Reporting tips: five ways to always have stories for a rainy day

It’s five minutes before a news meeting, and you’ve got nothing on your news list. This is not a situation any reporter wants to find themselves in. With a bit of preparation and some work, you should always be able to have something to put forward in a news meeting. The following five things are all something you should be doing, and should all generate stories – they may not be splashes, but as said previously, the paper is made up of more than just page leads.

1. Freedom of Information requests
FOIs are a good source for journalists, but they take a bit of planning. You need to think carefully about what data you’re going to ask for. Be very specific or you may find that the body you’re asking is able to avoid your request. If in doubt, break down the information you’re asking for into bullet points to make it absolutely clear what you want. 

Since FOIs take about a month to turn around (that includes you sending them, acknowledgement of receipt and the 20 working days an organisation has to get them back to you), you can’t have them ready for tomorrow’s news meeting. But put a few in and when they’re back you have them at your fingertips. And since FOIs are often not hugely date sensitive, you can wait for a week you have a quiet news list to put them forward.

2. Council meetings and agendas
They may be a bit dull sometimes but local councils provide some of the bread and butter content for local papers.

Make sure you’ve got all major meetings in your diary (full council, planning and cabinet), and that you peruse agendas as soon as they’re available so you can identify a story as soon as possible. You won’t need to cover every meeting, but knowing what the local authority is focusing on will make you a valuable person in the newsroom.

Councils can provide stories all year round, and one of the best ways they can generate stories are through planning meetings. Make sure you read up on any significant planning applications, and develop them to make them fuller stories. For example, there may be plans for a massive supermarket at the edge of a small village – speak to residents and owners of small shops about how they think it will affect them, and you’ve got yourself a story.

3. Celebrities
Most papers have some sort of a celebrity in their catchment area, so make sure you know what they’re up to, from their latest projects to what charity work they’re doing to if they’re having a baby or getting married.

Stories about major celebrities will likely be picked up by nationals first, but there’s always the possibility you’ll get something first. Linking to the above point about council planning meetings, it’s always a good story when your local celebrity decides they want to build a massive extension complete with swimming pool to their house. Nationals aren’t going to find this, because they’re not going to be scanning planning agendas like you are.

Also, if you can try and get to know the celebrity’s PR (this won’t work if it’s Brad Pitt but for more minor celebs you should be able to make it happen). This way, if the paper runs a campaign or starts to support a local charity, you can try and get a line or two from your celebrity backing the cause as well.

4. Magistrates’ court
Back in the day, papers had enough staff to be able to cover magistrates’ court full time, but that’s not so much the case anymore.

If your paper isn’t doing so already, pitch to the news editor that you should cover court one morning a week, preferably on the paper’s quietest day. Some weeks you won’t get much, but on a good morning you can get a few page leads, a couple of nibs and downpagers, and some leads on stories for the future. 

5. Police meetings
Set up regular meetings with your police press officer, and get them to tell you what the local force is working on. Every force sets itself priorities, both long-term and short-term, and some of these can make good news stories.

Sometimes police campaigns can also lead to campaigns or long-term coverage of something for the paper. For example, the police may be putting a focus on combatting domestic violence because of an increase in incidents. Instead of just doing one story on the police’s work, why not do a series of focus pieces? You could speak to the police, charities working with victims, victims themselves and more. Suddenly a story you got from the police has turned into weeks worth of copy for the paper.

Also, make sure you keep an eye on public meetings the police may have, anything on the force’s Twitter feed and any live chats officers may do online.

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