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Finding new story ideas during a crisis

March 30, 2020

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Credit: Pixabay user Anestiev.

I know, I know, if you hear coronavirus or COVID-19 one more time you’re going to scream. The topics are critical right now—lifesaving, actually—but the intense concentration can be draining.

The experience can also leave you at ends for new ways to address the discuss COVID-19. You don’t want to do the same stories repeatedly but getting to something new can be a challenge as the weeks go on.

Here are two techniques to generate and identify fresh concepts and story lines.

Look for the unexpected details

Just now I glanced at a browser and saw a New York Times Magazine headline” “Werner Herzog Has Never Thought a Dog Was Cute.”

“Huh?” I thought and then clicked. The piece is a Q&A and most is about philosophical concepts and Herzog’s artistic practices and experiences. Toward the end comes a question abut Herzog’s work in the Disney series The Mandalorian and whether he thought the baby Yoda character was cute. Eventually, reporter David Marchese asks, ” Is anything cute to you? Have you ever seen a dog and thought, That’s a cute dog?” Herzog replies, “No. I would assign a dog a different word.”

And you never then learn what word he’d use.

It’s clearly not about the outbreak and it leaves you flat as a reader (I wonder if Marchese continued that line of questioning and then either he or an editor cut it). But talk about a detail that cries out for attention.

At a time like this, there is where you can find stories. People are sewing masks for medical personnel who can’t get shipments? What sort of people? What materials? How do they do it? What color? Any whimsy in the creation? Any companies particularly helpful?

Details are everywhere. How are businesses trying to monitor the news? How do managers break the news of layoffs to workers? Where do business contractions in a given industry start? Just how expensive is toilet paper and why is it so difficult to get? Aren’t factories creating more? Look to the details.

Find connections

When you’re working a story, connections are important. One person leads you to another. An avenue of inquiry branches in different directions. Follow them and you can get to new roads. The same thing goes for topics. One leads to another.

For example, you start with restaurants being closed. An obvious jump is to how people in the industry are doing with no work—which means you can find out how some restaurants are trying to manage the shift, how employees are, and so on. That brings in the new stimulus package and extended unemployment.

But undocumented workers, who have traditionally been well represented in restaurants, aren’t eligible. What do they do? Next step could be how their communities are surviving, including small businesses and even landlords serving them? Will landlords be able to start evicting tenants for non-payment? That leads to likely backups in the court system.

Take a different branch from that subject. Or, instead, think about the services that people staying at home depend on. Do dog walkers feel safe? Food delivery people? What steps are they taking to protect themselves?

There are topics everywhere and your general field of inquiry becomes a map with new territories to explore. Follow and see where you end up.


  • Erik Sherman

    Erik is an independent journalist and author who primarily covers business, economics, finance, technology, politics, and legal/regulatory, while elegantly expressing the complex and often incorporating data analysis.

    View all posts

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