How to Evaluate Story Ideas in Journalism

By Kristy Horine

I sat at the back table of the women’s ministry organizational meeting. The Christian in me focused on loving my sisters. The writer in me did a constant sweep for story.

And there it was, at the very end of the meeting. A prayer request for a young woman named Morgan who was going on a mission trip to the Dominican Republic. She had worked so hard to raise funds. Had even learned how to sew to do it.

My story radar pinged and pinged hard.

After the meeting, I approached Morgan and gathered a little more information. “Would you mind if I pitched the idea of writing an article about your mission trip to the local paper?”

After she assented, I made notes of all her contact information, promised to pitch it to the local editor in the morning, and made sure I could schedule a future interview to get more in-depth information if the editor accepted the pitch.

The next morning, I shot off an email in which I pitched a human interest story, with pictures, in 800 words or less. Within two hours I had a reply: Yes.

How did this work so easily? Because the story was appealing and fit in with the local paper’s flavor and audience.

But how do you make this work in your own writing life?

Pay attention.

  1. Pay attention to your local newspaper. Read the headlines. Look at the photos.

There are typically two kinds of newspapers left in the world: the large syndicated rags, and the small, hometown papers. I’ll be really honest here, larger papers are not so inclined to take freelance writers, and they tend to hoard the good stories for their regular reporters. Most other stories they typically pull ‘off the wire’ in a news service that they pay for. That being said, there is no harm in asking. If you don’t ask, you won’t know, so pitch that story!

For smaller papers, if you don’t subscribe, then subscribe. Walk in to the office and let them see your face. Meet one of the editors or the publisher and ask if they are interested in articles from freelance writers. Again, no harm done in asking. Then, read the paper. All of the paper. Read the articles, the opinion pieces, the obituaries, the homemakers having a good time, the local churches having fish fry dinners, the advertisements, the sports stories even if your favorite sport is reading, and the classifieds. Know what they publish, and think about the audience who is reading what they publish.

  1. Pay attention to the story itself. Evaluate each story on the following attributes: Newsworthiness, Prominence, Timeliness, Proximity, Method, and Human Interest.

A Nose for News in Action

Let’s evaluate the above story about Morgan in terms of what newspapers generally look for in publishable articles.

Newsworthiness

To determine Newsworthiness, ask yourself a few questions: Does this matter? Will it inform how people make decisions?

The answers are yes, and yes. It matters to Morgan. It matters on an international scale. Morgan is a difference maker. That’s important. People make decisions about where and how they will spend their money and their time every single day. If no one knows about Morgan’s fund raising sewing endeavors, they might make an alternate decision about their money. In addition, people like to pray for other people. Give them something worthy to pray about.

Prominence

To determine Prominence, ask yourself a few questions: Who is this article about? Who will be impacted by reading this article?

Morgan is not a community celebrity like a politician might be, but her name and her family members are well known and well loved. That makes a difference. When thinking in terms of impact, the story itself is just inspiring, right? It can impact anyone who is within hearing/reading range of the story.

Timeliness

To determine Timeliness, ask yourself a few questions: Is this something that happened yesterday? Is it happening today? Will it happen tomorrow?

In Morgan’s case, I determined to pitch the idea, write the story and have it published well before her mission trip so that people who read her story would have time to decide if they wanted to help her by ordering a hand-sewn item. I could have waited until after her trip and included pictures of the trip itself. However, by publishing pre-event, this enabled the community to be more actively involved. Since news travels fast and dies fairly young, offering a fresh, timely piece is wise.

Proximity

To determine Proximity, ask yourself a few questions: Is this a local event/person/place? If this is foreign, is there a local connection?

Morgan lives in my home town. She just completed her freshman year at college in the next county over. Her mother is a school teacher at one of the local middle schools. Her grandmother lives here. Her sister lives here. Even though the mission trip was outside the US borders, the local connection is strong and interesting.

Method

To determine Method, ask yourself a few questions: Is this article about the same old same old? Is there a new flavor/spin/approach in this story?

When most people fund raise, they think bake sale, car wash, GoFundMe. It takes more time and gumption to learn a new skill that adds value to people’s lives, like sewing. That’s what worked with Morgan’s story. In addition to interviewing Morgan, I also interviewed her sewing mentor, Sue Ellen. Sue Ellen also works at the local middle school. By adding a broader sweep to the story, I increase the Proximity, the Prominence and the Newsworthiness. Bam! We have a Titus 2 operation going here. (Hmmm … sounds like an article I could pitch in a local Women’s Missionary Union magazine or website. Double duty for paying attention here.)

