What makes a good story?

It’s all about connecting.

That’s the key behind telling a good story, according to panelists at the latest Eastern Canada Farm Writers Association (ECFWA) professional development seminar: the best stories connect with their audience and the best writers know the needs and wants of their audience.

Panelists Jim Algie a reporter, farm columnist and writer with the Owen Sound Sun Times; Tina Pittaway, a freelance broadcast documentary producer; and Kim Pittaway, former editor in chief of Chatelaine, were joined by moderator Ivor Shapiro, a journalism professor from Ryerson University, in front of an audience of approximately 40 farm writers and agricultural communicators in Guelph yesterday.

According to Jim Algie, a reporter’s job generally is to find the story in the assignment and not necessarily to worry about what the good story is. Agriculture, he says, is full of great stories that everyone is interested in these days, which makes it great to be a farm writer.

“There are many great stories about the people who farm, weather, policies and government issues – these are the stories those of us in the farm press deal with all the time,” says Algie. “Now, issues like the 100 mile diet, ethanol and the ethics of agriculture makes all the stuff we’ve always written about front page news to everyone.”

That sentiment was shared by former Chatelaine editor Kim Pittaway, who began her remarks with encouraging words to all farm writers – every editor suddenly now wants agriculture stories. Along with that, editors are clamouring for new writers who can bring voices other than those of downtown Toronto to the table.

The traditional belief from an editor’s perspective was that the audience was people in the city, characters in stories had to be like the target market, and city people don’t want or “get” agriculture. Now, says Pittaway, editors are recognizing that Canadians are worried about the food on their plate, and along with that concern comes a growing curiosity about what life is like for the people producing that food.

“There is greater interest now in food and farm-related stories,” says Pittaway. “For editors, this means a demand for voices from outside of the central Toronto core. The publications are supposed to be national, so they’re looking for people with contacts and stories in the agricultural world.”

Telling a global story through a local person is Tina Pittaway’s secret to freelancing success. The freelance broadcaster used the story of a seed vault in Norway dedicated to preserving genetic diversity as the basis for developing a local angle. She set out trying to find local farmers who are advocates for saving seed, and found a couple in Kingston who have preserved over 100 types of tomatoes and 45 varieties of potatoes. Not only did this give her a great human interest story, she was able to connect it to the broader issue of the value of genetic diversity and why it’s important to have control over seed at the local level.

“A good story has characters, timeliness and raises questions in people’s minds,” she says. “You also need good talkers in radio – they need to be able to communicate their passion.”

She cautioned farm writers not to get too mired in what their idea of “new” is, especially since many stories about agricultural advances are ones the trade press writes about regularly. That attitude could leave many great stories untold.

“Your idea of what new is might be too far ahead of curve for a general audience,” she says. “What you may think is stale is probably just coming up in the general interest world.”

The session ended with the panelists offering some advice to farm journalists looking to bring agricultural stories into the urban media:

• Be passionate about the story you’re telling. If the writer or broadcaster is bored, it won’t be good for the reader or editor either.
• When pitching a story, the two opening paragraphs of the pitch should be the opening paragraphs of the story. Put energy into layering the first few paragraphs with smart, specific, telling details. Connect the editor to the character and allow him/her to hear the character. Follow up the first two paragraphs with tight, pointed theme-graph about what this story is about and why it is important
• Controversy is a device for attracting people to a story, but don’t let it become the story or you’re lose sight of the issue.
• If you don’t like a story, don’t try to get the media to tell it again from your side. They’ve already “done” the story so aren’t likely to do it again. Instead, look for different angles to get the “real” story out. How can I engage that broader audience on my story? Is there another venue? Why does their story resonate with audience?
• Editors know that the job of PR people is to sell a story. But to editors/reporters, PR people represent access that they can’t otherwise get. Don’t be a source of barriers.

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