Take 10 steps to better enterprise ideas

By · Sunday, July 18th, 2010

In thinking about enterprise story ideas — as master’s students are doing now in their six-week news writing boot camp at the Newhouse School — I am reminded how difficult it is sometimes to develop, as some say, “a story from nothing.” Or so it may seem.

But, in fact, the beauty of enterprise ideas is that they start from something, not nothing, and it is usually a story in the news. That’s because true enterprise, not to be confused with a feature story, is a piece of a story. It is an unanswered question to a story that has been published, or an ongoing story. It is an idea that takes a writer (and readers) in a new direction. It is an idea that develops into a story that sometimes in no way resembles that initial story in the news — except that the initial story provides the peg.

A good exercise any time is to look at a news story playing out for a week or longer in the news. How do news organizations develop enterprise? Look at the wide range of content that is spun off. What stories/ideas are duplicated? Who consistently seems to come up with the best enterprise ideas when and after news breaks? Think about the oil spill in the Gulf, and the many questions you have. Then check the archives of any major news organization through Nexis or a simple Google search or two and see how these — and many others — are addressed through enterprise. Daily stories of all kinds can be an inspiration to you as well. It’s all about being an aggressive thinker. Example: Today’s fascinating piece of enterprise in The New York Times about the people who are paid to review pornographic or violent content posted by users. How often have you read stories about this kind of thing? Local disputes, court cases, videos that pop up on YouTube, Facebook, etc., that spark debates about “where the line is.” Some smart reporter or editor had an enterprise epiphany: Who reviews all these things? What kind of job is that?

Consider these “10 Steps to Better Enterprise Ideas”:

  1. Make a list. Think of every question that comes to mind after reading a story of interest to you.
  2. Think about change. What are the effects a story will have on you and your community?
  3. Think about the unusual. This could mean odd or bizarre, remarkable or outstanding, or just uncommon or different.
  4. Ask yourself what interests you. What stories do you enjoy reading?
  5. Think about the next steps. Go beyond what is the “news of the day.”
  6. Think about the people. Stories about people who appear in the news could be the peg for a variety of enterprise stories.
  7. Apply the five W’s. Think about the who, what, when, where and why of a story. Any of these might be THE focus for an enterprise story.
  8. Ask how. When you ask “how” about any story, ideas will come.
  9. Ask others. Take time out of your day — even 10 minutes — to dream up story ideas with others. Think big first, and then narrow your focus.
  10. Read. The more you read, the easier it will be to generate enterprise story ideas.

This list is elaborated upon — in Strategy 3: Enterprise — in our book, “Think Like an Editor: 50 Strategies for the Print and Digital World.”

And there is another important element of thinking through story ideas, and that has to do with the writer-editor team planning the story together. As we say in Strategy 2: 10 Steps to a Better Story Idea, working together to plan a story is a lot like the relationship between a professional golfer and a caddie. The two strategize the golfer’s next move. They talk. They talk before a shot, and they talk after the shot. A golfer needs a caddie, and a caddie wouldn’t have that job without a golfer. After a good shot, the golfer gets the applause and the caddie remains in the background. Just like a writer and an editor.

This is a good analogy to keep in mind, especially at the point when fatigue might set in from thinking so much about a story idea. Should that happen, remember to tap your “personal caddie” for a quick talk about the best way to proceed. Top golfers do it all the time.

Emilie Davis

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