Idea lightbulb

Journalism is, at core, a reactive profession. Something happens; journalists react. Then they cover the counter-reaction to the reaction, and track any consequences as they dribble out.

I used to think of this as the Day 1-Day 2 story cycle. In the digital age, that cycle happens not in two days, but in two hours or less. But the dance steps are the same: Event, reaction, counter-reaction, follow-up. So are the challenges:

  • How to stay on top of the news but avoid derivative pack journalism
  • How to bust beyond the Day 1-Day 2 loop to do original, creative enterprise — especially under tight deadline pressure

Project reporters, magazine writers and nonfiction book authors develop the mindset — and fight for the time — to revisit “first-draft” journalism. They return to past events with new questions, unearth information or perspectives not available when the news first broke, or find sources who are finally ready to talk. I’ve heard this called Act II or Act III reporting. It’s a way to remember that most stories have “shelf life”  — some lingering relevance or echo that is waiting for the right time and right reporter to tease it out.

Stories don’t have to be “big” in the traditional sense of headline news to have that shelf life. But big stories can help us understand the multiple facets of any event, and how to focus on that facet now, and far into the future.

Enterprising the coronavirus story

There is no story bigger than the COVID19 pandemic — at least not in most of our lifetimes. It is global, uncertain and never takes a rest. It broke, and keeps breaking, as newsrooms were already gutted by the Great Recession and digital revolution. Many more journalists will be sidelined by the economic machete of the coronavirus. Meanwhile, demand for the news has skyrocketed, and every no corner of modern life will be left unscarred. Politics, government, science, business, the economy, technology, the arts, education, family life, psychology, religion, recreation, sports — they’re all coronavirus stories now.

But even as we share the stress, we can share the lessons and carry it into our work in whatever the new normal looks like. Most events, even when they seem centered in one area, offer doorways to a range of stories across subject specialties. The smart business beat reporter is always looking for the economic angle to an event; the enterprising religion reporter ponders moral underpinnings to the day’s news.

I want to offer another way to break out of the reactionary grind — one that identifies fresh approaches to fast-breaking stories even as we churn out the news. Rather than categorizing events by subject sector, squint at them through the lens of central story questions. In other words, search for angles that aren’t defined by subject as much as by the core question that serves as the foundation for a story style or genre.

I have long used a list of seven or eight central questions to help brainstorm enterprise stories. It is not an exhaustive list, but I have resisted the temptation to expand it too much. Sticking to some sure touchstones helps me stay focused, and fend off my tendency to overthink. In more than 30 years, chasing or guiding stories big and small, it has never failed me.

My go-to central questions may not work for you. But to show you how it works, I’ve bookmarked a few examples from a week of coronavirus coverage, attached to the questions that I use to find and focus fresh story ideas.

Neon question mark

Examples of core-question thinking

ISSUE stories. What larger issue or trend is reflected in the immediate news?
The narrow news of the day often can open a window of opportunity to explore a bigger issue readers need to know about. Conversely, the link to a bigger issue can be used to highlight the relevance of what might seem like narrow news. This is also a great question to help find ways to localize national news, or take a local event and expand its reach.

  • The Los Angeles Times (Margot Roosevelt and Andrew Khouri) looked at job losses from coronavirus in southern California to underscore the fragility of employment security.  They used an online survey to quickly report the vast sweep of the problem, and drew from that survey to do a powerfully written summary of shared pain:

The Burbank dog sitter who lost all his clients when they canceled cruises and other trips.

The out-of-work Los Angeles audio engineer who lived “paycheck to paycheck” and now said, “we have two rolls of toilet paper left.”

The Laemmle Theatres manager, a cancer survivor, who lost her $16.50-an-hour job and had no health insurance.

The minimum-wage-plus-tips bartender in Pleasanton who’s been left “sweating the bills” and switching to food delivery.

  • The Seattle Times leans on grant funding for Project Homeless. It is now making the acute risks to the homeless from coronavirus a focus of coverage. The impossibility of hygiene at homeless camps is just one of many stories they spooled out in recent weeks.
  • My Mountain Editor friend lives in a remote area where homeschooling is fairly common. The excellent public school there closed last week, so we’ve brainstormed enterprise stories that explore how his tiny staff can shine a new light on the challenges, advantages and how-tos of homeschooling.

EXPLANATORY stories. How do things work?
Sometimes explanatory stories don’t seem very “newsy.” Journalists too often shrug at things that have already been reported, or know just enough about how things work within their beats to forget that others don’t. But always remember: The people we report for busy trying to make their own lives work, so don’t often understand the civic machinations that journalists take for granted. And they usually only become interested in stories when the information is of interest and value to them.

News organizations — from general interest to niche — have been taking full advantage of explanatory work to help people understand the various aspects of coronavirus. These are lessons we can carry into all our work, no matter the subject.

