Some newspaper coverage revolves around beats. Beat reporters specialize in areas of coverage. Many beats revolve around buildings. Especially buildings where things regularly happen – the courthouse, the jail, a baseball stadium.
These beats provide the source material for many news stories, but other story ideas come from reporters, editors and readers.
In the early 1990s, I was the sports editor of The Guthrie Daily Leader, a small newspaper in Guthrie, Okla. – that state’s first capital and the destination of the hopeful in the Oklahoma Land Run.
The Leader’s office was right in the historic downtown, and in a truly open-door spirit, Managing Editor Gene Lehmann had a constant stream of city officials, funeral home directors, garden club secretaries, friends, neighbors, businessmen, subscribers and others coming in and sitting at his desk. And talking.
My desk was connected to the back of Gene’s. Every overheard conversation was a mixture of complaints, praise, homespun wisdom, local history and a family tree of the descendants of the original settlers – and all the interlopers who had arrived since. It was a gold mine for story ideas.
In those conversations, Gene would coax a tip with his reassurance that the information was “between you, me and the lamppost.”
Every day was a lesson in how to make a newspaper: writing, editing, layout, photography, advertising, printing, delivery. How to turn those tips into stories.
That room provided real life lessons that Gene didn’t know he was teaching: how to value readers, treat sources, serve a community.
Gene demanded that obits were right. He advocated shopping the stores that advertised. He held us accountable to track the politicians spending his taxes.
When we came back to the office, he wanted story ideas. What did we see? What had we heard? What could be news? What struck us as odd?
I asked Augusta Chronicle reporter Steve Crawford about the genesis of the speeding-ticket story. He said he was driving on River Watch Parkway when he saw the bagged speed limit sign and said, “That looks suspicious.”
He checked with editors and sources, talked to officials and found a woman who had been ticketed. His story last Sunday detailed the mix-up. Local officials said Monday that they would review the tickets. The solicitor said her office was inundated with calls after the stories ran. By Thursday, officials said many of the tickets would be dismissed.
Ideas come in all shapes and sizes. Make a phone call. Send an e-mail. Start a conversation over lunch, in a bar, on the street.
We take all tips. They don’t all work out, but stories often start when you tell us what you saw, what you heard and what strikes you as odd.
And it will be between you, me and Gene’s lamppost.