5 tips for finding work that leads to change

January 8, 2020

Part of this piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter following the digital transformation of local news. Want to be part of the conversation? You can subscribe here

Every year, journalists write, record and film stories, and things change because of it.

We chose five stories published last year that exemplify that – from the story of a retiring mailman that went viral to the stories of lost African American cemeteries across Tampa Bay.

You can read more about how those stories came about, and check out the tips below from journalists in Atlanta, Tampa, Denver, Buffalo and Austin.

Get out of the newsroom

Jennifer Brett, a multiplatform journalist and digital coach with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, spent a day following a retiring mailman. Her tweets on that day went viral, and led to crowdfunding to send the mailman on his dream vacation. Brett’s advice – you’ll find these stories in the community, not sitting behind a desk.

“Social media proficiency, digital savvy and investigative skills are great tools for finding and sharing important stories, but there is no substitution for good old feet-on-the-street journalism. Do your reporters spend all day, every day in the newsroom? That’s odd. News rarely happens in the newsroom. And, while it’s important to pay attention to Twitter trending topics and to use tools like Chartbeat, Dataminr, Google trends etc. – a low-tech approach is often the key to finding and owning stories that are unique, exclusive and meaningful to your community. The most impactful stories just might be waiting for you at the end of your driveway.”

Related: For many journalists, the bonds formed in the newsroom remain long after they leave

Follow every lead

Since last June, the Tampa Bay Times has discovered nine cemeteries in Tampa Bay, most of which hold the remains of African Americans, that have been built over and forgotten.

It started with a totally different story and a man who’d been trying to tell it for years, said Tampa Bay Times reporter Paul Guzzo.

“Ray Reed told me he had been reaching out to Times reporters for years about the ghosts that visit him and the work he’s doing, and they all blew him off and thought he was crazy,” Guzzo said.

Guzzo wrote about Reed and his work, and when Reed mentioned what he thought was a lost cemetery, Times photojournalist James Borchuck encouraged Guzzo to check it out.

Nine months of reporting went into that first story, though Guzzo worked on other stories, too. His advice: Make time to follow those leads.

Listen to your readers

A reporter asked Julie Chang to look into an issue, and the results included an anonymous donation to the football team at a local high school in a high-poverty area. The advice from Chang, an education and social services reporter at the Austin American-Statesman – Listen to your readers.

“The attention that the story received was more than the effort it took to write and report the story. It took me about two weeks to gather the data, conduct all interviews and coordinate a special online presentation for the story – while juggling other reporting responsibilities. I don’t think local newsrooms have to put in complicated information requests and find whistleblowers to write stories that lead to change. Just simply relaying what’s happening in your backyard could be a story that could make a difference. Oh, and as difficult as it might be sometimes, try to listen to your readers.”

Related training: Demonstrate credibility and earn trust

Ask why. A lot.

Caitlin Dewey, an enterprise reporter at The Buffalo News, took a newly released data set from the U.S Census Bureau and showed where people didn’t have internet access. The results include a legislative resolution to build a county-wide broadband network. Dewey’s advice: Ask why.

“These stories really just came down to having some data and asking ‘why’ a lot. Why is internet access worse in these neighborhoods? Why are there only two options for internet there? Why don’t other cities have this problem? Etc. I think sometimes asking ‘why’ enough times eventually gets readers and policymakers to ‘why not.’ They begin wondering why these problems haven’t been solved, and that makes the difference.

Don’t get intimidated.

In Denver, KUSA-TV investigative reporter Chris Vanderveen has spent four years inviting readers to share their medical bills. His work has led to more than $300,000 in the identification of overcharges and billing errors and helped change the law in Colorado. His advice – take on tough stories even if they scare you.

“I was terrified of health care stories because I thought it was super complicated and it wasn’t easy to digest.”

Health care stories can be both of those things. They require a lot of work, Vanderveen said, and it probably took him two years to feel comfortable reporting on them.

“Don’t shy away from what you perceive as complicated stories.”

Kristen Hare covers the transformation of local news for Poynter.org. She can be reached at khare@poynter.org or on Twitter at @kristenhare