The trouble with trendspotting is that writers have a very small window of opportunity. When I wrote for a popular lifestyle newsletter, my editor would only assign us to cover brand-spanking new restaurants, bars, salons, what-have-you’s. If it had already opened, it was old news in most cases, regardless of how otherwise trendy or novel or photo-worthy it was.
- Pound the pavement.
Nowadays, a lot of reporting happens via phone and email, but that’s not the best approach for finding a hot scoop. A lot of the places I covered for the lifestyle newsletter were spots I discovered while walking around. I’d notice a “now hiring baristas, email _____” or “coming fall 2011” sign in front of a soon-to-open coffee shop, boutique, or other venue, snap a photo with my iPhone, and continue checking on the space to monitor its progress. If contacting the hiring email listed on the sign didn’t elicit a response, I’d search online for information about the restaurant’s permit, which usually led me to the owner’s name. If that didn’t work, I’d slide a note under the door. In one case, all those avenues failed until I walked by one morning, saw someone testing the coffee machine, and knocked on the door to introduce myself. This style of on-the-street reporting is way more work than online reporting, but it’s also more rewarding when you discover the latest hotspot in your area. I’ve also enlisted non-writer friends as scouts. When they see something new in their neighborhood, they know to alert me!
- Follow the trail.
Whatever beat you cover, whether it’s books, movies, restaurants, business, there’s probably a newsletter or organization that covers happenings in that beat. If you interview authors, you might read Publisher’s Weekly to find out who’s sold a book or movie rights and start pitching well in advance of the release date. If you’re looking for unusual art projects or emerging bands, subscribe to the Kickstarter newsletter or click around the site (that’s how I discovered this journalism experiment just before it happened). All you need is a kernel of an idea and you can dig deeper to fill in the details. If it’s fully fleshed out, someone has probably beat you to the punch.
- Ask your sources.
Whenever I interview a source, I always ask what trends they’re noticing in their industry or if there’s someone else I should talk to. Several of my entrepreneur sources have connected me with their entrepreneur friends who run cool startups. Moral of the story: smart people doing creative things tend to know other smart people doing creative things, so don’t be shy about telling people the kinds of stories you cover.
- Befriend PR folks.
If I’m getting a press releases, chances are my editor and the other contributors are getting it, too. Occasionally I’ll get a great idea from a press release but the real value of PR contacts is when they take the time to understand what you need and connect you with timely ideas rather than sending mass emails. I have a few go-to PR sources who know the kinds of stories that appeal to me and realize the importance of timing so they can coax their clients into returning emails or answering phone calls.
- Rethink “new.”
This won’t work for some publications, but it’s sometimes possible to revisit a topic by finding another time hook. Say you missed your chance to write about a vegan tapas restaurant when it opened earlier this year. Then your waitress mentions that the restaurant is revamping its menu when a new chef starts next month. Time your article to the unveiling of the new menu, interview the incoming chef, and you’ve cooked up an idea that’s “fresh” enough for many editors. Other twists: the paperback release of a book or the expansion or relaunch of an up-and-coming company.
Your turn! Do you find it challenging to satisfy the need for “new, new, new”? How do you uncover these fresh ideas?
Image courtesy of David Gallagher / Flickr