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What is News: Two Sources of Story Ideas

Janet Ewell
Rancho Alamitos High School
Garden Grove, California

Overview
Both of these assignments keep my paper well-stocked with relevant, newsworthy story ideas and teach the students to develop “news sense” and think like “enterprising” young journalists. (An enterprise story is one originated by the reporter or stringer and pitched to an editor.) Both may be the basis of fruitful class discussions, and the story angle frequently changes during these discussions. I frequently ask the students to evaluate the story ideas based on the basic news values: proximity, timeliness, impact, prominence, uniqueness, conflict and human interest.

Note: Students often want to go directly from their topic to an opinion piece or editorial. We require a solid, objective news story on the issue — or at least a strong news peg to a feature story — before we take a position on the editorial page.

Activities and Procedures:

Activity 1

From the professional press:

    • If you don’t read it, you cannot write it. You need to read the newspaper frequently, almost daily.
    • In a working newsroom, reporters pitch their ideas for enterprise stories to their editors. On Fridays, you pitch your enterprise story ideas to me on paper and to the class as time allows.

Story Ideas are articles from other publications that contain the kernel of an idea for a Rancho story. They should be stapled or taped to a sheet of paper, which has the following information on it:

  • Your name,
  • The date the article is submitted,
  • The source of the article including
  • The name of the publication, section and date of the publication,
  • A summary of the article in perhaps four sentences,
  • The possible Rancho angle. Here is where you pitch the story to me. Be as specific as possible, including the Rancho sources and subjects. “We could write an article on girl skateboarders” is a weak story idea. “I know at least three sophomore Rancho girls who skate at the ramp and rails at the Quaker church on Magnolia.” is a great story idea based on our core news values.
  • Include the entire article, including the part after the jump.

Assignment

  • Submit two per week.
  • Though you may occasionally retrieve a story from an online source, your basic source needs to be print journalism. Newspapers should be your main sources though a few magazine articles are also acceptable.
  • Be prepared to pitch your idea during class discussion on Fridays and to the editors before story assignments go out for the edition.

Evaluation

I grade these on a ten-point basis. I return those that have not followed the format. The student may redo them. I require a coherent summary that reveals an intelligent reading — two journalistic skills.

After I teach a unit on research, I require that one of the story ideas each week has links for research and a basic research plan attached.

Activity Two

Spiral notes from campus.

Handout to students

The school newspaper, La Nueva Voz, is by and about Rancho students. When someone reads it, they should be able to see, hear and taste this school.

The paper should reflect what Vaqueros are talking about, what they are worried about, what makes them excited and what makes them mad. The paper should cover what they are buying, what they are playing, and what they are watching.

But Rancho is not made up of just two students, one Vaquero and one Vaquera. It is made up of 1,800 individuals, and no two are talking and worrying about the same things.

That is where every member of the staff of La Nueva Voz comes in.

You are the eyes and ears of the paper. For now, you do not need to interview anyone or even get anyone’s name.

But you do need to listen.

Listen in the lunch line. Listen before the bell rings in your classes. Listen in the P.E. locker room and the rest rooms.

Use this notebook to write down what people are talking about, even if you do not hear the whole conversation. Note who is talking, or describe the people talking. Do you see any signs of emotion? Note actual phrases and any details you notice, if possible.

For tomorrow, have at least three entries in the journal! Not all of them will be great story ideas, but listening and writing them down will make you a better reporter.

Procedure

I provide each student with a steno pad.

Once the students become practiced at making these notes, I require five per paper cycle.

My students are currently working on capturing accurate dialogue. A few weeks ago, they were working on interesting physical descriptions of speakers. Next cycle, they will work on describing motions or mannerisms in their speakers.

Evaluation

I ask the students to mark the five best campus story ideas with a highlighter before they turn in their notebooks, since the notebooks quickly become very personal. I grade only the story ideas they mark.

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