Finding story ideas: ‘Mine your own life’

Jessica Contrera, a remarkable journalist with the Washington Post, visited my post-grad UNC journalism group last night. I’ve followed her career as a writer since she was winning awards at Indiana University six or seven years ago. When members of the group asked to hear from someone about story ideas, I knew just who to call. (I started this informal group of grads to chat to keep their skills fresh and spirits up as they search for jobs.)

Contrera’s bio says she “reports on people whose lives are being transformed by major events and issues in the news.” Recently, she’s reported on the protests & COVID, but she’s also notable for her insightful feature stories. She spoke about covering the protests, finding stories, and quieting her dog, and took questions group for 45 minutes. I’ve excerpted a few of the topics, with light editing for clarity.

Advice for coming up with story ideas

“Mine your own life. If there’s something that you’re really interested in, the chances are that there are other people who are interested in it, too.

“I think that you have to read a lot. Right now that can be kind of an exhausting activity, so I don’t recommend non-stop reading and never taking breaks, but sometimes dedicating yourself to every morning, you’re going to read what’s on the homepage of The New York Times and The Washington Post and in your local paper. You know you’re not just skimming headlines right you’re actually reading because so often story ideas are hidden in a little paragraph in the middle of the story.

“So I would just encourage you read a whole diversity of things. Read fiction and as you’re reading be looking for story ideas, be looking for something that kind of sparks that curiosity in you and makes you want to know more.

“And then the last one would be to just try to develop sources. In my job, I don’t cover like a specific beat. I’m not the education reporter. I’m not the basketball reporter. So there’s not a very obvious like ‘oh, here are my sources that I need to form relationships with.’

“So for me, forming sources is a lot about just, anytime I do any story, I say to people, ‘You know, you have my number. If there’s ever anything you think we should be writing about please give me a call.’ Sometimes I’ll say that to like strangers who I meet where I’ll carry business cards and give them to like Uber drivers. You can do that with all kinds of people. You can post that on Facebook, you know, if you if you wanted to read a story right now, what would you read. Oh, you guys aren’t using Facebook;  Instagram. You only have two eyes and two ears, right? But if you can kind of utilize a network of people who can bring new stories then it multiplies you know your options.”

On deadlines and rewriting

“You want to meet your deadlines. You want to meet those expectations that people place on you. But what I really tried to do is carve out more time for writing, more time than I think that I need. Because the first time you write it, it’s not going to be like it’s going to be fine. It might. It might be actively bad. A lot of times what I write the first time is actively bad. I just know that if I keep working at it, it’s going to get better every single time I rewrite it. And so when I have a big project to turn it, I will leave even like one or two days on the end where all I’m doing is just revising. If I’m on a really tight deadline, maybe only an extra five minutes that I give myself but that kind of helps.

How you pitch for communities you’re not familiar with

“You want to read everything that publication has done as far back as you can manage. And then I think Twitter lists are an amazing thing. So every time I started a new internship or a new job. I would create a Twitter list about that place, and I would find all the local TV stations, all the local radio stations, all the local food bloggers, and reporters, and add them all to that Twitter list. Then start going through that. You can do that with a hashtag on Instagram too.

“When you guys arrive in these new places — and I think that being fresh is like the biggest benefit that you can have — you’re seeing a place with totally new eyes.  Just driving around, walking around you can see story ideas.

“You can do a lot in a coffee shop. You say, ‘I just moved here and I’m gonna report and I need story ideas and you hand over your card and say what’s been going on.’ Get yourself in that mode of when you’re out in the world, you can be reporter even if you’re not technically on the job.”

Advice for covering a protest

“Not to get in the middle of the crowd for a very long period of time. And putting your back against something, especially when you’re going to be on your phone typing is just safe. Because something could fly to the air or whatever. At the very first protest that I covered, I got hit in the head really hard because I was just trying to duck under these guys and get in the middle of the scrum, which I don’t know why I needed to do that because I can’t actually see anything.

“I’m constantly looking for ways to get myself up high. So a lot of like where I spent last week was like hanging on a light pole. Right. I was only two feet off the ground. I could look around and then when I saw a mother carrying her 2-year-old for the protest. I was like, I gotta go. And I like chased her down, and very respectfully asked her if she’d like to be a part of the story.”

On chasing ‘your’ stories

“You figure out ways to juggle your time, which is really important. If you care about a story, do the story, even if you if you have to find a more creative way to do it. Because when you care about a story, you’re going to do it well. And when it’s done well, people are going to read it and respond to it and your editors are going to go, ‘Great. Let’s do have her do more of that.’ So you have to be sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. You have to be brave and to not just stay in your lane and write about only things you know.”