New York Times urban affairs reporter Sam Roberts describes himself as somewhat shy, not apt to approach strangers on subways. Like many journalists, he's more likely to wander around looking for an irresistible, quirky nugget that's just waiting for some wide-eyed reporter to come along and claim it.
Roberts was on the subway one day in February when he noticed a New York City Transit public service placard reminding subway riders not to leave their newspapers behind.
"Please put it in a trash can; that's good news for everyone," the sign prompted.
A semicolon on a subway sign? Roberts chuckled at the novelty of it. Then he took another critical leap:
Roberts noticed that he noticed it.
Back at the office, he made a few calls — to writer Frank McCourt, to linguist Noam Chomsky, to Lynne Truss, the author of "Eats, Shoots & Leaves." The Google machine helped him turn up Famous Semicolon Wielders in History. Roberts even tracked down the erudite author of the subway prose and found, much to his delight, a civil servant with a sense of humor.
"I thought I'd be lucky if a few retired English teachers read it," Roberts says. But readers loved the story which became the most e-mailed Times story that week.
I've been a newspaper feature writer for 20-plus years, and I've taught writing off and on for much of that time. When I stumble across a fresh idea like the semicolon story, the first thing I want to know is: How did he think that up?
And: Why didn't I think of that?
And, more to the point: How can I train myself to notice what I notice, too?
Chance favors the prepared mind.
— Louis Pasteur
I worked as a features columnist for the Roanoke Times in the mid-'90s. It about killed me.
People loved me. They hated me. They owned me — or so it sometimes felt when they begged me to write about their great-aunt's 100th birthday, or her Nixon-shaped potato, or the time her grandson accidentally shoved a pea up her nose.
Of all the jobs I've had at newspapers, being a columnist was probably the least beneficial to my mental health. If you counted all the time I spent worrying about my next column, I made about a dollar an hour.
Then, at a conference for newspaper columnists, I met my journalistic soul mate — a firecracker named Regina Brett, who was then a columnist for the Akron Beacon Journal. Here was somebody who put more energy and passion into her job than I did. And she rarely seemed to worry about where her next idea was coming from. I had to find out her secret.
It turned out there wasn't any secret. Brett worked very hard.
In the event of a rare dry spell, she maintained an idea-gathering system — an A through Z set of manila folders in which she filed clippings of interest for possible column fodder down the road.
One week, she overheard some coworkers in the company cafeteria comparing notes about their vasectomies, and sure enough: There it was in the V file, background information on the surgery with academic studies and sources. A few phone calls, and an easy column emerged.
Now working for Cleveland's Plain Dealer, Brett still has a mind that spins ideas nonstop, and her enthusiasm is still contagious. She begins every week with a minimum of six ideas. Then she pares them down to the best three, usually the timeliest ones — or the subjects most likely to give her brain free rein to roam.
"You know, my No. 1 thing is, don't ask permission; just do it," she says. Some editors have a hard time seeing the promise of an offbeat idea. How many editors would roll their eyes if a reporter asked for permission to write about a semicolon? "If you go out and come back with a great quirky story and it's already written, they love it."
Brett starts every day by meditating, because it helps her fine-tune her intuition. Maybe later she'll spot a grocery store notice about an offbeat new dance class. Maybe there's a yard sale notice about a couple that's reuniting after a divorce — and needs to sell off their duplicate stuff.
"Getting out of the newsroom is so important because, face it, there are no columns in the newsroom," says Brett, who was a finalist for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in commentary. "It drives me crazy when I see a reporter talking to someone on the phone when he could walk four blocks and see what's going on for himself."
Last fall, she got lost on her way to interview a woman whose house had burned down. She stopped by an ice cream shop to get directions from Terrence Embry, a 16-year-old African American kid working behind the counter.
Brett was tired, and it would've been easy just to take the directions and be on her way. But something prodded her to ask the teenager about his life.
"Where are you going to school?" she ventured.
"I don't know."
"But school starts next week."
