To a good reporter, many stories are obviously important to cover – a house fire, a homicide, an election, a new state budget.
But what about those slow news days when breaking news is sparse and there aren’t any interesting press releases worth checking out?
Those are the days when good reporters are working on what they call “enterprise stories.” They’re the kind of stories that many reporters find the most rewarding to do.
What is Enterprise Reporting?
Enterprise reporting involves stories not based on press releases or news conferences. Instead, enterprise reporting is all about the stories a reporter digs up on his or her own, what many people call “scoops.” Enterprise reporting goes beyond merely covering events. It explores the forces shaping those events.
For instance, we’ve all heard stories about recalls of faulty and possibly dangerous products related to children like cribs, toys and car seats. But when a team of reporters at the Chicago Tribune looked into such recalls they discovered a pattern of inadequate governmental regulation of such items.
Likewise, New York Times reporter Clifford J. Levy did a series of investigative stories that uncovered widespread abuse of mentally ill adults in state-regulated homes. Both the Tribune and Times projects won Pulitzer prizes.
Finding Ideas for Enterprise Stories
So how can you develop your own enterprise stories? Most reporters will tell you that uncovering such stories involves two key journalistic skills: observation and investigation.
Observation, obviously, involves seeing the world around you. But while we all observe things, reporters take observation one step further by using their observations to generate story ideas. In other words, a reporter who sees something interesting almost invariably asks himself, “could this be a story?”
Let’s say you stop at a gas station to fill up your tank. You see the price of a gallon of gas has risen again. Most of us would grumble about it, but a reporter might ask, “Why is the price rising?”
Here’s an even more mundane example: You’re in the grocery store and notice that the background music has changed. The store used to play the kind of sleepy orchestral stuff that probably no one under 70 would enjoy. Now the store is playing pop tunes from the 1980s and 1990s. Again, most of us would take little notice of this, but a good reporter would ask, “Why did they change the music?”
Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes, and Trends
Notice that both examples involve changes – in the price of gas, in the background music played. Changes are something reporters always look for. A change, after all, is something new, and new developments are what reporters write about.
Enterprise reporters also look for changes that occur over time - trends, in other words. Discovering a trend is often a great way to start an enterprise story.
Why Ask Why?
You’ll notice that both examples involve the reporter asking “why” something was happening. “Why” is probably the most important word in any reporter’s vocabulary. A reporter who asks why something is happening is beginning the next step of enterprise reporting: investigation.
Investigation is really just a fancy word for reporting. It involves doing the interviews and digging up the information to develop an enterprise story. An enterprise reporter’s first task is to do some initial reporting to see if there really is an interesting story to be written about (not all interesting observations turn out to be interesting news stories.) The next step is to gather the material needed to produce a solid story.
So the reporter investigating the rise in gas prices might discover that a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico has slowed oil production, causing the price spike. And the reporter probing the changing background music might find that it’s all about the fact that the big grocery shoppers these days – parents with growing kids – came of age in the 1980s and 1990s and want to hear music that was popular in their youth.
Example: A Story About Underage Drinking
Let's take one more example, this one involving a trend. Let's say you're the police reporter in your hometown. Every day you're in police headquarters, checking the arrest log. Over a period of several months, you notice a spike in arrests for underage drinking among students from the local high school.
You interview the cops to see if beefed-up enforcement is responsible for the increase. They say no. So you interview the principal of the high school as well as teachers and counselors. You also talk to students and parents and discover that, for a variety of reasons, underage drinking is increasing. So you write a story about the problems of underage drinking and how it's on the rise in your hometown.
What you've produced is an enterprise story, one not based on a press release or a news conference, but on your own observation and investigation.
Enterprise reporting can encompass everything from feature stories (the one about changing background music would probably fit that category) to more serious investigative pieces, like the ones cited above by the Tribune and Times.