Looking for story ideas that you can start working on today? Here are 102.
By the age of 60, nearly 70% of Americans will have experienced economic hardship. For most of us, it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. Newsrooms play a vital role in reporting on issues that have an outsized impact on those with limited means.
Covering hardship as a specific topic isn’t about finding “poor” people and doing stories about them. It’s about investigating the impact of systems and processes on people experiencing hardship, which systems and processes disproportionately affect people experiencing hardship and which problems we can help people experiencing hardship better navigate through quality reporting. It also requires that we be diligent in confronting biases around class and poverty in our newsrooms and recognizing them in our sources and framing.
Some of the prompts below are expressly about hardship, others are particularly relevant for groups likely to experience hardship, but all of them can be helpful for more fully reporting out the reality in communities. Some of these are possible as pretty quick stories that inform audiences about the status of something, others may be more appropriate as an entry point for an investigation or more involved data gathering process. Some of these stories are only possible with the engagement and participation of the audience or local groups for data and information that’s not formally collected elsewhere.
For stories that feel like explainers, keep in mind that access to information about what exists and how to understand it or how to make use of it is an information need for people experiencing hardship that is often unmet or underserved. There is value in identifying and explaining such things and that falls firmly within the mission of newsrooms to inform their audiences. Obviously, not all of these ideas or framings are going to be relevant to every community or easily possible across every type or scale of locality. The goal is to identify starting points that you can potentially run with and modify for your own context.
This is by no means an exhaustive list — please feel welcome to share your ideas in the comments— but if you’re looking for some starting points for a new angle, here are 102 leads for potential stories that you can try in your newsroom.
Work is a subject space that could be quickly broken up into a million different reporting projects, here are some ideas to consider.
Many, if not most, of the best paying jobs require different kinds of education or certification requirements.
- What would it cost someone to reach the educational or certification requirements for the most common or best paying jobs in your community?
- What would it cost the average student graduating from a local public school to attend the most affordable local higher education option to reach the educational or certificate requirements for local jobs that pay well?
- Is it possible for a person within the community to access the training or education required without having to move or leave the community?
- How many employers offer training for new hires that eliminates some of that cost? (For example, some companies that require commercial drivers licenses will train new drivers, and potentially cover the cost of schooling, practice driving hours, permits and licenses, and the federal DOT medical card.)
- If an employer requires training or certification that’s not typically part of a traditional or existing educational program do they cover the cost?
- Which areas of employment in your community are experiencing a shortage of qualified workers? What, if anything is being done to address that shortage within the community that could benefit local job-seekers?
Work shifts and schedules
If you can collect details on schedules and shifts in your community, you can report on potential impacts across access to public services, childcare, access to transportation, health outcomes, safety and more.
- Does your community have dominant work shifts?
- Are most people working a morning to late afternoon shift or are local employment options operating 24 hours a day?
- Does your town have a time when most businesses are closed? How late or early is that time? (Think about the challenge of getting to different offices or businesses before they close if your work schedule encompasses most or all of those hours.)
- Can you collect information about how the major employers or employment sectors manage scheduling? (And are they in compliance with any state or federal laws about how much notice workers should have regarding their schedule?)
- What are the statistics about how many employees have set or varied shifts?
In some communities, public jobs are the best jobs in terms of hours, benefits, predictable scheduling and salary. The work also can range from office work to manual labor in a variety of conditions.
- How are public jobs in terms of diversity, scheduling practices, salaries?
- Are public jobs not accessible to people who have been incarcerated?
- How many employees work in local public jobs or local offices for state or federal departments?
- What’s the impact on local employment when local, state and federal government/departments have cutbacks or shutdowns? (Given the frequency of federal shutdowns, having a sense of how many local workers are potentially impacted is a good thing to know in advance for better coverage during those events.)
- Are the major industries of a community associated with additional likelihood of workplace injuries?
- Have any/how many local employers have been cited or investigated for workplace injuries? Are any local employers exemplary for safety records or how they treat workers that are injured?
- What are the state laws and requirements for worker’s compensation programs? What statistics are available on worker’s comp claims that might inform a story?