"I was going to a private school, but I ran out of money."
When he started telling her about his goal to become a neurosurgeon, Brett's column radar went on full alert; she experienced what she calls "the familiar tug." She wrote:
The kid amazed me, so I wrote about him. A woman who read the column felt the same tug. She told her husband about it over lunch. He felt the tug, too. Dr. Mark Luciano saw himself at 16, back when he wanted to study the brain, long before he began operating on it.
Thanks to her column, Embry had himself a mentor — and even got to stand at a patient's head as Luciano performed brain surgery. The private school picked up his tuition after all.
And Brett had a helluva follow-up story. "That's the power of journalism, that this boy who almost had his dreams die got to get them back," she recalls. "As a reporter, you have to continually step out of your comfort zone."
Despite declining revenue and industry news that makes you want to throw in your laptop, Brett reminds herself daily: There are still thousands of readers out there who crave our stories.
"We've got the best seat on the Titanic," she says. "And you know what? The band kept playing while the ship went down. That's our job in this — to be the band; to uplift people even as the ship's going down."
You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.
— Annie Dillard
Former Baltimore Sun reporter Diana Sugg has written that writers need to figure out the themes that most speak to their own experiences. The ideas that stem from those themes tend to be the stories they are most likely to connect with and, therefore, most effectively tell.
In other words, we should write the stories that we alone were born to write.
"For me, death was a window into so many important things in life," wrote Sugg, who won the Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting in 2003 and is now a freelance writer based in Geneva, Switzerland. "I wanted to understand this sacred ground."
For me, the best ideas usually come when I'm least expecting them, and they usually have an element of the underdog in them, of the outsider looking in.
The first in my family to go to college, I grew up poor. No matter how much money I make or how many awards I win, my worldview will always be colored by those facts. Once I figured that out and saw my past as something to embrace, not a source of shame, my job became easier.
In the late '90s, I embarked on an independent project to document the decline in need-based financial aid. The impetus? I'd been teaching at a local community college and overheard a group of fellow teachers complaining about their Pell Grant students, casting them as freeloaders.
I'd been a Pell Grant student. So had some of my best students.
I ranted. I raved. And then, for three years, I wrote — articles and essays for newspapers and magazines; profiles about people like Theresa Robertson, who wasn't just the first person in her family to go to college. She was the first person in her entire neighborhood.
And she went to Harvard.
When I returned to my newspaper in 2000, I didn't set out to focus on outsiders and underdogs, but those were always the stories I wrote best: the lawyer with stage-four melanoma who bucked her doctor's prognosis and, instead of getting her affairs in order, ran a marathon. I wrote about teenage Dumpster divers and profiled an important antebellum-era black educator whose story had never been told.
In 2005, I volunteered to mentor a Liberian refugee named Zeor as she settled into Roanoke by helping her read and fill out forms, driving her to Wal-Mart, helping her find a job. I had no intention of writing about refugees, but a few months into it, a chance encounter with a soda machine changed my mind.
As a can of Diet Coke dropped clunking from the machine, Zeor squealed with delight and said, "There is a person inside that machine!"
I knew at that moment: I wanted to help readers see themselves anew, through these strangers' eyes.
Many ideas grow better when transplanted into another mind than in the one where they sprang up.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
I didn't write about Zeor, but my time with her ultimately led to the idea for a series on how another group — Somali Bantu refugees, it turned out — was assimilating into our midsize city.
I wasn't sure how to frame the story at first. Then my longtime collaborator, photographer Josh Meltzer, mentioned that many of the Somali Bantu were living in a single apartment complex — along with Cubans and Bosnians and working-class whites and blacks. Terrace Apartments was located not more than five blocks away from my own house, but I'd never even seen it for what it was: the most diverse nine acres of one of the most segregated cities in the South.
Never underestimate the power of collaboration. Josh's curiosity drove me to see the place as the vehicle for telling this complicated but classic immigrant story.
