Where I find stories as a freelance journalist

Before you can pitch a piece, first you need the idea

I'm pretty sure I've said this before, but selling stories is a freelance journalist's bread and butter.

Without a story to pitch, you've not got a whole lot to build your business on. And while the art of pitching is one of the most important skills you need to master as a freelancer, before you can do that you need the story. So where do you actually find those stories?

It starts with beat reporting.  

I think "beat" might be an Americanism, I definitely picked it up when I lived in the States, but all it means is having an area that you cover. Kind of like a local policeman. I actually find it quite helpful to think about it in that way (side note, journalism was always a booby prize for what I really wanted to be: a detective).

Anyway, what makes a good local copper? Knowing her beat inside out. She knows who the key people are in the community, where the dodgy stuff happens etc. Solid beat reporting should always remain a central tenant of a freelance journalist’s work. The following advice I have for finding stories overlaps a lot with building up your beat. Here are my tips for finding stories:

Set up lots of Google alerts

I find when used well, Google alerts can be a really useful resource. These were a gold mine for me when I worked at Thump (RIP). The story I wrote about a fire that broke out at a music festival in rural Maine came off the back of a Google alert.

Set up your alerts with keywords related to what you're interested in. That could be names of key people you cover regularly, phrases, company names, etc. Then set up a filter on your inbox for them to all go into a folder automatically. When you have a spare moment, have a browse through.

Listen better in interviews

So many times I've been conducting an interview and the source makes a throwaway comment or tangential point that's not relevant to the story I'm working on but forms the basis for a completely different one. Get good at listening in interviews and jot down a note to look into what they said. Or ask them at the end of the interview if they can go into more detail about that point. These leads are always the most satisfying because they come about when you're already working on a commission.

Do the IRL thing

One of the biggest perks of being freelance is not being chained to your desk, yet so many freelancers end up imposing this on themselves. Go out and meet people, go to events. Go to events relevant to your beat; you can probably get a press ticket (even if you don't actually cover that event, good PRs know that relationship building is part of the deal). Just get out into the real world.

Don't be a dick to PRs

Yes, PRs can be a nightmare. But they're also important. If you cover music, TV, books or film, you'll need those relationships to know what releases are coming up. It's no good pitching an interview with an author after the book's already been out for a couple of weeks.

Also, bear in mind that the reason you get so many useless press releases is that the companies that maintain the databases don't do a great job of keeping details up-to-date. Stop bitching about dumb press releases on Twitter and focus on cultivating good relationships with PRs.

Read niche publications

Local news stories getting picked up by national papers has been a journalism trope as old as the industry itself. The story I wrote for the Guardian about a bunny hoarder in Brooklyn came about after I had read an item about it on my local news site.

It's not just the local papers, make a habit of reading a wide range of niche publications that relate to your beat. Newsletters, forums and industry publications are all great story pools. And don't forget that you can very much expense subscriptions!  

Learn how to see stories everywhere

This last point is going to sound amorphous, but I think the biggest secret to getting good at coming up with story ideas is learning how to think in narratives. What I mean by that is tuning your brain to pick up threads from your day-to-day life and finding the bigger picture in them.

The key here is next time you hear or see something and it makes you think "Oh that's curious/weird/not right", don't just shrug it off. Your next question should be, "What's the story there?"