Even more than 15 years later, I vividly remember the weekend before I started my first reporting job after college.
I had just moved to Florence, Ala., hired to run a bureau for a station based in Huntsville. After setting up my apartment, my new-job excitement quickly turned to panic:
On Monday, my station would expect me to pitch story ideas at the editorial meeting. And I barely knew anything about this place I now lived.
What on earth could I offer as a legitimate story idea?
Anyone who has worked in this business – an industry where you sometimes move to a new city before you finish unpacking in the old one – can relate. New reporters are frequently confronted with the challenge of reporting on a community they've barely spent time in. That's why I asked this question on Twitter:
The responses came fast and often, proving many in the TV News business could relate to this stranger-in-a-strange-land reality of getting a new job in a new city. But the solutions offered a clear way of speeding up the process of learning your new area and better serving your viewers.
HOW DO YOU GET TO KNOW YOUR NEW TOWN?— Jeff Butera (@WriteLikeUTalk) February 24, 2020
College students, young reporters:
* You've got that new job
* You're in a city you've never been to
* You're expected to cover a community you barely know
Veterans, let's help:
What can you do to learn that area fast?#WriteLikeYouTalk pic.twitter.com/fHlaA37Ai7
Below, I've included 25 of the best responses, which feature two very common themes:
1) You don't get to know your new city inside of your apartment or house. Get out and explore!
2) Use your mouth...and your ears. Talk and listen to the people in the community. They're your best resource.
* Drive. Spend a Saturday driving around. Learn where everything is. Brainstorm story ideas. Stop & chat.
* Keep a rolodex. Anyone you meet, get a #/email. Never know when you'll need 'em.
* Find the 'lifers.' Someone who's never left that area? Walking encyclopedia!
More of the best ideas from Twitter:
Cody Butler,TV Reporter, WILX (Lansing)
I take a different area one weekends and go get lost. Finding the back roads. Walked in Monday with a story idea from a sign I saw.— Cody Butler (@CodyButlerTV) February 24, 2020
Miranda Christian,TV Reporter, WPTV (West Palm Beach)
Ask questions!!!— Miranda Christian (@MirandaWPTV) February 25, 2020
If you don’t understand something, ask.
If you don’t know someone, ask.
Don’t know how to use something, ask.
It’s better to ask the question instead of making the mistake. https://t.co/mrPgcfYYuO
Tanner Ayres, Producer, WKRC (Cincinnati)
Don’t be ashamed of being a tourist. See the museums, or try the trendy bars and restaurants that aren’t in the neighborhood you live or work in. Also just try to make friends that aren’t in the business.— Tanner Ayres (@TannerAyres) February 25, 2020
Rebecca Delgado,Communications Specialist, Lee Health
Ask your assignment editors questions, they know the area forwards, backwards and sideways. They are happy to help— Becky D (@BeckyD_TV) February 25, 2020
Melea Van Ostrand, Digital Reporter, Veritext Legal Solutions
Get involved in the community by volunteering or joining a gym. I also found MANY story ideas (often exclusives) and connected with people in local Facebook groups. Great source of content if you want to know what’s happening in your community.— Melea VO (@MeleaVanOstrand) February 25, 2020
Sarah Breuner, Producer, KCRA (Sacramento)
Go on a police ride-along. For many departments, you can just apply online. I learned so much about my city and law enforcement issues specific to my area.— Sarah Breuner (@SarahBreuner) February 25, 2020
Stephen A. Ostrosky, Asst. News Director, WHAS (Louisville)
I know not all stations can do this, but we have an onboarding plan. It includes:— Stephen A. Ostrosky (@producer_steve) February 25, 2020
*Reporter’s Guide (PIO list, major local cases)
*Snapshot of region (Wiki of Lou)
*Schedule source day within first 45 days https://t.co/2Npyq5zug3
Yostina Banoub, Reporter/Producer, KITV (Honolulu)
When I’m in a new town, I take a day or two to drive around and get lost. Really helps me learn the area. #WriteLikeUTalk— Yostina Banoub (@YostinaB7) February 25, 2020
Kyle Harvey, Reporter, KUTV (Salt Lake City)
Council agendas/minutes, community Facebook groups and beat calls. And when I meet new people I ask them - what’s their city’s biggest asset, biggest weakness, biggest hope/dream and what’ll stop that from happening.— Kyle Harvey (@KyleHarveyOnTV) February 25, 2020
Angele Anderfuren,Senior Lecturer, Northern Arizona University
Also, volunteer at the local theatre or other organization you enjoy. People will tell you great stories about so many things!— Angele ➡️ ???????????? (@AngeleOutWest) February 25, 2020
And keep reading, once you read the local history book, move onto a state book & other histories of the area. Being able to provide context is everything
Julie Parker, PR Consultant
Set up meetings with some key PIOs: police, fire, schools, County Exec or Mayor’s spokesperson. Have them explain how they work with the media and ask what you can do to be informed about these organizations. Then, check in often. Cover them fairly.— Julie Parker (@JulieParkerComm) February 25, 2020
Crystal Goomansing, Global News, Europe Bureau Chief
Go have coffee with the head of the Chamber of Commerce, ask the police chief for 15 & don’t ask about cops stuff but about life. Next go to a popular lunch spot, sit & talk with staff. Don’t interview, chat. Basically go talk with other people ... in person. Then repeat!— Crystal Goomansingh (@cgoomansingh) February 25, 2020
Neki Mohan, Anchor/Reporter, WPLG (Miami)
Having working at 10 stations in 5 cities in my 30 yr. career, I have a few humble tips.— Neki Mohan (@NekiMohanWPLG) February 25, 2020
1) Volunteer at local charities.
