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Parachuting in for a story: 17 tips to get it right

March 26, 2014

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Photo: John Mewett

Nothing beats boots on the ground. With staff and budget cuts, newspapers do less “parachuting in” on stories away from their hometown. That’s too bad because in an interconnected world “local news” is everywhere, and reaching out to another place in your state or region can provide some of the most compelling journalism.

Photo: John Mewett

So here’s for more parachuting and making the case to do so with your bosses. And here are some tips.

Before You Go:

  1.  Find a great story that needs exploration. This can be as simple as visiting the county with the worst unemployment rate in the state, or as complex as examining a town that was once a textile powerhouse and now has to settle for data center with 30 jobs. The out-of-the-way crossroads that’s been turned into an environmental disaster by your hometown utility. The quintessential Main Street that reinvented itself and yet now faces the specter of The possibilities are limitless but all speak to a larger issue.
  2.  Work the phones and use the “tubes” to find everything you can about where you’re going. This includes reading journalism that’s been done, assembling data on unemployment, etc., talking to state economists and university professors, and people where you’re going. Gain a working knowledge of the history, the drivers affecting the story and people likely to be important to speak with or meet.
  3.  Decide on a plan of attack. Don’t make the mistake of deciding what the story will be. You won’t really know until you get there. It’s far better to think in terms of a line or lines of inquiry. How is this coal town doing five years after a fatal mine disaster? Why does this county have the highest unemployment rate?
  4.  Get your bosses behind the idea. Can some travel money be kicked in? How about a photographer?
  5.  Do get others involved: Photo, graphics, multimedia.
  6.  Decide on the “must have” interviews and set them up in advance.

When You’re There:

  1.  Get the lay of the land. Be attentive to details, especially telling ones that can illuminate the story.
  2.  Meet with a local reporter, if you can. Most will be happy to talk and there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel. Diplomatically find out what he or she would have liked to write but was prevented from doing so. Who do they think you should talk to? Has the story progressed beyond what has been reported? Don’t act like a big-city journalist amid a bunch of hicks.
  3.  Conduct the interviews that you decided are best handled face-to-face. If possible, walk the terrain or visit the shuttered factory with them. Make sure these interviews run a spectrum from elected officials to working stiffs. Especially look for the people who are losers or victims from the deal or event. Take your time. Let them tell their stories. And back stories: For example, the unemployed mill worker who was quarterback on the team that won the state championship in 1974. Such details can enliven a story.
  4.  Find out what other stories have gotten wrong. What has been misunderstood? What are the hidden issues, grudges and histories?
  5.  If you have a photographer, let this visual journalist do his or her thing. Confer but don’t try to be the boss. Make sure the photographer knows the places and people you are likely to emphasize.

Back in the Newsroom:

  1.  Transcribe your notes and realize you will probably have over-gathered.
  2.  Answer the question: What’s it all about? You started with a line of inquiry. Now it’s time to focus on what the story will tell. If it’s very different from what you imagined going in, so much the better.
  3.  Discuss your findings with your editor. She or he might have good questions that can flesh out the direction of the story. They will also likely decide if this is a Page One story, a series, or whatever.
  4.  Collaborate with your colleagues on the visuals and multimedia. A map showing where your story is located is a must along with all the other bells and whistles.
  5.  What needs some follow up? You may want to make some follow-up calls. Be sure to check with the high school to make sure old Joe really was the quarterback in 1974.
  6.  Get writing.

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