Editors use their beats to find inspiration for books

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Diane Cowen

By Carlos Frías
2013 SFJ Diversity Fellow

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA — In the 40 minutes it takes Diane Cowen to commute from the Houston Chronicle, she’d considered, conceived and came home ready to celebrate the idea for her first book.

Cowen, the Chronicle’s food and religion writer, burst through the door, heading for her computer, and called out to her husband, “I’m going to write a cookbook!”

His response? “OK. What are we going to have for dinner tonight?”

They went out to dinner.

She came up with the idea for “Sunday Dinners,” a book that examines the Sunday mealtime traditions for famous families of faith such as Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes, simply by thinking about her beats — something she suggests any reporter can do.

“I thought sarcastically, ‘I guess I could write a cookbook for religious people.’ I literally laughed out loud in my car and then… I thought, ‘That is not a bad idea,’ ” she said during the Society for Features Journalism panel examining how books can spring from the newsroom.

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Tompkins revs up the story machine at SFJ conference

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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.

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