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Reporter finds inspiration – and
stories – in people in the shadows

Special to

Posted: March 8, 2005

Lane DeGregory

20 Tips Your Editor Won’t Tell You

Lane DeGregory has been a finalist in the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ contest for distinguished writing and has won awards from the American Association of Sunday and Features Editors, among other organizations.

Yet she estimates that 30- 40% of her story ideas are rejected by editors.

DeGregory, a features reporter at the St. Petersburg Times, says editors tell her she has two flaws: She sees stories everywhere, and she likes “really strange, freaky people” -- those “in the shadows.”

The result can be extraordinary copy. Or the result can be an editor rolling his eyes.

But she doesn’t give up.

If she likes an idea, she seeks out more information and tries to write a “kick-ass budget line” so an editor couldn’t possibly reject it. Or she shelves the idea for a few months and tries again -- especially in a slow news period or for a holiday edition.

Try, try again was one tip shared by DeGregory during a Freedom Forum training conference call.

DeGregory, whose work appeared in The Best Newspaper Writing 2000 and 2004, says she averages one or two stories a week. She spends two to three hours on some stories; others take up to 10 months, while she also is working on daily copy.

The University of Virginia graduate got into journalism because she wanted to meet people. Those her colleagues refer to as “Lane’s Wacky Weirdos” are the ones who “inspire me and help me see the humanity around me.”

Readers win. By writing about people not often found on the pages of newspapers, reporters “open windows to a new world for your readers,” she told more than 100 participants in the conference call.

She is so focused on writing about average people that she shies away from celebrity coverage. “I hate when I get assigned to cover someone who is famous,” says DeGregory, who noted that it is a struggle to find a new angle when a story focuses strictly on a celebrity.

Instead, she seeks out people who have ties to the celebrity or who have touched him or her.

She once was asked to write about a beauty-pageant contestant, she says as an example. Rather than focusing on the contestant, DeGregory spent time with a “dresser,” who helps contestants with their outfits and rehearsals.

The result of “spinning the web” to look for alternative subjects is an interesting story that “still satisfies the editor’s need to cover” the celebrity.

In her presentation “They’re Everywhere: Finding Great Stories off the Beaten Path,” DeGregory also offered this advice:

  • The more diverse your friends, the more kinds of stories you’ll uncover.
  • Do an interview where the subject is comfortable. “Then the source doesn’t feel like it’s a one-on-one interview.”
  • Keep facts on the horizontal lines in your notebook; keep details/observations in the margins -- and always look for those details/observations.

“I always have to go to the bathroom when I’m in someone’s home; I look at what’s there” that might be telling -- like the makeup from the wife who had been dead three years.

And what if you’re not certain that the freaky person with an interesting story is telling the truth?

DeGregory suggests:

  • Check your newspaper’s library for background on the subject.
  • Look up the subject in public records.
  • Interview people around the subject to verify that he or she is telling the truth.

Stories, DeGregory says, are framed by events. But they are about people.

“Tell stories through people.”

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Last updated: Monday, Oct. 5, 2015 | 11:54:38
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