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Journalists Reveal the Secret to Getting Great Ideas

By Kleiton Macrohon

Image courtesy of Pexels, via Creative Commons

Whether it’s for a publisher or an English teacher, it can be very difficult to try and come up with story ideas. So how do journalists do it? How are people who write stories for a living able to generate ideas? I interviewed journalists who work with various publishers from the SF Chronicle to the New York Times, and here’s what I found out.

Talk to People!

It’s no surprise that journalists have to go out and talk to people for when reporting, but a lot of the times the ideas they generate come from conversations, too. Chris Colin, a contributing writer to California Sunday Magazine, Afar magazine, the New York Times, Wired, and other publications, says, “In fact it pretty much comes down to this: Turn off the computer, walk around, talk to lots of people, say ‘what do you mean?’ as much as possible, then say ‘why?'”

Journalists often talk with their friends or people they know of “interest,” to gather ideas to write about. It’s all about what you hear, and what piques your interest, that can get you those topics to write about.

Read. Read. READ!

Journalists read a lot of material 24/7, so a lot of the times the writing they’re reading helps them grind their gears. Jonathan Kauffman, a food writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, says, “I read a lot of other writers, because I’m interested in finding out what other people are thinking and writing about, because sometimes it inspires me to look for a new angle on the topic.”

The ideas you’re trying to generate don’t have to be new topics that were never explored, they could be different takes or angles on other pieces of writing. You’d be surprised how much inspiration you could get from reading other sources, and how your take on it could lead to other subjects for you to explore. It’s never a bad idea to check out other people’s work. It can give you additional intel on a topic, and it could spur new ideas to form off of.

Jonathan Kauffman, writer for the SF Chronicle. Photo by Russell Yip



Notice anything and everything around you – almost 99% of it can be turned into a story. The most prominent feature found in journalists, is the fact that they’re all curious. Sure, it’s a part of their line of work to continually grind out story ideas, but the fact of the matter is, they’re curious people, and can get fully enveloped in a topic they’re interested in. That’s why journalists almost always keep some sort of journal, to write down ideas that suddenly come to them no matter where they are. If you like a certain topic such as basketball or video games, then write a story about it!

So if you’re ever stuck on trying to figure out what to write about, just know that there are many ways to stimulate that mind of yours. It’s all about how you see the world, and ultimately it’s on YOU whether or not you’re able to find that comfortable niche in writing. There are millions of stories ready to be written, so it’s just a matter of you finding out what you are interested in – and how you could turn that into a formidable story.

Want More Info?

Here’s some background information on the journalists I interviewed, as well as a singular piece of advice they offered to novice writers. I highly recommend you view the stories they’ve written, or if they’re a teacher, have a non school-related conversation with them!

Jonathan Kauffman: A food writer for the SF Chronicle who reviews, critiques, and writes about all things food- related. His stories have won awards from the James Beard Foundation and the International Association of Culinary Professionals, and his criticism has won several Association of Food Journalism awards.

“The more you learn to catch ideas as they fly past and write them down so you can consider more closely later, the more you’ll realize that you will never lack for stories, even if you’re writing up until your 96th birthday. (No joke: The Chronicle‘s science reporter is 96.)”

Journalist, Chris Colin

Chris Colin: A contributing writer for California Sunday magazine and Afar magazine. Also writes for the New York Times, Wired, and other publications. Has written several books, including Blindsight which was selected as one of Amazon’s Best Books of 2011.

“I think people who are drawn to journalism have a natural curiosity. The trick, I think, is just paying attention to it, noticing when you’re interested in something.”

Dan Goodin: Security Editor at Ars Technica, where he oversees the coverage of malware, computer spying, botnets, and network hacking. He’s been a journalist for more than 15 years, and has been chronicling the actions of hackers since 2005.
“Gravitate to what interests you, whether that’s food, music, robotics, or whatever else. Strive to hold leaders accountable. Expose the misdeeds of powerful people and organizations.”

Amy Standen: A radio reporter working for KQED Science in San Francisco as a host for a podcast called “The Leap.” Founded a magazine called Meatpaper.

“Trust your instincts. If it’s a story you’d tell your friends at a party, then it’s probably a good story.”

Patrick Sullivan: Currently a copy editor and staff writer for a publication owned by an eyewear company. Has written many things revolving around California including Palm Trees, and Los Angeles. Currently teaches English to the sophomore class at d.tech.

“Writing isn’t easy. It can be intense and hard. Pressure from deadlines can be really hard. Liking what you’re writing can be hard. It’s a long journey, at this point it’s about exploring and developing a voice and being able to engage your audience.”

Lessley Anderson: Former business reporter and feature writer (general interest). Has written for the New York TimesThe VergeSan Francisco magazine, and other publications. Currently teaches English to the junior class at d.tech.
“You have to be pretty social to be a writer, most people are out and about talking to people”




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