Meanwhile, during the reporting for that series, I kept hearing about a group of immigrants who, unlike the government-sponsored refugees, were not being welcomed at the airport by caseworkers and volunteers. They were little girls who showed up to register for school with their heads still shaven, having journeyed through Mexico while posing as boys — so they wouldn't be raped.
They were people like Nohemi Cedillo, an undocumented immigrant who worked three jobs at once so she could hire coyote smugglers to bring her children — one at a time — from Honduras to Roanoke. Everything went as planned until a coyote called her from somewhere near the Texas-Mexico border to say her 16-year-old son Melvin was dying, and he had to leave him behind. Was he dead or alive? Nohemi didn't know.
Those two images were the trigger for a second immigrant series, this one about Roanoke's burgeoning Hispanic community.
Writer Annie Dillard says we should follow what astonishes us. I say the best ideas come when we also follow what moves us. If it's empathy for the underdog, so be it.
It's our job to convince the editors we work with that these stories will move our readers as well. It's our job to convince our subjects that we're in it for the long haul — whether it means planting ourselves in the middle of a living room floor so we can finally make eye contact with a battered African refugee, or joining a group of migrant guest workers in the predawn as they set out on a four-day journey home to Mexico.
It's our job to nurture our inner tugs and goose bumps, and to know without a doubt: These are my stories, the stories that I was born to tell.
Farmer Hoggett knew that little ideas that tickled and nagged and refused to go away should never be ignored, for in them lie the seeds of destiny.
— from the movie "Babe"
One of Lon Wagner's favorite stories occurred to him the day the governor of Virginia proposed a statewide ban on smoking in restaurants. A narrative writer for the Virginian-Pilot, Wagner set out to find the grimiest, smokiest bar in Norfolk and, like an anthropologist studying some remote species in a far-off land, to capture the last-holdout feel of the place:
Smoke rose in curls, smoke rose in straight lines, men blasted it out of their mouths into sideways mushroom clouds. To [owner Ronnie] Boone, smoking is one of the things that makes a place like this a place like this.
Think like a contrarian as you read your own newspaper, Wagner suggests. Constantly try to sift out ideas that haven't been written before, at your paper or anywhere else.
"The worst feeling ever is to have no ideas," he says. His best ideas have come to him during off-hours, he says, usually when he's already immersed in a couple of good stories at work — times when he's not particularly desperate.
"As journalists, we're not really working all the time, but if you don't think about stories when you're not working, I don't think you're a very good journalist," he says. Among the stories he's mined in his off-hours:
• In a city neighborhood, he noticed a homeless man with a fully stuffed shopping cart and wondered: What made him choose one item and not something else?
• Another time, while taking a different route to work, he drove past an alley where a college professor had been shot in the face. What happened to that guy? he wondered. Did he end up staying in town? It had been four years since the paper had written about him.
• One Saturday, on the way to the hardware store, Wagner looked up and noticed four pair of sneakers hanging from an electrical line. "I said to myself, 'damn, I wonder if I could do a story about sneakers hanging on the lines?'" He gave it a try, wearing his usual yuppie reporter clothes in the middle of the inner-city neighborhood on one of the hottest days of the year. With his notebook in hand — "sometimes it's good to be as obvious as possible" — he stood there looking in the air, and he waited for something to happen. "After about 20 seconds, this old guy sitting on his porch yelled across the street to me, 'Ain't that some stupid shit?'"
Wagner didn't know what he would write, but he knew he had the go-ahead to create a story out of that dreamlike scene.
Wagner and the other narrative writers at the Pilot have a friendly competition of trying to one-up each other with their ideas — the more off-kilter the concept, the better. Science writer Diane Tennant once wrote about the opposite of a bad news day: the number of vehicles that safely made it through the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel without accident, how many planes safely landed, how many children went to school that day and didn't get into a fight.
Another narrative writer, Denise Watson Batts, found a classified ad in a small-town newspaper outside of Norfolk that turned into a powerful and poignant story. An old man simply wanted to let his old friends know: I'm still alive.
