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Remember your own experience when looking for topics

August 7, 2018

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Even if you haven’t worked in the industry you cover, normal experience can provide a lot of help. (Photo Credit: Pixabay user geralt)

Developing new topics can be a challenge. A lot of journalists forget to look inward instead of outward.

There are current events, financial filings, regulatory decisions, labor relations, and other sources are important, of course. But it’s easy to forget your own experiences, which can help inform questions and ideas.

Prior experience in corporate management, running my own small businesses, and work in a variety of fields including trucking, restaurants, and construction have given me insight into how businesses work and where to look for issues in companies.

Some journalists have professional experience in the areas they cover, giving them an edge. Reporter Francine McKenna does some great work at MarketWatch and elsewhere covering financial transparency after having been at consulting and professional services for 25 years, including time at two of the biggest accounting firms. It’s a perfect use of experience.

But even if you haven’t worked in the industry you cover, normal experience can provide a lot of help.

Many reporters in the technology space regularly use the types of products made by the companies they cover. Although there’s a danger of becoming too taken with gadgets and services,

Others Scott McCartney has made a strong name writing The Middle Seat column at the Wall Street Journal. It seems clear that his own travel experiences help inform his choice of topics.

I remember years ago trying to order a product online from a major company that was primarily a chain of physical stores at the time. The result was a long series of runarounds, half-baked explanations, and ultimately an inability for them to get someone on the phone with me. Plus, a piece for a mainstream news site about the problems consumers could face when ordering online and picking up at a store.

The consumer aspect was obvious, but there was the other business consideration: the difficulty in coordinating logistics between online and brick-and-mortar locations. In all, it became a line of inquiry over time as well. The issues remained worth considering — and they still are.

Currently, I’m working on a story for a major national outlet set off by a chance conversation in passing with a local restaurant owner.

When you bring personal experience to bear, there are can be some cautions:

  • Avoid pushing your own agenda. Using a position as a journalist to cut through red tape for personal grudges is always a mistake.
  • Think broadly. Consider how you can take something you’ve experienced or observed and frame it as a general topic.
  • Also think narrowly. Develop questions and lines of inquiry for future work that will help illuminate the issues.
  • Remember that personal experience doesn’t eliminate research. What you have gone through might be something unusual and not general.
  • If you’re experiencing something specific that you think might offer an idea for a piece, start taking notes. Don’t rely on memory after the fact if you can avoid it.


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