Tuesday, November 2, 2010

How journalism guru Roy Peter Clark helped to turn a classified ad into a heartwarming newspaper story

"Bird Cockatiel, grey with white face. St. Pete Beach area. Whistles at toes!  Heartbroken. [Phone number]..."

This was the classified ad that senior journalist and columnist Roy Peter Clark of Poynter Online saw in Florida's St. Petersburg Times (now renamed Tampa Bay Times). But why was Clark looking at the classifieds in the first place? And how did this ad then become a news story?

First, the answer to the first question: Clark is writing a new book titled Help! For Writers. "The book will list 25 of the most common writing problems, with 10 suggested solutions for each," he writes on his Poynter blog. "The problem in question was 'I am out of story ideas.' "

Clark continues:
...what better place to find [stories] than in the news.

Begin with the small stories, the ones that play inside the paper. Look for announcements of events you might write about. Scour the classified ads, in the paper and online.

He says he realised then that he needed a real-life example and he rushed downstairs to grab a copy of that day's St. Petersburg Times.

And now comes the story about the story:

Then I wrote: "It took exactly 30 seconds to find the telephone number of a person who lives on the beach and is heartbroken because her cockatiel — who whistles at toes — is missing. So what are you waiting for? Get to work. Dial that number."

A little later it occurred to me that the bird story deserved more than a mention in a book that might not be published for more than a year. So I sent a message to editor Kelley Benham at the Times. I had confidence that Kelley, who once wrote an epic story about a rogue rooster named Rockadoodle Two, would give it a good look. Not only did we have a lost bird and a heartbroken owner, but the bird apparently had a foot fetish.

Kelley messaged me back that reporter Stephanie Hayes was "all over" the story. And she was, producing a piece that got good play in the paper, and told the sad tale of an old man living on St. Pete Beach, whose beloved bird, named Shadow for its gray feathers, had flown away.

All novice reporters and aspiring journalists and college students working on the editorial desk of their newspaper should read Clark's post to learn what happened next. And to learn how to originate and develop local stories. Because that is the big challenge, isn't it? How do you find stories every day? And how do you write them so that they are good enough for your publication?

Read Roy Peter Clark's post in its entirety: "Need a Story Idea? Check Lost and Found". And then read Clark's superlative column on how to tighten up your writing.
  • And also check out this Reading Room post: "Point your mouse to Poynter" (Poynter Online claims it has "everything you need to be a better journalist". I believe it.).
  • Photo courtesy:  St. Petersburg Times/

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