Reporter Earl Swift was driving down the highway one day when a sewage-removal truck flew past him. The slogan on the side cracked him up, and he knew he'd have to track the owner down when he returned to the office.
"If it don't go down, call Brown," the sign said in all its grammatically incorrect glory.
"I get calls from people who tell me, 'You know, when I read your story, I really felt like I was there,'" Wagner says. "Well, it's not their job to be there; they have to work. It's our job to be there.
"And selfishly, we're gonna feel so much better about ourselves if we go out and find a great story rather than just sit in the office and read Romenesko.
"Coming up with a great story idea — for all the depressing industry news, that's really the best therapy of all."
Anyone can look for fashion in a boutique or history in a museum. The creative explorer looks for history in a hardware store and fashion in an airport.
— Robert Wieder
The sticky hooked spine of mountain thistle inspired the man who invented Velcro. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone by trying to recreate the ear.
How do we see the world anew?
True innovators — whether they're working in journalism or science or the arts — know that ideas are everywhere. They don't let artificial boundaries prevent them from exploring them.
"One of the biggest barriers out there is lawyers going to legal meetings, journalists going to journalism meetings, and everyone getting so siloed and focused on their own little world that they end up blocking out a lot of things that could potentially be keys to their own innovation," says Kris Kimel, founding director of The Idea Festival, an annual conference on creativity and innovation held in Louisville.
From award-winning writers to world-class inventors, the most creative people have an insatiable curiosity about everything, Kimel adds. They're always looking for new information and new ideas, and they aren't discouraged if others — editors, for instance — aren't immediately receptive to them.
They don't hide behind notebooks. They sift the best stuff out of the world because they aren't afraid to experience it, even though they sometimes fail.
[The] writer's duty is to..help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.
— William Faulkner
Several years back, a reporter who was leaving the paper gave me a parting gift. He had a story idea he had never gotten around to, and he promised it was the best story idea in the whole world — something no one else had ever imagined.
By the time he finally spit the idea out, I was underwhelmed: What he wanted me to profile wasn't a person or a place or an event. In fact, you couldn't even see the thing.
He wanted me to profile a sound — the old Norfolk Southern Railway work whistle. A civic icon that didn't even merit a file in our newspaper's library, it had been announcing shift changes for railroad workers for more than 125 years.
I didn't warm to the idea until I met the whistle's caretaker, an engineer who was troubled by the fact that no one noticed anymore when the whistle was on the fritz. Used to be, if Old Gabriel failed to go off at the appointed time, people from all over town called to complain.
A few days into the reporting, it hit me that writing about the whistle was really the vehicle for writing about the railroad's eroding influence on our city. Finally, I understood the significance of my friend's idea and saw it for the gift it was.
When I'm excited about a story I'm reporting, I tend to talk about it nonstop. So it went one night at a party, when an artist friend volunteered his own take on my whistle story, something I would have never thought of on my own.
To bring the subject to life, he suggested I have a local musician analyze the sound of the whistle — its particular notes, its tone, its underlying message.
"It's basically an inverted D-major seventh chord, composed of a D, then a high C sharp and ending with a low F sharp," explained Wes Chappell, a Fret Mill clerk and musician who identified Old Gabriel's notes at a reporter's request. "At the very end it slides down to an A-major chord."
Asked for his artistic interpretation, Chappell offered: "It starts out a little hopeful, then it gets a little dissonant, as if it's reminding you of something — like, to get up and go to work."
There are days when I still can't believe I get paid to drive around, talk to strangers and then write stories about what I've seen and heard, smelled and felt.
Sam Roberts, the semicolon guy, said it best recently when he enthused: "Being reporters, we're paid to basically get a graduate education in whatever we're interested in! We should be out there all the time, just jumping into the things that make us curious."
Roberts knows that stories that move, inspire and delight our readers may very well be newspapers' saving grace. And that, as his favorite subway sign intoned, would be good news — for everyone.
Beth Macy (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the families beat reporter at the Roanoke Times.