Who generates story ideas?

When writers expect editors to do the all the legwork

I am the managing and news editor at my university paper. I’m having problems getting the staff writers to pitch their own stories. It’s my job to schedule the news, but I’m burning out. I find that I spend all my time off scouring university documents, agendas, calendars, and other news sources just to barely fill our daily paper while I leave my homework to fall by the wayside. The few stories they do pitch are boring, overdone, or not newsworthy. I work hard to pitch compelling stories to them so they can have great clips when they apply for jobs and internships. I’ve explained to them how important it is to develop good news sense, be curious, and find great stories. How can I re-emphasize my point without sounding bossy or condescending? What else should I say? —Samantha

Journalism—especially magazines, but also newspapers to a great degree—is an ideas business. If you want to keep working as an editor, get used to being generous with your ideas. Being an editor is thinking up great story ideas that are perfect for your publication, then matching those ideas with a writer. Admittedly, that’s difficult—and also hard on the ego.

Your situation, taking on almost the entire burden of figuring out what’s worth covering on your campus, isn’t just making you crazy; it’s not leading to the best possible product. The more brains involved, the better it’ll be. The only way around this is to delegate.

It’s a little harder if your writers are just working for credit, not pay, but you need to find other editors to whom you can say, every day or every week, “What stories have you got for me?” It’s on them to either come up with ideas themselves or harass their writers. Since college journalism is also about skills-building, it’ll spread not just the workload, but also the experience.

Part of your burden here is also to help your reporters learn about what is a newsworthy pitch. Here, examples are most helpful. Don’t just say, “timely,” show them three stories that had to run within a day or two of being pitched. Don’t just say, “engaging profile piece,” send them a few links to shining examples from both your student paper and professional sources. Walk them through your own process: Explain how you comb listings and attend events to find story ideas on campus. I don’t know how much leverage you have to make your fellow editors and the writers follow through, but you should do your best to set concrete requirements. Be harsh: Come to each meeting with three story ideas, or you’re off the masthead. But if you do all this and they still tell you they’re out of ideas? Feel free to do your worst.

It may seem like this is a problem you’re having because you’re working at an unpaid student publication. But out in the professional world, many editors still have to gin up most of the story ideas and angles for their reporters, who then get the byline. (Of course, there are plenty of reporters who generate all of their own ideas, and plenty of editors who just move paragraphs around and fix comma splices, too.) If you want to be an editor after you graduate, you should probably get comfortable with being generous with your ideas.

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Ann Friedman is a magazine editor who loves the internet. She lives in Los Angeles Tags: #Realtalk