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How You Choose Stories and Themes

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Jeanne, thanks for doing this chat. As a Washingtonian and an avowed food geek, I devour the weekly Post food section every Wednesday morning, and I'm excited you'll be joining us on eGullet.

I have often wondered where you get your story ideas, and how you decide which ones make it into the paper. Do individual writers come up with most of their stories? Do you host regular brainstorming sessions? Also, how do you decide on section themes? Are they set far in advance or are they more happenstance?

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First, thanks for reading the food section.

Where do the ideas come from? The food staff consists of me, the editor; Renee Schettler; assistant editor; Ronalie Peterson, copy/layout editor; Candy Sagon, Judith Weinraub, Stephanie Sedgwick and Walter Nicholls, staff writers; and Kathy Legg, art director.

We meet twice a week and usually eat something, anything, during these meetings. Sometimes we’re tasting food that we actually want to write about. But generally we are eating one of those Products That Come To Us in the Mail, some bottled goo or dried-out chip some manufacturer insists we have.

(Here’s an idea I’ve had for a regular feature: “Thanks, But No Thanks”:  a brief report card on the endless array of too salty, too sweet, horrifyingly unnecessary  and overpriced products that reach our mailbox every week from food conglomerates. My staff thinks this is a terrible idea. More on that to come.)

Our first meeting of the week is Monday afternoon.  We’re in the final stages of closing the section that will appear on Wednesday, so we discuss in a very specific way the next two or three issues, filling in all the holes, whether it’s stories or art. I’m blessed with  Kathy Legg , an art director who reads. She makes significant contributions; in reverse we make a few feeble attempts to suggest art possibilities.

In terms of group dynamics, I have to say that I’m very fortunate that I have this number of people on staff and these kind of people.  We’re open and honest with each other. There’s not much room in newsrooms for evasiveness or reticence.  Nor is there any room for somebody to hold a grudge. To say that these sessions are freewheeling, open, honest and sometimes oh boy do they get thorny  is an understatement.

Most of the time the reporters have ideas about specific stories that they want to pursue. I rarely veto an idea. If they’re passionate about it, that’s good enough for me. But we do begin at these meetings the process of refining or expanding the idea--and it’s very much a group process, whether it’s suggesting sources for stories or bringing into focus some idea that’s slightly harebrained or far flung.

I come up with a lot of ideas, and a lot of them need editing. I’ll throw out some shard of an idea . Or I’ll mention an extremely specific idea  that I think will work. Or I’ll throw out a headline and we’ll talk about what story works under that headline. Then the staff will honestly tell me that I’m out of my mind or they’ll work with me and even decide among themselves who’s the best reporter to do the story. Sometimes I have casual, off-the-cuff story sessions with individual reporters too, just as they wander into my office, or as I wander over to their desks. But the group setting is probably the most common.

The second meeting each week is Thursday afternoon, when we gather to write headlines together.  A lot of sections don’t do this, but I think it’s invaluable. Plus, the list of unpublishable headlines gets longer and funnier every week. By this time in the production cycle, I’ve probably edited about 60 percent of the copy and have given each member of the staff a budget: a list of the  stories appearing in the next week’s issue.

Again: we assemble, we eat, we attack, we defend. We pick apart each other’s leads or a freelancers leads. In the end, I think, we emerge with a better product.

Special sections  come into being as the subject warrants it.  Walter Nicholls’ wonderful package, “The Gourmet Trail of Rappahannock,” with its 2-page invaluable map  was such a section. (Though a certain cartographer  was almost sent to an early--and inevitably mismarked--grave after I went out to Rappahannock to test drive and fact check his rough draft of that map.)

Other examples of special section: the guide to Eden Center, the Vietnamese shopping center; the guide to Koreatown, the wonderful row of restaurants in Falls Church.

Our Thanksgiving section, which appears 8 days before Thanskgiving is always  a special section, that is, one devoted entirely to the subject.  It’s the time of year when everybody—even the people who are storing martini glasses in their ovens—tries to cook, so I think it’s important to really give people a plan.

All of these require tremendous planning and patience, lots of involvement with the artists and cartographers in The Post’s News Art department and lots of meetings and checkpoints. We really try to limit them, to use them for the topics that are really worthy of it.  I think if you do too many of them in a year,  the good ones lose their impact. And you risk losing readers…. “Oh, an entire Food section devoted to… vanilla??? Never mind…..”

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