Bart Pfankuch

Better Writing
with Bart

Bart Pfankuch, an investigative reporter for South Dakota News Watch, an independent, nonprofit public-service news agency online at, will offer his excellent writing advice. He can be reached by email at



Which reporter in any newsroom is always the editor’s best friend, and as such is the least likely to get laid off?

It isn’t the woman who tells funny jokes, though that certainly helps break the tension. It’s not the friendly fellow who brings in donuts every week, though that’s not a bad job-protection strategy either. And it’s certainly not the sycophant who tells everyone what they want to hear (duh, since spotting falsity is a key job skill for editors and reporters.)

Instead — with other basic skills such as accuracy, attitude, hustle and organization all being equal — look to the reporter who never needs to be given an assignment, the writer who can propose and produce an A-1 story on the drop of a hat, the journalist who always has a list of ideas both great and small that can not only fill a hole but do so with flair or feistiness.

Of course, editors still desire depth, storytelling and watchdog journalism. Those higher-level pieces and packages remain the top goal of any good editor and news organization.

But if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll realize that in the modern shrinking newsroom, productivity has become priceless.

Look at it this way: you’re an editor and you have to cut a position, so who goes first? The reporter with a dozen doable story ideas, or the writer who comes to every story meeting with the same list of duds or yearlong projects that never get off the ground?

To that end, here are some ways to generate good story ideas that will not only offer a modicum of employment protection, but which can also prime the pump of higher-level reporting and storytelling along the way.

  • Read and think. These are the simplest of all idea-generation techniques, but still top the list. Read books, magazines, news feeds, blogs, online journals, advertisements, your competitors, meeting agendas, government reports, free community newspapers and shoppers, press releases, church bulletins, posters taped to light poles, and for heaven’s sake, read your own publication (and don’t forget the legal ads and letters to the editor.) Then think about how the things you read relate to your community, your beat or your readers’ lives. Begin to put concepts together in meaningful ways.
  • Use windshield time wisely. When driving, turn off the radio, put down the cell phone, keep your eyes open and think. What are you seeing? What’s new? What’s changing? Who’s around and what are they doing? Take a different route to and from home. Pick a place on a map and zip over there. Know your surroundings and you’ll know where news is oozing. Be safe and pull over if necessary to record ideas. But never forget that driving time is thinking time.
  • Work your beat, then work it some more. Drop by city hall or the courthouse or cop shop and talk to people, anyone. Listen to what they say. Be curious and let them know you care. Share a little of yourself to break the ice. Ask about things that are sensitive. Read agendas in full. Seek out supporting documents. Go where few others go. Always ask people: What’s new? What’s good or bad? What’s inspiring or troubling? What’s coming up? What story would you like to see get told? Get on multiple list serves or press release email lists, even if they’re not directly on point to your beat. Return all phone calls and emails.
  • Your real life is an idea wonderland. Keep your mind always open to ideas. Talk to people you meet at the store, in church, at the dog park, in the restaurant or even on the street. If 10 quick conversations lead to one good idea, it’s worth it (plus, being interested in others is just being nice.) Talk to people at work both inside and outside the newsroom. Let non-news colleagues know you are interested. Be the reporter who answers the random newsroom phone call or who handles the oft-dreaded visitor drop-by.
  • Always ask yourself: “What’s up with that?” That simple question has been a driving force in my journalism career. Why are things they way they are? Can things be different or better? Is the old way the best way? Is something new part of a larger trend? I remember driving the same interstate route in Florida for a year before finally asking myself, “What’s up with that?” and stopping to see why many farms had long one-story metal buildings but no silos. Meeting a farmer, I discovered that row-cropping was nearly dead in the Sunshine State and that mechanized chicken farming in the long narrow barns had become a new agricultural lifeblood. A solid news trend story resulted after I found out “What’s up with that.”

The bottom line on all these tips is to be curious, constantly curious. Think like a child for whom every person, place, thing or concept is a marvelous mystery waiting to be discovered and understood. I can’t guarantee you’ll keep your job, but it surely won’t hurt.