Where Do We Get Story Ideas?
By Daniel Zwerdling


We journalists get story ideas from lots of sources. We read intriguing snippets in newspapers; maybe one sentence in the story catches our eye, and we follow it up and -- there's a whole new piece. We get calls and letters from listeners like you, who tell us about fascinating/infuriating/puzzling things going on in your own community. I got one of my best leads from the fellow who happened to be waiting next to me at an airport gate.

In this case, I got the idea to examine the Family Advocacy Project from a generous colleague and friend. David Shipler used to be a foreign correspondent for The New York Times; now he's a Pulitzer Prize-winning book writer, and earlier this year, he was on a speaking tour to promote his latest work, The Working Poor: Invisible in America. After Dave talked to an enthusiastic crowd at a local bookstore, we celebrated with our wives at a restaurant around the corner.

After a couple sips of wine, I said to the whole table -- only half jokingly -- "I need help. I'm feeling down. I'm down about the state of the world. I'm down about the economic problems Dave found when he traveled around America. I need to find some sort of positive story that will give me a sense of hope."

"I'll give you a great idea," Dave said. "There's a program at the Boston Medical Center, which I visited while I was researching my book ... "

I was skeptical at first that the project worked as well as Shipler said. But after a couple long chats with the director, Ellen Lawton, I booked a flight to Boston and spent four days watching the Family Advocacy Program in action. It won't solve poor people's health problems, but the evidence shows that a simple idea can help. I returned to Washington in good spirits -- fortified with 12 hours of uplifting tape.

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