Who cares? Finding a hook for your story

What’s the story? That may seem like a simple question. Your editor assigned you to cover the city council meeting, so the city council meeting is the story, right? So you go to the city council meeting, and you report:

The city council met on September 15 at City Hall, and that nine city council members were present, along with an audience of seven people. The council voted to approve seven zoning variances and deny two. The council authorized spending on electric car charging stations. The council granted an extended hours license so the Third Street Bar and Grill can remain open until 3 a.m. seven days a week. The council revoked Jim Julian’s apartment rental license for the property at 2520 N. Garden Court.

One person in the audience spoke about the rental license and said that Jim Julian was a terrible landlord and all his rental licenses should be revoked. Council member Stuart asked for a report from the Regulatory, Health and Safety Committee on how many rental licenses had been revoked over the past 12 months.

The council voted to accept all committee reports. The council adjourned.

If you spend time writing a story, you want people to read it. If I spend my time editing and publishing a story, I want people to read it. How many readers do you think would spend their time on this boring story about a city council meeting? Would you spend time reading it?

Sometimes a story is just plain boring. If that’s the case, warn your editor, and ask whether it’s really a story worth writing. More often, a story is boring because the storyteller (that’s you!) has not focused on an interesting angle.

Looking for the hook

Whether you have an assignment (covering the city council meeting) or are looking for a story idea to pitch to your editor, you can find an interesting story focus or “hook” — the angle on the story that “hooks” the readers’ attention and keeps them reading. The story is like a treasure that you, the reporter, need to dig for. Here are eight tips on how to look at the story from different angles that will hook your readers.

1. People like reading about other people. An article can begin by focusing on a person, and then tie the individual person’s story to the larger community or societal issue. Here are some examples:

Xiito’s story offers a window into the challenges facing immigrants and a successful program for raising student achievement.

In the city council meeting, your “hook” might be the story of the revocation of the rental license — is there a story of a slumlord here? Of a tenant who has pursued this case? A building inspector who has documented the problems?

2. Look for an issue or controversy — are there two (or more) sides struggling to get something?

Some kids want a pile of rubble cleared out of their neighborhood, and they’re organizing to get action.

A proposed constitutional amendment sparks debate and controversy, with passions running high on both sides.

In the city council story: Are there ongoing issues with rental licenses? Failure of city departments to inspect or regulate? Or perhaps there is a controversy over the 3 a.m. license?

3. What’s the occasion? People may be interested in an event that’s about to happen, one they want to be involved in, or one that they can’t get to but think is interesting.

NeighborhoodLift was a weekend-long event offering free money for down payments on homes in two target neighborhoods.

Oktoberfest comes around every year — this article offers a round-up of local observances.

4. Tragedy and comedy: Tragedy is irresistible: we love to read about terrible things happening, from fires to crimes to hurricanes and car crashes.

Comedy also hooks readers.

5. Dogs and cats (and other animals) attract lots of readers, just like YouTube’s cute cat videos.
6. Kids are also popular reading … and if you can combine kids and animals, you’ve got a sure winner.

7. Food: We all eat, so articles on food and drink draw readers.

8. Sex and crime always sell. The Daily Planet’s all-time most-read story is Best bars for meeting single women — which continues to place consistently among the top-ten stories years after its first publication. And, of course, the magazine cover at the top of this post combines sex AND crime for a surefire winner — at least in terms of getting readers.

Would we publish “Murderer’s Bait” in the Daily Planet?  Probably not. Attracting readers is only one part of the equation. What makes a story newsworthy varies from publication to publication. Click here for Daily Planet guidelines.

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