many headlines, in such a small space, as on an RSS page. When I was operating in a niche subject area, I found RSS invaluable.
4. Cultivate contacts. It’s well-known that Woodward and Bernstein had known the source that became known as Deep Throat in the Watergate story for many years prior to that story breaking. You should be thinking the same way. A source, if they are going to be a great source, needs to trust you, and that only comes with time.
5. Consider becoming more statistically literate. There’s been an explosion in so- called ‘data journalism’ of late. I’m not sure that term is so useful, but I would say that there are new journalistic spoils for reporters who approach the material you increasingly find at the core of big stories now – large data sets (Wikileaks etc.) – with some statistical understanding. If you are interested in that area, contact the Royal Statistical Society. They provide excellent advice, and run workshops for journalists.
6. Be familiar with the list of organisations that are subject to FOI, and put in requests regularly.
Above all, be rigorous with your facts. Stand them up, check them diligently for authenticity, and then be willing to stand by them. There are few things that compare to the thrill of releasing a news story into the world, knowing that it is rock-solid.
Jonathan Richards is Interactive Editor at The Guardian
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