Editors at Work: Where to Look for Story Ideas

By Jack Limpert

While at the Washingtonian, a monthly magazine, I subscribed to lots of other magazines, looking for ideas to adapt. I also looked through four newspapers every morning—the Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today. As digital journalism got more interesting, some of that reading went online.

I also subscribed to Publishers Weekly, which covers the book business. It listed book deals that publishers had made with authors—sometimes a good book idea can become a good story idea. That service is now online.

At a meeting of the American Society of Magazine Editors, one of Hearst’s top editors, John Mack Carter, was asked for his best advice. He said, “Go out to lunch.” Some of us were mystified by that—Go out to lunch?—but what he was saying was get out of the office cocoon and talk to lots of different kinds of people.

Clay Felker, the legendary editor of New York magazine, also went out to dinner. One of his editors told me that Felker wanted to know what people were talking about at Manhattan dinner parties, thinking that anything that made good conversation also might make a good magazine piece. The editor said Felker was so convinced that the best ideas came from out of the office that some editors would find out where Felker was going to dinner and try to get someone there to bring up a story idea.

At the Washingtonian, we tried to have at least one sandwich lunch a month where we invited a guest who was plugged into some part of the city. Five or six editors and writers would sit in—we rotated the invitation list so that everyone on the editorial staff was involved. The lunches were off the record; we wanted the guest to be able to speak freely without fear of being quoted. If a story idea came out of the lunch, we’d later ask the guest if it was okay to use it.

I went out to a lot of Washington receptions, looking for interesting conversation, but a reception is mostly useful for meeting people and then following up in a more relaxed setting.

In the office, I was a believer in small meetings—preferably three, four, or five people. We often did these small meetings over a morning cup of coffee, a midday sandwich, or a late afternoon drink. I always felt that the bigger the meeting the less likely the smartest people in the room would talk.

The m.o. of these small meetings was there are no bad ideas. We wanted writers and editors to feel free to toss out an idea no matter how wacky it might seem. You never know where the next great story idea will come from.

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