Veteran financial writer Melissa Preddy served as a business writer, editor and columnist for The Detroit News from 1995 to 2008, is a Michigan-based freelance journalist. She writes daily for BusinessJournalism.org and specializes in helping reporters come up with good, unique stories ideas. I recently asked her to elaborate on how she finds good story ideas and resources for localizing those stories. Follow her daily posts.
1. You are always thinking about story ideas. You seem to have what Steve Padilla, an editor at the Los Angeles Times, calls a “story-hunting mindset.” What are some practical things you do to keep yourself on the hunt for stories?
Melissa Preddy: I think a good, creative reporter does enjoy the thrill of the hunt, as well as being part armchair sleuth, part amateur psychologist and a shameless snoop. I never let an opportunity pass to ask “How’s business these days?” of everyone from the hair stylist to the dollar-store proprietor to the local bartender — you hear some fascinating details that way and patterns begin to emerge and develop into full-fledged trend stories. Same with spot news — reporters who only deal with executives and PR staff are missing a big opportunity to tap the inside knowledge of rank-and-file workers.
After a while that little mental detective is on the job 24/7, wondering “Why is that local Realtor not giving out free pumpkins and calendars this year?” or “How come that Walgreen’s was replaced with a pawn shop?” or “Why is there wheat sprouting in that field where a new auto-parts plant was supposed to be built this year?” Pull over, get out of the car and ask around.
2. What single best tip do you have for local business reporters in smaller communities who want to keep a watchful eye on local businesses?
Melissa Preddy: Breakfast meetings. Lots of them. The most tuned-in, prolific reporters I know make it a habit to have several informal meals or coffee hours every week with local entrepreneurs, lenders, community development leaders, CEOs and publicists. Many times these people don’t realize that they have newsworthy information to share, or they wait too long to share it, or they’re too uptight during formal interviews. Listen to their challenges and concerns in a relaxed setting, develop relationships off deadline, and you’ll be primed with news before you hit the office in the morning.
3. How would you advise reporters to find good stories with fewer and fewer resources?
Melissa Preddy: To find trends and feature stories, automate as much as possible — make sure you’ve subscribed to RSS feeds, e-mail list-serves, Twitter accounts and other media for industry groups, publications and key companies on your beats. Run a blog on your news organization’s Web site and invite reader participation so your audience feels comfortable coming to you with news. To break news, see above — you have to get out and talk with people every day. It’s a time management challenge but most of us, if we’re honest, could chip out an hour or two a day if we really tried.
4. What do you wish you knew when you started in this business that you know now?
Melissa Preddy: The great thing about journalism is that we’re always honing and refining and continuing to learn, and deadlines come around so often that there is little time to dwell on yesterday’s missteps. But in hindsight I wish I had tackled certain beats more strategically, plotting stories and packages months in advance rather than a few weeks’ worth at any time — with exceptions for spot news, of course. Sit down with a calendar and really think about what’s coming up in the next year, what events you need to cover, where a project might be squeezed in.
Another canny trait I’ve admired in others is: Never stop writing. I’ve taken time out for pure editing stints and found it does tend to erase you from the radar screens of sources and industry colleagues, so I corrected that mistake as quickly as possible. The savvier editors always insisted on keeping a column, a blog, a standing feature — they kept their “brands” intact and have been much more nimble at finding new roles these past few years than those who work solely behind the scenes. Always keep writing and publishing something.