October 10, 2018 (Updated )
What makes a good journalist? There are a million answers to that question, some better than others, but the most important will always be the same – getting a great story.
We all know getting a good scoop isn’t easy, that’s the whole point, but when you’re a student, or just new to the game, it’s particularly hard to start to find stories. You’ve not yet penetrated the networks that many come to rely on, and you don’t know where to start looking.
But lots of people face that struggle. And it isn’t an insurmountable challenge. As someone who faced this in my own work, I wanted to share my advice on how to get stories without contacts.
Freedom of Information Requests – Time To Get Acquainted
If you’ve never heard of Freedom of Information requests, now’s a good time get acquainted, as it’s one of the easiest ways of finding a story.
Freedom of Information requests – you’ll hear them called FOIs – are essentially requests you can fire off to any publicly-funded body. That could be a university, police force, council or government department. For the most part, they have to give you the information (if they hold it) within 20 working days. And it’s free.
This technique has produced some absolutely massive stories: the MPs’ expenses scandal, that the police were handing over details of victims of crime to the Home Office for immigration enforcement, and Prince Charles’ “Black Spider” memos.
Logistics eh… If you’re doing a story which is national it could be worth setting up a separate email account – or at least a filter in your inbox to stop you getting completly swamped. Also make sure to use reminders (or a good old fashioned paper diary) so you know when they’re due to come back. The law is 20 days, but often organisations will ask for clarifications, or they’ll need pushing. What Do They Know is also a great source of potential FOI ideas – but be wary of using their free system to do your own requests, as it means other people can see exactly what you’ve asked – and what they’ve replied.
You can get great local or niche stories, too: revealing how much money universities make every year from library fines, your vice-chancellor’s expenses; or how much money your university is investing in defence or oil contracts.
They are incredibly easy to compose, and you can always use a pre-existing story that came from an FOI to a local authority to duplicate across the country and get your own national story. Just don’t forget that people are always at the heart of every story – once you’ve got the data, think about what effect it has on people, and who you want to comment on the story.
I won’t spend all my time explaining how they work, so check out the brilliant FOI Directory for more details on the nuts and bolts.
Follow Up On Other People’s Stories
This was one of the best suggestions I’ve ever received, and it came from the wonderful veteran journalist Bill Coles.
So many journalists don’t follow up on their own stories, either because they don’t have time to, forget or simply don’t realise too.
The example he always gave was this: find a woman who’s given birth to 19 kids, covered extensively in the press. Find out whether she’s planning to have another kid. If she is – STORY: Woman with 19 children reveals she’s giving birth for the 20th time. If she isn’t – ALSO A STORY: Women reveals why she’s calling time after having 19 children.
Okay, so it’s not the sort of story I’d write – or probably read. But it is a good example, and goes to the heart of how easy it is to pick up any paper and just start following up on stories.
Looking as I write this article, I read the top story on the Mirror website, about a council resurfacing one half of a road, stopping at a point “where a wall once divided rich and poor”.
At the very bottom of the article, the council says it is because they are still technically classed as two roads, and promises to assess the need to resurface the second road.
Anybody, regardless of their experience of journalism, could keep bashing the phones to the councils to find out when they’ll make that decision. When they finally do you have one of two stories:
- Class war over: residents’ rejoice as council u-turns on extending resurfacing to end of street where ‘poor’ people were separated.
- Residents’ fury as council confirms it won’t resurface half of road where ‘poor’ people were separated.
Niche Websites & Groups
I know, no one has really used Facebook to socialise in about a decade, but it’s still a really good way to find stories. No, really.
Both on Facebook, and other types of social media and blogs, there are plenty of people out there already complaining into the ether about things that could make great stories.
Facebook for Journalists: As well as diving into local community groups, you can also hunt out good groups for journalists too. Freelance Journalists UK, for example, has thousands of journalists in it who are usually more than happy to help you out finding case studies when you’re a bit stuck, as well as having frequent job opportunities.
