'Before you write a word, it’s important that you researched your subject to death'
Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.
How do you know if a story is worth pursuing? How do you find out if sources are qualified? How do you know what angle is the best to pursue among the various options that might be available?
“You are trying to get people to relate to the subject — to make an impact on others with their story,” Lucas Sullivan said. “Before you write a word, it’s important that you researched your subject to death and you have spent a considerable amount of time talking with the people or person you are writing about.”
What research looks like will vary depending on the subject of your story. There are the obvious sources, such as newspaper and magazine clippings, but consider also court files, government data sets, trending Twitter topics. At the minimum, research provides names, family members and other starting points for interviews. At best, it provides authoritative detail that can set a story apart.
For a profile article, research will involve finding out as much background information on your subject as you can — from websites, previous articles, LinkedIn, a curriculum vitae, even interviewing other people on your subject. On a complex issue related story, there may be public record requests.
The amount of research depends on who you are writing for, Michael Farber of Sports Illustrated, said.
“Extra reporting is not a luxury we had in newspapers,” he said. “You use most of what you reported. You hone in on the stuff you needed. You use 50 percent or more. But the rule of thumb at magazines is if you use more than 10 percent of your reporting, you haven’t reported enough. You throw out 90 percent and choose the best 10 percent. It took me a while to get used to that.”
Zack Meisel of The Athletic said research is critical for two main reasons:
- The more writers know going in, the less time is wasted. “I don’t need to ask all these simple background questions because I’ve read about it and I know it. You want to double-check things, but you don’t have to waste all that time.”
- Good research lets the writer know enough to encourage sources to open up. “They can tell you’ve done your homework and they appreciate that. They don’t feel like they’re talking to a stranger, they feel like they’re talking to someone who at least knows a little bit about their story.”
“I think [research] is the most important thing that I think a lot of writers don’t consider,” Meisel said. “It is maybe the most underrated aspect of feature writing.”
Mitch Hooper of (614) Columbus said his research often involves searching social media like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, along with LinkedIn and Wikipedia. He also will look to see if a subject has been interviewed before for another story.
“If I’m going to sit down and talk to someone I don’t want to ask them questions, I can Google on my own,” he said. “There’s never too much you can do. Taking that extra step not only shows that you care about the story, but it also excites your source where they’re like ‘holy crap this guy didn’t just Google me real quick and find the first three things about me.’ You want them to feel comfortable talking to you and know that you care about that story because they almost have more invested in it than you do at the end of the day.”
Knowing the background of a person or subject helps writers know what makes them tick before they even begin the story, and that can help uncover angles that will make the story far more compelling to readers.
Melissa Hoppert of the New York Times cited the example of the 2017 Triple Crown winner Justify. While many horse owners are in the business to find their dream horse who will make their racing fantasies come true, the owners of Justify had different motivations: making money.
“They ran their farm like a business,” she said. “That’s different from a lot of owners. And that impacted how they were experiencing the Triple Crown. That’s compared with a horse like California Chrome. He was his owner’s first horse. They had a lot of emotion. Doing your homework shows why they would experience it differently.”
Sometimes the most significant research, however, is to pay attention to the answers being provided and try and incorporate what you know with what you are finding out.
That’s why Adam Jardy of the Columbus Dispatch, who does as much research as he can before working on a story, is not afraid to “look like an idiot” in the course of the interview.
“I’m asking this person about their life, I’m asking about their story, so I’m going to do as much research as I can, but I don’t know everything about them,” Jardy said. “You can come prepared to the point where you think you might know this person or you might think you understand all of the details and they’re sitting there going ‘this person doesn’t know me, this person has no idea.’
“You are the person that this thing happened to. You are the person this story is about. Why don’t you tell the story? I’ve probably read 15 other things about you that other people have written but I’m not just writing the same things those people wrote. Those people are informing my questions to you but you are the person who knows the story so please tell me the story.”