Human Interest

To determine Human Interest, ask yourself a few questions: Does this help me connect/reconnect with people? Will it help my readers stop and remember that people are more important than things?

In Morgan’s story, again the answer is yes to both questions. It is a touching story that can encourage and inspire.

And one more thing –

The local newspaper is a secular paper. Yes, the owners call themselves Christians, but a secular newspaper is a secular newspaper is a secular newspaper. As a journalist, no matter the print outlet, I must maintain unbiased journalistic integrity in my writing. I do not interject opinion. I do not use gushing adjectives. But what I can do is sincerely and honestly quote subjects who speak freely about Jesus, which both Morgan and Sue Ellen did.

Before I go into any story – whether it is a story I have found and am pitching, or if it is a story that the newspaper or magazine has assigned to me – I know my boundaries.

I determined long ago:

  • that I would tell the truth,
  • that I would not write a story celebrating sin,
  • that I would not put myself in a situation where I am alone with a male,
  • that I would not change a direct quote unless I had a paper trail of permissions,
  • that I would be teachable in terms of writing and editing, and
  • that I would obey God before ANY publisher or editor, no matter how much they offered to pay me.

The world needs journalists who understand there are things we just don’t compromise. That’s the best evaluation after all.

A week after Morgan’s story ran in the local newspaper, I received an email from the newspaper asking me to call a woman at a phone number. I called. She was from a different church close to our area. She wanted to have Morgan come and speak to her women’s group about the mission trip. Through the article, God opened a door for a kind and generous young woman to tell more of her story.

Click-to-Tweet: Pay attention. Evaluate. Pitch. See what God can do with the words He has created for you to use.

Writing Prompt: Your small town is holding a craft fair next summer. Several area crafters have gained national attention with their art. Brainstorm a human-interest story idea for the local newspaper.

Let the Truth Flow

Research: Current Events
by Kristy Horine

“I can’t believe you gave an interview without asking permission,” she said. “I thought you were more professional than that.”

The call completely took me off guard. An editor who had trusted me for two years with at least one full-length feature article in every single edition was on the phone speaking words that just didn’t make sense.

“I don’t give interviews. I do interviews,” I said. “There must be some mistake.”

It took three phone calls and an hour’s worth of research to discover the heart of the mistake.

One of the magazines I wrote for published my article on a small hospital that offered specialized care for patients with a specific , yet common condition. No one else within several hundred miles offered this care.

I did my due diligence as a freelance journalist. I researched the history of the place, gathered amazing, heart-wrenching stories from patients and their families, secured all the proper releases, shot photos, spoke with administrators and public relations officials. I even ate at a diner near the hospital so I could gather the impact of the facility on the townsfolk. This hospital worked miracles. It deserved the best I could give.

But here, a few weeks after my story went public, I learned that a student journalist from a major university had used word-for-word information from my article that she submitted as her own work for university publication.  The student never spoke with me, she never mentioned the original article, and she got some very important facts very wrong.

In this rapid-fire, often-questionable, 24-hour news streaming culture, proper research on current events can be the difference between earning the respect of your editors and your next paycheck, or simply adding your byline to a growing list of news trolls.

This experience made me think: What if I had been the sloppy journalist? What damage could I do to my sources, or to a worthy story that deserves to be heard?

There are hundreds of articles released every day that are well-researched, well-written articles. There are thousands of articles released every day that are not. With the deluge of information from around the world, how do writers know that the information they are including in their articles is trustworthy?

Here are a few tips:

  1. Only use direct quotes from primary sources with whom you have direct contact. Using another writer’s quotes as if you had done the work to capture them is lazy, breeds mistrust, and the sources can never be verified.
  2. If you reference information like poll data, dates of space shuttle launches, the wingspan of an Andean condor, or the number of seeds a sugar beet farmer in the Dakotas plants per year, make sure that you give a trusted reference for your information. There is no shame in consulting an expert. Use phrases like “According to …”, or “In a May 2017 Gallup Poll …”, or “The Cincinnati Zoo, which has partnered with the Association of Zoos & Aquariums’ Andean Condor Species Survival Plan …”
  3. ALWAYS gather research information from a reputable source. Wikipedia, tabloid webzines, and most blogs do not promise accuracy. If you use online information from a company’s website, make a quick phone call to verify the present-day accuracy of the information. In this digital age, using hard bound books or printed professional journals might seem archaic, but it is often a great source for specific, proven information.
  4. Make a personal editorial decision before you crack your first book, read your first article, or contact your first source, to be completely honest no matter what you find – or don’t find – in your research. Good research often leads to better interview questions and broadens the writer’s perspective on a topic.
  5. Most of all, have fun with research. You never know what next story you might find there.