  • The Seattle Times (Lewis Kamb) pinged off the confusing cross-talk about stumbles in coronavirus testing to explain how the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization works — and why it failed this time.
  • A smart daily from the Seattle Times (Geoff Baker) explained the basics of how cancer-fighting cells will be tested as a possible coronavirus treatment.
  • A Washington Post data-visualization story (Harry Stevens) went viral overnight. It used interactive graphics to show how viruses can spread exponentially, and what it would look like to “flatten the curve.”
  • Nature (Jane Qiu) did a super sciency piece that was also super understandable. It zeroed in on “viral shedding,” explaining how people who show no symptoms can infect others, and how scientists predict future infections.

PROFILES. Who is at the center of an event or issue, affected by it, or representative of it?
That “central” person isn’t always the primary actor or official source. It can be the guy working behind the scenes, or the woman whose story exemplifies thousands of others in a similar situation. Sometimes the “who” who in profile serves as a tour guide who takes us into a world; the story isn’t about them, per se, but they are the way we see and understand it.

(Note: Don’t make the mistake of thinking a profile is just an expanded resume or bio. Good ones tease out some relevant aspects of a person’s personality or life that shows us the quality of the character in the news. Also, profiles don’t have to be about people; rather, they have to be built around a character. You can profile a place or an event, as long as you bring its character to life.)

As the U.S. woke up to the coronavirus, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, emerged as a leading voice of knowledge and reason.

Q: At Friday’s press conference, you put your hands over your face when Trump referred to the “deep State Department” (a popular conspiracy theory). It’s even become an internet meme. Have you been criticized for what you did?

A: No comment.

DESCRIPTIVE stories. Where can you go and what can you show?
These are stories that take readers into worlds they can’t enter themselves and put them there through description, sensory detail, and observed scenes. They are hard to do if the reporter can’t be in the field. But it’s still a valuable approach to think about as a way to make the remote or abstract feel real and visceral. And for the duration of social distancing orders, journalists are going to have to learn how to gather descriptive and sensory story material by phone or through digital tools.

  • Before most things were locked down, Esquire (Tom Chiarella) took readers on an up-close tour of the National Quarantine Center where, as the headline notes: There is no Fear of Coronavirus. There is Only Urgency.
  • The Los Angeles Times (Rich Read) didn’t have access to the “inside” of the hard-hit Life Care Center of Kirkland, Washington, when it wrote a piece about the reality inside the nation’s first coronavirus hot-spot. He likely still did have direct access to a few of his story sources, but used interviewing to piece together a take-us-there piece.
  • The New York Times (Rachel Abrams) took us into the world of crisis journalism with a story about how the Seattle Times — the largest news organization in Washington state despite significant staff cuts, and the one first and hardest hit by the need to cover coronavirus as it landed in its front yard.

INVESTIGATIVE stories. Where is the power and/or money and how is it being used — or misused?
The list of these is long and growing in ways that do what the best investigative journalism should do: Shine a light on information owed to but hidden from the public. Much investigative work relies on data and public — or leaked — records. Much of it also involves months of work. But it doesn’t have to. News organizations are getting quicker on their feet with spotlight teams that ask the right question, then go after the answer hard. Beat and freelancer reporters are also stepping up.

  • A lot of that has happened through fact-checking. On March 19, The New York Times (David. E. Sanger, Eric Lipton, Eileen Sullivan and Michael Crowley) found ample evidence to disprove the president’s claim, made just a few days earlier, that “Nobody knew there would be a pandemic or epidemic of this proportion. Nobody has ever seen anything like this before.”
  • The Wall Street Journal (James V. Grimaldi and Andrea Fuller) was among the out-front news organizations that reported that Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina had dumped stock based on insider knowledge of the coming coronavirus crisis.

NARRATIVE. Is there a journey to follow?
Narratives follow a central character through plot, action and forward motion, tension or conflict, and resolution. The best ones take us on intimate, micro journeys that reveal universal truths or emotions. Again, this is hard to do without being in the field, but the best narrative reporters learn to use other tools to reconstruct journeys and scenes without journeys. Also, while big-sweep narrative can take time, just as investigative projects, for a situation to play out, smart reporters know how to place the beginning-middle-end of a journey within a tight time frame.

  • The New York Times (Frances Robles) followed the journey of the cruise ship Costa Luminosa and it sailed on and on, despite passengers being sick with covid-19. The story uses time stamps, draws on other published reports, and includes descriptions from what are likely phone or email interviews from passengers.
  • The Los Angeles Times (Rich Read) builds a narrative starting with the night a church choir gathered for a rehearsal in a city an hour north of Seattle, and then following several choir members as they fell sick or learned that others had.

Brainstorming ideas isn’t structuring a story

This is just a sampling, drawn quickly from fast work on one topic: the coronavirus question. But it shows how focused questions can lead to stories that go beyond the daily round-up of the news — something necessary as the floor of what we do, but not the ceiling.

The above questions/approaches are for brainstorming ideas only. They are not meant to determine format. Stories often end up being a blend of several of the above: a narrative that includes explanatory information, an investigative profile, an issues-based piece with strong moments of description. A lot of explanatory pieces are done with graphics. Great narratives are done with photos.

The key is to find the questions that help you think beyond the event-reaction two-step. Stick with each central question long enough to determine if there is a fresh enterprise story that fits your publication, your skills, your interests and the public you are trying to reach.

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