Community or specialist Facebook groups, websites, blogs are full of people discussing topics that, if investigated, would get picked up in national newspapers. Whether it’s crime, council policy or some amazing craft, there’s much more to discover than you think.
Whatever niche you’re interested: lifestyle, mental health, politics, honestly – there’s a group for everything – just search for those groups on Facebook or Twitter. But as with anything, remember that people are the heart of a story.
Occasionally there are a few times when you can pull a fun viral story together from some tweets. But for the most part, the better story comes when you’ve taken the time to speak to the person behind the post, got some pictures, understood the issue, and followed it up. Plus, the more seriously a case study thinks you’re taking an issue, the more chance they’ll come back to you with any developments.
Twitter. God, I Love Twitter.
Twitter is brilliant for getting stories. Get yourself set up on Tweetdeck and set up columns to catch words or phrases that you want to write stories about. And then the stories just come to you.
If you’re a student newspaper writer, create columns for, for instance: ‘Sussex Uni’, ‘@SussexUni’, ‘Sussex University’, ‘University Brighton’ and make a Twitter list full of students at your university who tweet.
They’re bound to be complaining about stuff – from accommodation not getting fixed to buses/ trains being late – that is rich in story potential.
Again, not to sound like a stuck record or anything, but the key here to remember to speak to the people behind the tweets. See them almost as a tip-off for a good piece, not the piece itself.
Also, remember that just because someone has posted an image on social media that doesn’t make it fair game for you to nick it. Copyright still applies, so make sure to get permission before using other peoples images or videos in your stories.
Network. You Know, Like Network Rail
Lots of good stories come from networking – and just because you don’t have contacts yet, doesn’t mean you can’t easily create them.
Start following and talking to people on Twitter, ask to meet for a coffee, and, finally, you’ll get to the point where you can ask them if they have stories they can give you, or talk about some stories you’re working on that they could give you useful input on.
Free events are also an excellent place to start – universities and think tanks will often put on panel discussions (which can in themselves be a good story if someone interesting says something interesting). There will often be free wine, and the room will be filled with people interested in the topic being spoken about – and they’ll often be more than happy to chat with you about it.
Toilet breaks are key… If you take sources to the pub, remember to take periodic toilet breaks to write down what they’ve told you. However much you can handle your booze, you will forget some things.
Also, make sure to remember that the relationship works two ways. Sure, they’re contacts, but you still need to be nice to them on a human level, or why would they want to give a story to you?
Similarly, your contacts don’t have to be the high level to give you a big scoop. Some of the best national stories come from something bizarre happening in an obscure or rural place. Sheep make the national news more often than you think.
Minutes, Agendas, And Loads Of Data
At my old uni, there was a hidden-away section of the internal website for students where you could access all minutes and agenda of high-level meetings. And the same works for pretty much all public bodies like councils – everything is available on the website.
These were incredibly useful to find a place to start digging. For example, seeing the demolition of an accommodation block or building of another was listed in agenda, and gave us an in to start investigating further. We talked to cleaners and building staff, the council and the press office to get good stories on these.
Checking up the agenda in advance also means you can earmark time to go to the meeting itself. Minutes don’t quite record every quote – though increasingly councils will live stream their meetings – and going along yourself gives you the opportunity to nab someone important for a quote.
That’s not the only place to find data worth looking into though. The Office of National Statistics has shed loads of official government data, as does NHS Digital. You can also look at the Government’s Data Hub, while the Public Library of Science lists open access scientific papers. Companies House is a good start of businesses registered in England and Wales.
To be honest, that’s probably enough data for now, but you’ve probably got a solid start on finding some stories.
Aubrey Allegretti is a politics reporter and occasional politics news editor for Sky News, as well as a trustee for the Student Publication Association. He previously worked as a politics reporter at The Huffington Post and as a political researcher at The Times. He tweets @breeallegretti and can’t stress his love for Tweetdeck enough.