“I would rather every day of the week look stupid and ask a stupid question but then have the information right in my story than the other way around. If I just assume, ‘OK I don’t need to ask this and I’ll look silly if I do,’ then your writing might end up being incorrect. So you can’t be afraid to ask a question that’s going to make you look stupid or that might make the person think you’re stupid as long as you’re getting information that you need.”
Abby Vesoulis of Time magazine said the amount of research often depends on the type of article she is doing. Talking to a mayor, she will do a couple of days of research but she won’t reach out to a senator to schedule an interview with them until she understands everything they were doing, including the proposed bill and their background.
“I was interviewing Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican from Iowa, who has one very firm opinion on how to make paid family leave a reality,” Vesoulis recalls. “Then I was interviewing Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, who has a very different idea of how to get it passed. I know that the two are very good friends and like go on vacations together, so those are the kinds of things you want to know when you into the room so you can say ‘I know that you two are friends, what do you think about her idea?’”
Stories are not boring. Writers are.
Not all stories are sexy or involve celebrity interviews or scandal. Some stories may, on the first assignment, appear flat-out boring:
- New sewer lines being put down on your beat — yeah!
- Cat rescue has too many cats — bummer!
- A furniture store celebrates its 50th anniversary — yippee!
It is not, however, the story that is boring — it’s your attitude or approach.
Start every assignment by thinking what a reader would find interesting, and then, if you must, force yourself to feign interest in that story. That means every interview with a source should appear to be fascinating to you — even though you and I both know it may not be.
Get up close and personal with those sewer lines, literally in the trenches as they are being installed, and write about what you see and hear — and smell.
Visit the rescue and just watch and listen. What do too many cats sound and feel like? Write it down and show us in words.
The 50th anniversary in that store means someone — or likely some family or partnership — devoted half a century to a single business in a community that has likely come to count on it in some way. What was the neighborhood like 50 years ago? How does someone stay engaged in the same business for 50 years?
The sources you are interviewing care about their subject, and just like kids and dogs know when you don’t like them, sources know when you don’t care about their subject.
One of the best parts of being a reporter is getting to meet people you didn’t know who can talk on subjects you may have never considered. Give yourself the opportunity to incorporate the story into your own psyche, at least for the time you are writing it.
“Sometimes people you know pretty well don’t want to go there, and sometimes people you don’t know at all will just lay it all out there,” Tom Reed of The Athletic said. “That happened to me this year when I was in Switzerland doing a story on a Blue Jackets prospect, Elvis Merzļikins. He was like an open book. He’s like, ‘Here are all the things I did as a kid and some of it was pretty crazy.’ Again, there are people I have known for years in the hockey world that I know would not go to where Elvis went, who I had never met in my life an hour ago.”
Learning not to waste time with Abby Vesoulis of Time magazine
I just finished a story on paid family leave that I worked on for a long time. One component of that was understanding how important the issue was to the White House. Everybody in the White House is obviously very busy, so I approached them when I was way further along in the reporting process than I approached people who are advocates of the issue.
With the advocates of passing legislation, they would’ve talked to me for five hours because they were excited that this is something that my publication was going to work on. I went to coffee with them, and I said, “OK talk to me like I’m 10 and I don’t understand any of this.” Tell me the history of the problem in your perspective, tell me the people you think I should talk to, tell me why you think this is important now.
Obviously everything they say you have to take with a grain of salt because they are biased and they think this is the most important issue ever.
That kind of gives you an overall, 20,000-feet look, but then you go and approach the people they mentioned. They were talking about Republican senators, so I reached out after I did the research of what these Republican senators were doing. I told their press people what I was doing, and I went in and had 20-minute interviews with a senator or representative because their time is valuable.
As you go further along in the process, you build up the trust of these people, and then you can ping them again over email for follow-up questions. They’re more willing to give you a couple of little pieces of background information. You just have to be aware of what other people’s time constrictions are and approach the people who are your like “have to get” when you have a firm grasp on the topic so you’re not wasting their time.