March 11, 2021 (Updated )
The words “ideas are your currency” might be a huge cliche in the world of journalism but there is a lot of of truth in the sentiment. I often joke that I get my best ideas when I’m on the London Tube but seeing as I haven’t ventured Underground for the past year, that option is no more.
That’s not to say I haven’t had potential stories drop into my head during the pandemic. In fact, lockdown has given us all ample opportunities to consider everything that unites us. And, after all, relatability is a huge commodity in journalism.
It feels like we’ve all been experiencing the same fever dream this past year – a hazy recollection of banana cake, TikTok choreos, Zoom quizzes, and that horrifying time we had a global loo roll shortage.
But, all of the above provided a content goldmine. The best stories are the ones that make us have a reaction, whether it’s “oh I didn’t know that”, “how interesting” or “omg me too”. And, in the year that we were all given the same instructions – stay home, don’t go out, wear a mask – camaraderie was felt like never before.
So, how do you develop these experiences into a story and take it further, and how do you get ahead of trends? How do sports and showbiz writers get their ideas, if access is now limited? I chatted to some of the best talent in the game to find out.
How To Get News Story Ideas
Basit Mahmood, who has written many exclusive new stories for Metro.co.uk and Newsweek is an avid reader and says the books he reads give him plenty of ideas.
While ‘read lots’ might sound like overprescribed advice, it is a huge help for developing ideas, backed up by research. And, if the book is particularly new, you have an opportunity to interview the author for those exclusive lines.
Basit tells Journo Resources: “I read the news regularly, and lots of books and reports. This is a good way of being informed but also understanding what’s already been reported on.
“Or, to get a news idea, ask yourself – is this an existing story that’s failed to consider a different angle?”
News is always changing and it might not feel like you can get a new angle on perennial topics. But consider how said topic affects you and your community. What implications is Brexit going to have on young people? On your holidays? Get in the habit of asking yourself these things until you land on an idea.
“To get a news idea, ask yourself – is this an existing story that’s failed to consider a different angle?”
If there’s something happening in the news and you have a strong reaction to it – explore that. Is the group chat popping off on it? Is it something that you’ve always thought about? Note them down.
Basit says whenever he reads something he knows he wants to explore, he writes it down on a notebook (if it’s a book you’re making a note of, add a line with context, the name of the book and the page where you found it). You can, of course, jot it down on your phone if you prefer to have it all on your Notes app.
How to Get Lifestyle Story Ideas
Lifestyle has a huge premise – a lifestyle story is anything that falls under the huge spectrum of being alive – it might look like a news story being taken further and adding comments from various sources and turning it into a feature, in a way that helps people be informed, entertained or educated.
As a lifestyle reporter for the last three years, I’ve found ideas from conversations with friends, colleagues, family members and even strangers. I usually know it has potential when I think “I want to know more about this” or “why is no one else talking about this?”
Once this idea emerges, I set about finding what’s been covered on the topic. In practice, this might look like typing out the words on Google and clicking on ‘news’ to see what angles have sprouted, or if I’m hoping to cover it for a publication, I’ll type, for example ‘coercive control Metro.co.uk’ to see what the publication has already said – this ensures you’re covering something they haven’t picked up before, so you’re more likely to have your pitch accepted.
“If there’s a topic you really enjoy or an article you really liked, drop it in the group chat and see what topics arise.”
As with other journalists, I get my ideas from consuming the kind of content I want to write – TV, radio, podcasts, and magazines are resources at your fingertips that you can utilise. Once something pops up in your head, screenshot it, fold the page, add a bookmark, take a picture. I get many potential ideas while in bed, so I make sure I note them down on my Notes app because, despite what I tell myself, I will end up forgetting in the morning.
Also, something I’ve found from my weekly team meetings is that when you start talking about something with a group, ideas will arise. If there’s a topic you really enjoy or an article you really liked, drop it in the group chat and see what topics arise. Then, you can follow up on the topic and make your own angle.
How to Get Entertainment Story Ideas
Journalist, podcaster, and social editor at Tyla, Tobí Rachel has worked on showbiz stories for many years, on both original features and exclusive interviews with A-listers.
“When it comes to original ideas you really have to careabout the topic,” she tells Journo Resources. “It almost consumes me or I deliberately immerse myself into the topic.
“I think about what I would want to read as someone interested in the topic. Eventually the ideas come flooding in. It helps to stay reading and consuming too, to stay ahead of the game.
“After years of being in the industry, celeb interviews are easier to come by. Usually a celeb approaches me as I’ve built a good working or personal relationship with them, or their colleague or team.”
“My biggest tip is to not be afraid of areas you are not familiar with. The biggest joy of journalism is researching and discovering something new.”
One of the most popular questions when it comes to pitching a showbiz story is “shall I secure a celeb interview before or after pitching?” and Tobi says ultimately it depends on your position.
“I pitch before securing the interview at times, depending on the urgency – but I only do that if I am a staff writer or have a good relationship with the editor.
“As a freelancer, I prefer to pitch celeb interviews after I have provisionally confirmed the celeb’s interest. I wouldn’t do the interview until the publication and I have an agreement because angles need to be discussed. The latter approach is rare but also much easier to do for press junkets or events as the celebs are available at a set time. It’s best to play it by ear.”
While Tobi is a seasoned journalist who’s made those industry contacts, she also has advice for those starting out. “As a freelancer wanting to secure celeb interview time, I’d suggest introducing yourself to editors and letting them know you are available for press junkets.
“The editor is usually approached by studios and PRs for upcoming projects and can send you out on behalf of the publication – especially if their staff writers are busy working on breaking news and may not have time for interviews.”
She advises just going for it. “My biggest tip is to not be afraid of areas you are not familiar with. The biggest joy of journalism is researching and discovering something new, sometimes stumbling across a new franchise for example, and the excitement of it all, can make the content you create out of it fresh and exciting.
“Many years ago I had no idea what K-pop was but after researching for work, I became a fan and seriously enjoyed creating content around it and appreciating the culture.”
How to Get an Original Sports Feature Idea
Sports journalism might seem like you simply report on, well, sports. But there are plenty of opportunities to develop original features that explore topical subjects. Mim Walker-Khan, a freelance sports journalist with BBC Sport has worked on several projects that have gone beyond the headlines.
She advises writers to focus on human angles. “Ideas for news stories come from just watching sports stories come in, and being switched on. So racism in football or ‘taking a knee’ is a huge issue which is always happening – it’s about finding those big topics and splintering off to find other angles.
“I don’t actually have any specific methods. I think what’s really important is having contacts and I think everyone kind of has their own niche or own sport, and then they have contacts within it.”
Mim immerses herself into sports in her personal life. Some of her close friends are athletes, for example, so she knows by chatting to them, what issues are showing up.
“I knew that athletics tracks were closing so the athletes couldn’t train, because my mates train there. So just being immersed within a sport or a few sports is the most important thing, and naturally you build up all those contacts and then governing bodies or press offices will give you stories or people to talk to.”
“It helps to think about sport as a culture and not just a sport.”
With sports features, timing is also key, says Mim.
“A lot of what we do is pegged off certain events. So if I know I want to pitch a story about the World Cup, I’d start thinking about it a few months in advance and think consider new angles I can cover.
“It helps to think about sport as a culture and not just a sport, I’m not just interested in who’s at the top of the Premier League, it’s more about people, and each sport has its own culture and politics – there’s so much you can explore within it.”