Click to tweet: Research. There are hundreds of articles released every day that are well-researched, well-written articles. There are thousands of articles released every day that are not. #research #amwriting

Writing Prompt: Consider the importance of truth. Where might the absence of truth lead a society? Pretend you are the last writer on earth and write a scene of building trust with folks who have never known the truth.

 

The Saddle Maker’s Son by Kelly Irvin

KellyNewHeadShotToday we welcome Kelly Irvin with her latest release, The Saddle Maker’s Son.

Hello, Kelly! How long have you been writing?

Kelly: All my life, it seems. I wrote poems, plays, and short stories growing up. Then I went to college and became a journalist so I wrote nonfiction for a living. It was all-consuming so I put my dreams of writing fiction on hold. I married my husband and we had two children. One day I woke up and realized I’d turned forty-five. My dream of being a published novelist was slipping away. It took seven years to publish my first novel, but my dream did come true! Now that I’m retired, I’m writing full-time and loving it.

Why did you choose to write in your particular field or genre?

Kelly: My agent, Mary Sue Seymour, encouraged me to step outside my comfort zone and try something new. I was hesitant at first, but then I realized I’d found a place where I felt at home. I grew up in a small, rural community. My parents had a huge vegetable garden. My mom canned everything. She sewed our clothes on a treadle sewing machine. She taught us to make homemade bread and desserts. We had no phone—not for religious reasons, but for economic ones. I had all this experience and knowledge that helps me step into writing the scenes in Amish fiction. I’m challenged by what the Amish believe and how they live their beliefs. I’m challenged to examine my own beliefs and whether I live them. I hope my readers are as well.

What are some of the references you used while researching your book?

Kelly: I interviewed a saddle maker who used to be a working cowboy on a ranch. That was a lot of fun. I also did a great deal of on-line research for newspaper and magazine articles about the influx of young, unaccompanied children into the United States via the Texas-Mexico border. A Spanish-English dictionary came in very handy, and of course, my standard resources, Amish Society, by John A. Hostetler, and The Amish, by Donald B. Kraybill, Karen M. Johnson-Weiner, and Steven M. Nolt.

What did you enjoy most about writing this book?

Kelly: I loved Lupe and Diego, my little ones from El Salvador. Having the mix of the Plain families with these two, who shook up their lives and stretched their cultural understanding. I loved doing the research into what toys they might have and what foods they would miss. It was fun writing a story that is very different from what you might typically expect in an Amish romance in terms of setting, characters, and even some of the language. I found myself stretched as a writer as well.

What do your plans for future projects include?

Kelly: I recently completed the first book in a four-book series for Zondervan. It is entitled On a Spring Breeze. It’s so completely different than the Amish of Bee County series set in south Texas. Changing things up really keeps me on my toes! I also have two novellas coming out next year as part of Thomas Nelson anthologies. Lots to do!

It sure sounds like it. Thanks so much, Kelly, for dropping by!

Kelly has graciously offered a print copy of The Saddle Maker’s Son to one person who leaves a comment below. 🙂


KellyNewHeadShotKelly Irvin, a Kansas native, is a graduate of the University of Kansas School of Journalism and multi-published author. She has been writing nonfiction professionally for more than thirty years, including ten years as a newspaper reporter. She recently retired after working 22 years in public relations for the City of San Antonio. Kelly is married to photographer Tim Irvin. They have two young adult children, two grandchildren and two ornery cats. In her spare time, she likes to write short stories and read books by her favorite authors.


Saddle Maker FinalThe Saddle Maker’s Son

Rebekah Lantz feels imprisoned by circumstances she didn’t create. Tobias Byler is haunted by regret. Can two young runaways from half a world away teach them the healing power of true family?

Rebekah isn’t like her sister, but the watchful gaze of her family and small, close knit Amish community makes her feel as if she’s been judged and found lacking. The men avoid her and the women whisper behind her back. She simply longs for the same chance to be a wife and mother that her friends have.

Tobias Byler only wants to escape feelings for a woman he knows he should never have allowed to get close to him. Moving with his family to isolated Bee County, Texas, seemed the best way to leave his mistakes behind. But even a move across the country can’t erase the past that accompanies his every thought.

A surprise encounter with two half-starved runaway children forces both Rebekah and Tobias to turn to each other to help a sister and brother who have traveled thousands of miles in search of lives of unfettered peace and joy.

In doing so, Rebekah and Tobias discover the key to forgetting the past is the one that will open the door to love and the future they both seek.