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We are collecting tips from high school newspaper advisers nationwide on how to run student publications and deal with the issues from administrators, students and parents.

Tips for finding compelling community stories

Good ideas lead to the kinds of stories readers remember, the kinds of stories that can galvanize a community, and more important, keep audiences coming back for more. Weak ideas produce lifeless stories that don't inspire either the writer or the reader.

The first element in a good story idea is a compelling question. And that doesn't mean complicated. In fact, the simpler, the better. Often great stories spring from questions that begin with a simple phrase: "I wonder…" As in "I wonder why there are bulldozers sitting beside that empty field that used to be a softball diamond?" Or, "I wonder who that man having lunch with the mayor is?" Or, "I wonder where the best school in my town is located?" And you'll notice that behind each of these questions is one of the six basic news questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?

Doug Thompson, who runs Blue Ridge Muse in his hometown of Floyd, Va., a rural community about 40 miles southeast of Roanoke, says most of his ideas "come the way most good stories come, by observing what's going on in the community and by listening to people."

Thompson traveled the world for four decades as a freelance photojournalist for major wire services and other news organizations before going back home to launch Blue Ridge Muse — a combination personal blog, community news site and showcase for his photography.

Get out in your community

He also practices a lot of what you might call "cafe journalism." As he explains, "I eat breakfast two or three times a week at the local restaurant, which is the gathering spot for a lot of local people…I try to hit the coffee shops at least once a day and listen to what people are saying…"

And here's a nasty little truth: Many journalists in "mainstream media" don't have the time these days to do this kind of routine reporting. They spend much of their time on the phone or e-mailing sources.

So even if you're operating in the shadow of a large daily paper or major television stations, you'll have an advantage if you invest some time and energy pounding the pavement.

Not only does getting out in the community give you the chance to learn more, it also gives folks in the community the chance to get to know you. And as they get to know you, they will begin to open up and feed you ideas for things to explore and write about. Eventually, you will reach that frustrating, but happy, place of having too many good ideas and too little time to pursue them all.

Check out everything you hear

Frankly, you will discover that many of the tips you get don't pan out. Sometimes they come from folks with an ax to grind or from someone who only heard part of a conversation. But you can't know that's true of any particular idea until you do some research yourself.

So "the first rule is to listen, to always listen," Thompson says. "Always consider ideas people have, even if you think on the initial impression you think that maybe that's not really a good idea, that's not something I should be concerned with."

But you often will be surprised if you keep and open mind and keep digging. As Thompson explains, "There probably is something in there. There's a reason why someone is concerned about an issue. And if they're concerned about it, chances are someone else is too. Try to flesh it out. Talk to them about it. When someone comes to you, turn it into an interview."

Give your contributors power

Thompson's method draws more on the approach followed by "mainstream" reporters and editors. But other systems can work, as well.

At Torontoist, one of Canada's most active blog/news sites, the contributors rule, according to co-editor Marc Lostracco.

"Our staff are just a bunch of Torontonians who either do or know about interesting things, whatever they may be. We often don't know what we're going to write from day-to-day, so it could be a major event happening in the city or just a funny sign we saw on the walk to work," he says in an e-mail interview.

Lostracco and his co-editor, David Topping, "disseminate story ideas and press releases to the entire group and the staff can call dibs on things, with the ones who have experience in a particular area getting first right of refusal."

Torontoist editors and staff members shape their stories with lively internal dialogue. "Many articles actually develop or gain an angle within our e-mail discussions off-site, which can consist of almost a hundred e-mails per day on the main list. Since our staff often don't agree with each other, the writer's angle is often refined by that private discussion, and often totally changes direction since a lot of us know little pieces of information that affect the big picture," Lostracco says.

Once a writer takes on a story, it's pretty much hands-off for the editors. "Much of the time, we don't know what the articles are like until they are published, as most of the staff has autonomy to post at will (after a probationary period), though we do ask to be kept updated as much as possible," Lostracco says.

Organic content generation works, too

Blogs and online sites have one great advantage — the ability to generate immediate content based on items that already have been posted. In other words, treat your site as one big idea-making machine.

At Torontoist, "We encourage discussions in the forums tied to each article, because the story topic is hotly debated and it keeps people coming back over and over again," Lostracco says. "For the most part, our comment section consists of very well-thought-out discussion, which may be unsurprising considering our demographic survey not only showed that our readership was culture-savvy, but 93 percent of them have completed or are in university, and 21 percent are pursuing or have achieved a post-graduate degree (the average age of our reader is 27).

"The interactive element is absolutely crucial to what we do, and this year, all of the local mainstream newspapers have launched blogs, hoping to capture our type of readership."

From the Knight Citizen News Network http://www.kcnn.org/site/) an initiative of J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 License.