2) As a runner, I did local races on the weekends met many law enforcement contacts that way.
3)Went to Church.
John Brown, Political Correspondent, KTVI (St. Louis)
When I started in Miami, my program director gave me 10 books on south Florida history and said, “memorize these this weekend, then drive to every place mentioned.”— John Brown on Fox (@JohnBrownTV) February 25, 2020
Alia Blackburn, Anchor/Reporter, WTHI (Terre Haute)
✏️Leave your business card after EVERY????????SINGLE????????STORY????????!— Alia Blackburn (@Alia_WTHI) February 25, 2020
✏️ Get involved in your community, volunteer! I’m involved w/ my sorority’s alum chapter in town, our members are well established locals & we CONSTANTLY host events... always meeting/connecting!
Jeremy King, Corporate Communications, RegionsNews
#Volunteerism. You can invest yourself in others & make a difference. And you learn what’s important to real folks.— Jeremy King (@JeremyDavidKing) February 25, 2020
Plus, there’s no better way to avoid so-so story ideas handed to you by others than to have more compelling stories you’ve generated through community involvement. https://t.co/TmCukcbPcc
Sharon Tutrone, Broadcast Journalism Lecturer, Coastal Carolina University
My advice: Get in your car and drive around. Take day trips on your days off. Talk to people and network. Save their contact information, you might need them for a future story. In the news biz it’s not what you know, but who you know. https://t.co/X76qrd3wzB— Sharon Tutrone (@SHARONTUTRONE) February 25, 2020
Emily Bjorklund, Reporter, KAUZ (Wichita Falls)
It’s always helped me to challenge myself with learning the area. Ex: I would try and get back to the station from a story without a GPS. Maybe try seeing if you can get to a courthouse without it next. Give yourself the time to get lost. It #will pay off when breaking news hits— Emily Bjorklund (@EBjorklundKAUZ) February 25, 2020
Len Jennings, Anchor, KMBC (Kansas City)
Check with meteorologist about pronunciations of cities/streets/areas. They know them all. We got a few funny ones in KC, e.g. Versailles (ver-SAILS), Wornall (WORE-nil), Olathe (oh-LAY-thuh).— Len Jennings (@lenjenningsKMBC) February 25, 2020
Learn to listen to scanners. When you hear an address, put it in Google. Determine the fire and police jurisdictions. Then determine the county, county seat and courts that correspond to the location, even if it's something you won't be working on. The reps will help you learn.— Mike Baker (@MikeBaker) February 25, 2020
Jade Jackson, Reporter, KTAL (Shreveport)
I’m definitely in the category of a newbie but I took a day pass and rode around different areas on the city bus and just talked to folks about their view of their cities.— Jade Jackson NBC 6 (@IAMJADEJACKSON) February 25, 2020
Briana Conner,Anchor/Reporter, WXII (Winstom Salem)
Join an organization! Church, club, nonprofit, gym, etc... get connected with people who are well connected! https://t.co/Q1TyHf957d— Briana Conner (@BrianaReports) February 24, 2020
Connor Spielmaker, News Editor/Content Producer, CNN
Of course check and make sure it's cool with mgmt if you're on a contract that requires permission for a second job, but I drove Uber/Lyft to learn Atlanta. I quickly learned what parts of town were what, a slight idea of local issues, and helped make ends meet when it counted— Connor Spielmaker (@connaspiel) February 24, 2020
What else do you do to learn a new market?
Jeff Butera is a news anchor at WZVN-TV in Fort Myers, Fl. He is also the author of "Write Like You Talk: A Guide To Broadcast News Writing," available for purchase at WriteLikeYouTalk.com.