How Journalism Can Help You Think Outside the Box When Brainstorming

Brainstorming like a journalist

Like marketing, journalism is about people. Consumers of editorial and advertorial matter, in all forms, are still consumers. The person who hates fast food, loves Netflix, and drives a Mazda will still be receptive to information about all three, no matter if that information is paid for, or investigated or generated naturally by events.

The genesis of new ideas for a new customer in a brainstorm can be as exciting and vibrant as the morning news meeting in a busy newspaper. Decisions will be made, alternative ideas pursued or discarded, and trends and matters of interest followed and analyzed.

Now, in the digital 21st century, we can pinpoint our customers better. Personas, attitudes, likes, dislikes; how a consumer found their way to a website or social media feed, from where, and when.


Many digital veterans are experts at ‘off-diary’ stories, which essentially break into two categories.

The first is a skill which some possess bringing tales into work that they’ve noticed on their way through town. The closed shop. The new spate of illegal dumping. The posters for a new band with a disabled singer. The Lithuanian night club that just opened. And so on. Banishing timidity and replacing it with curiosity, will uncover rich seams of human life

The second category is the long-term investigation or campaign, on which a journalist might only spend 20 minutes per day working , but should eventually yield great results. This might take weeks, months, or even years. For example, animal lovers may remember the dog’s home in Manchester which was destroyed last September.

Donations poured in quickly for a rebuild, but the Manchester Evening News took the baton and ran with it. The result is this – a successful, £1.4m facility. One might imagine that in the background journos were looking for dog lovers, making regular phone calls to the office, and essentially keeping the story ticking over until its happy conclusion.

The sources for a marketing brainstormer might be the front of a screen. Tools such as Buzzsumo, HubSpot’s blog topic generator and more can generate ideas and follow trends. But an interest in new topics and perhaps more tellingly what other people are investigating as new topics, can uncover rich seams of human life and interest: banish timidity and replace it with curiosity.

Crunching data – and the stories around it

Imagine you’ve arrived on some interesting figures concerning thefts in a given area. For example, you’ve discovered the number of burglaries in a given city around the Christmas period.

This could be reported in bare facts, in list form. One could simply present a pie chart of data, dish up a quote from a local cop, and still throw together a strong lead story warning people to be vigilant. But think of your readers. Who will be interested in the story? Unless the figures of the items taken are outrageous, who will care? Is there a way of grabbing attention?

Let’s take it further. What if you could push to find out a little more? What if you could find out the times items were stolen? What if, rather than simply finding out that £300 of Playstation games were nabbed, you could find out the titles? Or the makes of aftershave or bicycles that were taken? Why not speak to a victim and add some emotion to the story? What happens to stolen toys? Do police ever reunite lost items with their owners?

Immediately, we’ve opened the story from a run of the mill straight news piece to an angled, nuanced piece that could interest anyone from a gamer to a grandmother, and a mom and dad to, yes, a gang of criminals.

Brands and content strategists should know their personas, and should dig into them, and what works. Blogs, infographics, videos, whatever – there are many ways to do a job, both short term and long-tail.




Journalism deadlines have taken on a new meaning in the 21st century. Not all newspapers are even going with them anymore. However, that urge to complete jobs to a schedule, to construct a diary of events throughout the day, week or year, and to think ahead, is a habit that never leaves a good journalist.

It’s that ability to analyze different events in a diary, to know what’s happening tomorrow and in six months’ time; to keep an eye on trends, fads, public figures and social media that a marketer can latch onto and explore. Therefore, even in the embryonic stages of the brainstorm, a team might be planning exactly when to pitch that, and when to create this, to create maximum disruption and interest.

Widening the net

The dissection of information on the internet is a bizarre paradox; we’ve never had access to so many viewpoints and sources of knowledge, but because we can find those we like and impose settings to aggregate and curate them for our tastes, then we’re oftentimes blind to other points of view.

Journalism isn’t quite like that. The earnest hack needs to know lots about lots that they have no interest in, which could include council protocol, the rules of crown green bowling, and rare diseases.

Not only do you need to know about these diverse parts of life and the stories that might flow from them, but you need to think about them from different angles, explore them, react to them, and plot their futures. In a news meeting an editor may grill you and pick holes, as well as offering their own ideas – will this piece fit at the start or end of the paper, or online only? What’s the tone?

In a brainstorm, ideas bounce around. You may be the brainstormer who turns up with their notepad of ideas, timidly reading them out and hoping for approval.
But there’s usually someone who arrives at the meeting with few or even no ideas but is brilliant at asking questions concerning other people’s. These are the ones who see the bigger picture and the big bang that might go with it, mentally planning avenues and angles to explore.

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Different approaches

Do you remember Lord Sewel and his alleged transgressions with drugs and prostitutes? Believe it or not, the Sun on Sunday’s footage allegedly showing the peer engaged in drug-related offenses was only made public at the end of July, but somehow it seems much longer than that.

There are some tough journalists in this world, people who want to get a story, and to hell with its subjects. The methodology involved in bagging such a story can be a long, drawn-out affair (to find out more read either ‘Hack’ by Graham Johnson or ‘Tabloid secrets’ by Neville Thurlbeck, both former tabloid hacks), probably involving procuring the story after a rumor or tip-off, talking to and then paying off the ‘participants,’ setting up an elaborate filming system, and putting the whole mix together and presenting it to lawyers.

Some were unconvinced that Sewel’s private activities were even worthy of public interest. Compare and contrast this with one of the greatest journalistic exposures of our time; The Telegraph’s exposé of MP’s expenses. The story still looms large for MPs now. Few would question that the latter has journalistic, political and civic merit, while most journalists would not even dream of attempting to convince the occupants of a brothel to film their ‘customers’.

Here’s the lesson; it shows that there are different approaches to news, and illustrates in stark fashion the mental, if not moral strengths that some journalists possess in the name of ‘public interest,’ and the differing characters who take part in the overall show to create a product. The struggling industry means staff numbers have fallen, but at any ideal newsroom across the country you might find graduates, grizzled hacks, family lovers, loners, creative feature writers, and so on. Once ideas start bouncing, they might find new directions.

Brainstorming teams should be based on the same principle, that great minds will not always think alike. You might not socialize with your colleagues, but appreciation of their skills and different knowledge, viewpoints, and contacts, and what they bring to the table, is paramount.

Image credit: Flickr

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