- Are medical service providers that are accepted by worker’s comp programs accessible in your community or do they require travel?
- How many employees in a community are represented by a union?
- What are the local, state and federal unemployment programs that are available to your community? Is there any kind of explainer reporting project that could guide audiences through how these programs work or how to make use of them?
- What are the statistics around unemployment benefits for your county or state?
- What are your state requirements for work requirements in order to receive assistance?
- How many people in your community work multiple jobs? Which industries do those jobs span?
There are a variety of businesses that can effectively act to exploit low-income earners or those without steady paychecks by offering needed goods, services or quick fixes at high interest rates.
- How many businesses that often operate in a predatory or exploitive manner are located in your community? Think bail bondsman, pawn shops, payday lenders, rent-to-own furniture and appliance stores, etc.
- How many local employers rely on undocumented workers who are vulnerable to abuse or dangerous working conditions?
- What’s the local inventory of housing for sale? What’s the breakdown across property types?
- How do the sales prices across the inventory compare to local wages? Can people working in the area afford to buy in the area?
- How do city assessments compare across areas?
- Are assessments comparable to sales prices at close?
- What are the local ownership rates?
- How much of local property is owned as investment property rather than occupancy?
- What kind of mortgages are available in your area?
- What is the public housing inventory? How long is the wait-list?
- Are the eligibility requirements in line with other counties/states?
- Are local public housing restrictions and rules in line with other areas?
- What does rent affordability look like for your community?
- What does the rental inventory look like?
- Who are the largest owners of rental housing?
- Are there areas in your community that are more vulnerable to impacts from natural disasters or climate change? Who lives there?
- What utility assistance programs are available? How well are they advertised/utilized?
- What is the foreclosure rate? What are the primary reasons for foreclosure?
- If your community experiences natural disasters that necessitate taking shelter or reaching high ground, how distributed are shelter options across your community? Can people make it to safety in a reasonable amount of time?
- Does your community effectively criminalize being without housing through fines, penalties or arrests for loitering, sleeping outside, or sleeping in cars?
- What percentage of arrests are of people experiencing houselessness?
- Are there public transportation options that provide access to grocery stores?
- What food pantry options exist in your community?
- What are the statistics around WIC or SNAP usage in your area?
- Are there stores, restaurants or other food providers that have been repeatedly cited for health and safety violations that are still operating? Have they adequately disclosed their status if they are currently in violation?
- Are there local ordinances or laws against giving food to people experiencing houselessness?
- What kinds of insurance programs do the local hospitals accept?
- What are their programs for people who can’t pay?
- What medical services are available in your local community if any?
- How many medical providers in your community offer sliding pay scales?
- Are there transportation programs for elderly or disabled people to make it to appointments?
- What’s the generational makeup of your local community? Is the population aging?
- Does the ownership of local health options impact the service that may be available to patients? (If the local hospital is religiously affiliated, it may mean certain health care options are not available to people who can’t afford to travel somewhere else.)
- What is the local assisted living inventory? Nursing home?
- How big are the wait-lists for facilities?
- What percentage of beds at facilities are allocated to Medicaid recipients?
- What’s the cost of assisted living across the different facilities in your area?
- What’s the cost of in-home care in your area?
- What services are there for things like grocery delivery, meals, house cleaning, errands, medical transport, pharmacy delivery?
- Are there programs in your community, county or state to aid in covering the cost for in-home assistance, assisted living or nursing homes?
- What assistance do hospitals provide upon release? (Some hospitals, especially large ones, have social workers assigned to patients who can answer questions for a limited time following a hospitalization.)
- What’s the average cost of childcare in your community?
- Are there enough providers to meet demand? Are there waitlists?
- Is childcare accessible by public transportation?
- What’s the cost of participation in extra-curricular activities? How does this vary across schools in your community if there are more than one?
- How many different fundraisers do schools host each year? How much money does the school try to raise for events and activities or other things outside of the normal operating budget?
- What are the requirements for parental participation in school events and activities?
- What is the school lunch debt? How does the school handle unpaid school lunch debt?
- Are teachers at public schools earning a living wage for your area? How does teacher pay compare to other comparable schools?
