Tompkins revs up the story machine at SFJ conference


Al Tompkins

By Carlos Frías
2013 SFJ Diversity Fellow

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA — To watch Al Tompkins concoct story ideas is a free association spectacle.

Government shutdown, you say? Tompkins, a Poynter professor and journalist of 35 years, sees FHA loans that aren’t being processed, veterans’ disability checks getting held up, the flu spreading wildly without the CDC open to warn us, border patrols shutting down and food stamps not getting processed.

He can do that with just about any topic, conjuring story ideas simply by asking how a big, public event affects five areas: money, family, safety, health, community.

With that filter, writers and editors can devise local angles to big stories. And not all of them have to focus on malfeasance.

“Part of our job is to investigate wrong-doing. Part of our job is to investigate right-doing,” Tompkins said. “There are people who do good work and we should hold them up when they do. … People are hungry for that.”

The core of reporting, he said, is to forget our stereotypes — that politicians are all crooked, that the elderly are all frail, that “kids today” all know nothing.

“It’s not all like you think,” Tompkins said.

Past stories also are a great source of new stories, he said. Follow-ups tap into a community that may have been deeply affected by a previous story.

Tompkins, who relies heavily on deep research, also shared some his favorite websites: will give you nightmares. People can  tweet as anyone else, even faking time stamps. can help identify fake Twitter accounts with deep analytics.

Twitter now allows for advanced searches by clicking a drop-down menu next to the website’s search box. can show what’s hot on Twitter, even using historical tweet data to show what people are tweeting about throughout the year.

Tie a Google alert to to be notified of public federal hearings and new federal guidelines coming into effect in your area.

Carlos Frías is a staff writer at the Palm Beach Post. He is one of the 2013 Penny Bender Fuchs Diversity Fellows.


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