I knew if I didn’t do it now, I would never have the opportunity again. So I parked my car and chased down the senior couple on their daily walk.
I was a reporter for The Sun in Lowell, Massachusetts. For more than two years, I observed Ismael Rodriguez and Margarita Garcia Lozada walking through downtown Lowell on my way to and from assignments. Margarita’s barely 5-foot frame ambled behind her walker, her gray hair always hidden under a plain red cap. Ismael loomed over her with a confident gait and neck draped in gold chains and a beaded rosary.
They weren’t public officials. They were your everyday residents. But I knew I wanted to tell their story. And time was ticking: It was June 2019 and I was months away from returning to Florida to be closer to family. It was now or never.
Thankfully, they agreed to let me accompany them on their walk for a feature story. I learned how they fell in love in Puerto Rico, settled in Lowell and had three children. The story also captured our walk. It was less than a block before Margarita, who suffered from osteoporosis, stopped. She told me in Spanish that she was tired. End of story … or so I thought.
After the article ran, I watched as readers flooded the newspaper’s Facebook page. Many commented on how they had always seen the couple walking but never knew their story. A good portion of the commenters were other Puerto Ricans, delighted to see a part of their community reflected in the paper.
This got me thinking about the ways in which local journalists can find similar stories in their own communities — that person (or people) you always see and have wondered about. What inspired me to do this kind of reporting — and this column focus — was “WriteLane,” a podcast by Pulitzer Prize-winning Tampa Bay Times journalist Lane DeGregory and Maria Carrillo, a former senior deputy editor at the newspaper. DeGregory has a keen eye for these kinds of stories. Soon after she arrived at the Times (which is owned by Poynter), she was at a local pier with her boys when she noticed an elderly man singing. His name was Elmer Wright.
“Everybody had seen him, and no one had ever done a story on him,” she told me. “I think every community has its people that are out there as characters.”
I asked DeGregory last week if she could share how local journalists could find their own Elmer Wright. Below are a few tips to start.
Tip No. 1: Be curious. “I really think a lot of my best stories came from when I wasn’t working — when I was out being curious or noticing something,” DeGregory said. “If you’re a reporter and you’re out having a beer with your friends and see something cool, write it down, or introduce yourself. You can still find stories while you’re not supposed to be working.”
One time, DeGregory was in line at a convenience store when she overheard a man say it was the best day of his life. He recently found out he had a daughter, and she wanted to meet him. DeGregory ended up writing a story about them.
When I was still a reporter for The Sun, I wrote about an elderly man who takes his adult daughter with cerebral palsy out for trick-or-treating every Halloween. I had not been searching for that story — it came about because I met them at a local festival. I ended up writing a story about one father’s unconditional love for his daughter.
Tip No. 2: Be a joiner. Sign up for a yoga class, a beer-making club or any niche group. “You get to know other people in the community and they start bringing you stories,” DeGregory said.
Tip No. 3: Seek out places where people gather. DeGregory said she’s become more intentional about this since not as many people have been coming to her with stories because of the pandemic. She’s been able to write several stories from a senior center near her home, for example.
“Whether you join a church, or a synagogue, or a YMCA, always being part of something helps the stories come to you,” she said. “If you wonder about something, chances are somebody else was wondering about that, too.”
There are many more examples of these kinds of stories that won’t fit in this newsletter. Have you ever done a story about a community fixture? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at email@example.com or tweet your story and tag @Poynter.
This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter devoted to the telling stories of local journalists