Story ideas - you find them in the boringest places

By far, the number one most difficult thing for Newhouse Broadcast and Digital Journalism students to execute in class is finding good story ideas. Granted, they are new to Syracuse and Central New York, so that’s an acknowledged hurdle. But, there are some tried and true places to look for stories. City council agendas almost always lead to something, even though the language can be boring and byzantine. That’s where today’s story came from.

Before I made the trip out to San Francisco, I spent several days scouring agendas from city councils across the Bay Areas. One item that caught my eye was from the city of Burlingame. This:

What on earth does that mean? What would be the point of an “Office Space Cap?” A little curiosity will take a reporter a long way. Turns out the cap was an idea being floated by the regional transportation commission, with the goal of pushing businesses out of areas with lots of jobs and little housing into areas with few jobs and lots of housing. The goal: get people to live closer to where they work so they don’t have to drive.

Once I figured that out, I had to nail down my three key story elements:

  • So what (what difference does it make): this would make a huge difference to the cities, like Burlingame, that are successfully attracting businesses. A cap on office space would be an economic blow.

  • Real people (the people living the story): someone like the mayor who could represent the city and a business person who could talk about what goes into the process of choosing a place to set up a company.

  • Show me, don’t tell me (video): shots of business parks, office buildings.

The mayor was totally on board with this story, which was to be expected given the agenda item said the council approved of her sending a letter complaining about the office cap plan. Because she was into it, she connected me with a local business owner who eagerly agreed to tell me about the process of picking a location to set up shop. And, with a good stroke of luck, I found plenty of office video - Facebook bought all 767,000 square feet of an new office park in Burlingame for its Oculus unit. Jackpot.

I already knew driving in the Bay Area was going to be a bear. What I didn’t know is how grizzly it would be. This is video from 1:30 in the afternoon heading into the city:

But because it’s San Francisco and the Bay Area, you never know what you’re going to see. How bad is the traffic? It’s so bad you drive slow enough to roll a joint - from the driver’s seat.

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  1. Story ideas are hard to find. You have to be on the lookout all the time. Local government meetings can be a good source.