“The best way to predict the future is to create it.”
Lately I’ve been employing a new method of coming up with pitches and story ideas for my freelance writing gigs: I think of something I’m interested in. I imagine what direction it’s going in. Then I come up with a fanciful or counter-intuitive hypothesis about the state of that field. (In essence I come up with a pitch and a lede first.) Then I back-fill the research to find out whether or not it’s legit.
Basically I’m applying the synthetic engine of science fiction to the observational field of journalism. It reminds me of my days in the lab – come up with an idea, test it, pursue it if it works or discard it if it doesn’t.
(Another, possibly related trick is to pick up an intriguing idea that is a few years old but hasn’t been covered since an initial big discovery. Often researchers and fields doing cool stuff five years ago are still doing it today, and if you’re lucky, nobody but you is paying attention.)
Both of these tactics help me escape the group-think that is a product of all this journalism-by-press-release that is the bulk of what’s put out there these days.
For that reason alone this is often a better use of my time than simply looking around for story ideas, because generally the things I come up with are unique, whereas any stories I hear about are just as likely to be something my editors have already heard of.
Maybe all journalists do this and I’m only just now, a decade into this, figuring it out. I’d always thought journalists found things out through actual, you know, investigation. As sources of cool stuff increasingly find their own voices, however — through blogs, an ever-expanding array of journals and journal aggregators/parsers, university press offices, etc. — I find it’s just as likely that the information will come to me, or that it can simply be found online.
It helps to have cultivated and to obsessively scan a list of primary and secondary sources that are (in my opinion) excellent but (in my experience) not often read by other science journalists. Update: I’ve since discovered an even better trick, which is simply to keep interviewees chatting until they cough up something totally novel — in this way, one piece seamlessly flows into the next.
(It also helps that search algorithms are imperfect and will occasionally surface things that have nothing at all to do with what I’m looking for but are none the less worthwhile.)