Live from New York: Lots of Story Ideas at the CMA Spring National College Media Convention

Over the past decade, digital tools and mobile platforms have rocketed journalism to a universe of innovation, interactivity and immediacy once unimaginable. Yet, without stellar content, journalism 2.0 is not worth the effort to read, watch, click on, scroll through, contribute to or connect with. Everything journalism was, is and will be rests on our ability to tell a story. And every story starts with an idea.

Building off this idea, a group of student and adviser attendees joined me this morning for a special workshop on the day before the official start of the CMA Spring National College Media Convention. (Pic below.) The goal: share and brainstorm as many story ideas as we could from the most unlikely or seemingly ordinary sources.


Below is a sampling of 21 ideas we pulled from seedlings as varied as 9/11, the Sheraton New York Times Square Hotel concierge, George Clooney’s dating life and a Southern tourist’s first trip in the Manhattan subway.

– Academic Dialects: Learn and share the language codes, speech patterns and terminology adopted and understood only by students and faculty in specific areas of study.

– Star Bursts: Look into the journeys of student-athletes who were stars of their high school teams transitioning into new collegiate identities as role players and practice squad participants.

– Hunger Games: Examine how — and how much — students eat on campus after their meal plans run out or they lose their swipe cards.

– Living Poor: Explore the ins-and-outs of students who purposefully live way below their means during their undergrad days — from food and socializing to tech purchases and travel home. How about those who take on more extreme side-jobs to help make ends meet or stave off (some) debt? Or undergrads on the lower end of the economic spectrum trying to survive, and fit in, on campus? For example, in a fairly recent column for The Duke Chronicle, a Duke University student provided a prime example of how difficult it can be for students to discuss this aspect of their lives. The lede: “In my four years at Duke, I have tried to write this article many times. But I was afraid. I was afraid to reveal an integral part of myself. I’m poor.”


– In a Void: Tell the stories of students who feel emotionally, mentally or socially cast aside or cut off from some or all parts of campus — maybe triggering thoughts of transferring, dropping out or even self-harm.

– Costuming: Break down the budget, participants and culture of the theater program’s costuming wing. Or focus on fashion-conscious students who essentially live their daily lives on campus ‘in costume’.

– Celebrity Courses: Investigate the celebrity invasion of academia. Pop sensation Beyonce is the focus of the latest higher ed course célèbre. A class called Politicizing Beyonce is being taught this semester within the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University. According to news reports, the course aims to utilize “Beyonce’s career as a way to explore American race, gender and sexual politics.” Also this spring, at Georgetown University, the A-lister’s husband has top billing in a course called The Sociology of Hip-Hop: The Theodicy of Jay-Z. These are just the flashiest new entrants in a long-running university tradition worthy of a closer look: the special topics course. Examine the classes at your school currently or recently taught under the special topics designation. How and why do they originate? And what are students’ impressions of them?


– Lab Work: Report on the safety procedures and restrictions in place within campus research labs — for student and faculty researchers and animal subjects. Lay out the (potentially) dangerous organisms and equipment the researchers are tasked with handling and the protocol f0r responding to a crisis.

– Off-the-Books: Ferret out out the more unofficial responsibilities undertaken by faculty and staff in various areas of your school — literally things not in their formal job descriptions or not often associated with their jobs that by choice or necessity become part of their workload. In a related sense, how are faculty and staff thanked for their service in ways that go beyond a pay raise, promotion, tenure or positive formal evaluation?

– Logo: What is your school’s current logo? How was it designed? How has it evolved over time? What is the meaning behind it? And what do students, faculty, staff, alumni and prospective students think of it?

– Academic Resilience: Profile students who have fought back from the brink of higher ed extinction — dropping out, failing out, being kicked out, etc. What led them into their initial holes or semesters/moments of crisis? And how did they overcome the adversity and regain their academic footing?

– True Selves: Explore the parts of ourselves we tend to publicly project depending on the situation — our class selves, cafeteria selves, dorm selves, social media selves, etc. What tends to get played up or hidden from view in each circumstance, and why? And what about the pasts and personal lives of those only known on campus professionally — including administrators and professors?

– Overcoming Tragedy: Share the stories of individuals connected to campus who have overcome a life-changing tragedy — personal, professional, familial, medical or disaster-related.

– Don’t Forget Transfers: Every semester a new slew of transfer students sign on for the fun and games at your school. What are they like? What brought them there? And how’s it been trying to fit in? The reverse of this group may be tougher to find, but no less interesting: Ferret out and report on those who transferred FROM, not to, your school. I promise their stories will be just as interesting, and possibly illuminating to your student, faculty and admin. readers.

– Where the Bodies Are Buried: Report from the perspective of the often-forgotten school staffers such as campus security, janitorial crews, cafeteria workers and administrative assistants. As the saying goes, the secretaries know where the bodies are buried. What fun and scandalous tales do these staff have to tell about their time on campus? This brainstorming session reminded me of a recent Politico first-person confessional from a TSA agent headlined “Dear America, I Saw You Naked.”


– Bartering culture: How, and how often, do students engage in cashless exchanges? Explore the ins-and-outs of campus trading schemes — most likely for things like snack food, IDs, textbooks, tech gear and not-so-legal movie and music files.

– Amateur Experts: Profile the range of students at every school known for being especially good at something. They are not verified experts, but decent enough at their craft that word spreads and they are called upon when peers, profs or admins are in need of some related help — whether it be cooking, hair, singing or freelance photography. For example, the student whose hand is featured in the screenshot below has a rep as a nail-care specialist.


– Names/Nicknames: In a piece on memorable political nicknames, National Public Radio’s Erica Ryan outlines the noms de plume attached to some seminal government leaders. Three biggies: Martin Van Ruin for former president Martin Van Buren (due to the country’s economic woes at the time); Slick Willie for sexually-charged former president Bill Clinton; and Snarlin’ Arlen for iconically cantankerous former senator Arlen Specter. Whether detrimental or beneficial, individuals’ nicknames always have a story behind them — including for students. Ferret out the best aliases students have been stuck with, or bestowed upon themselves, along with the tales of how they came to be. One snippet of advice: Along with the silly ‘Carlos Danger’-style pseudonyms, uncover the assumed names with more serious origins — such as those adopted by international students to better fit in with their American peers.

– Get-Away Schools: Some students are less interested in a school’s academic reputation than its geographic location. Specifically, they want to attend college or university far, far away from home. Where does your institution rank on the so-called get-away spectrum, and why?

– Fandom: Everyone is a superfan of something. Get the skinny on individuals’ outsized passions — the motivations behind them, the culture surrounding them and how public they are able to be about them with non-superfans.

5For more ideas, check out 1 Million Story Ideas for Student Journalists, a quick-hit, unending, hopefully indispensable, fun, fun, fun digital story ideas fountain.

Also order a copy of my book Journalism of Ideas: Brainstorming, Developing, and Selling Stories in the Digital Age. Dubbed “the next new mandatory text for college journalists,” it features advice from hundreds of contributors, lots of digital storytelling tips, tons of story ideas and more than 300 games aimed at sparking you to come up with endless ideas of your own.

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