- Are there local community colleges, vocational training programs or universities? What are the admissions requirements?
- If there is a local university, do they require students to live on campus their freshman year even if they are from the local community?
- How do fees and costs beyond tuition compare to similar schools?
- What percentage of local college instructors are adjuncts with no access to benefits or reliable employment?
- Which companies service your community with phone, cellular plans and internet? What are the prices for average plans?
- Are there programs available to offset or subsidize the cost for people with limited means?
- Is there access to the internet available at libraries, social services offices or other publicly-accessible locations?
- What is the process to use state social services?
- What is the process to use local social safety net services?
- What is the process to use local municipal services?
- What is the process to use local nonprofit or community group services?
- How accessible are social services? Are offices reachable in person? By phone? Is internet access required? Are interpreters or aides available?
- For different departments/programs, how complicated are the phone menus? Could you navigate them if you were elderly or had accessibility challenges?
- How automated are the review and approval processes?
- What is the extent of social services available to your community?
- What are your local/state rules around eligibility?
- Which programs are interdependent? (In many places, eligibility for SSI=eligibility for Medicaid) How does that interdependence affect qualifications or how penalties are calculated if someone’s income changes?
- How strictly is Medicaid Estate Recovery pursued in your state? (How has Medicaid expansion impacted this?)
- What percentage of state budgets are allocated to middle-parties to manage, administrate or streamline social safety programs within the state?
- If there are a variety of agencies or organizations that offer similar or overlapping services, is there guidance available for which program a person should go through? Are they comparable in terms of requirements?
- How many people in your communities live on the cusp of needing social safety net programs but bare miss qualification measures?
- Are the program requirements sufficient to support someone as they transition off of a social program to fully supporting their selves/families? (For example, some programs have a limit as to how much cash a recipient can have on hand before becoming ineligible. Is that amount sufficient to cover costs for a x number of months as they transition from receiving benefits to no longer receiving benefits? Is that amount sufficient for low-income homeowners who may face an unexpected home repair cost?)
State Department of Social Services
Federal Health and Social Services
- Do local jails/prisons have work release programs? How are they managed? How accessible are they to incarcerated individuals? What are the rules? What are the outcomes from the program?
- How accessible is communication with incarcerated individuals?
- How expensive are items in the commissary?
- What percentage of the budgets are provided by fines and tickets? Is the distribution of those tickets and fines distributed in line with demographics and stats or concentrated in different communities?
- What local policing data is available?
- What services are not covered by local legal aid groups?
- What’s the average length of time people are spending in jail while awaiting trial if they cannot afford bail?
The Basic Question
And if none of the above are new or applicable for your newsroom, think about events, jobs, activities, programs in your community or processes that most people experience and ask:
What does it look like to
if I only have limited resources?
From this point, you can key into all manner of useful reporting opportunities that you can work with your audience and community to investigate.
* Remember *
In working on these stories, seek to balance the scales toward who the reporting is for and who you are working with on this reporting rather than just writing a story about a problem. Seek partnership where ever and when ever possible.
For + With > About
About: The bare minimum reporting useful stories about issues affecting people so that they have information to help them navigate their circumstances or bring about ameliorative change.
For: Find people in your community whose challenges you seek to address in your reporting and let the issues and challenges they identify drive the focus of your reporting.
With: Partner with your audience and community to focus and contribute to coverage that serves the needs of people in the community.
Through this framework, we move to a move equitable and accurate reflection of a community’s information needs and create agency for the people who are connected to the process.
If you want to dig further into reading and research around economic hardship, here are some resources.
ONA18 Journalism’s Poverty Problem
Poor Information: How Economics Affects the Information Lives of Low-Income Individuals
Study: Media Images of the Poor (2002)
Study: Poverty As We Know It: Media Portrayals of the Poor (2000)
Broke in Philly Language Guide
UN Report on poverty in the US
Covering poverty: What to avoid and how to get it right
Economic Hardship Reporting Project
Before communities can invest in news, newsrooms must invest in communities
(There are many great books on this, these are a good place to start. I’ve left them unlinked so you can purchase from the source most inline with your preferences.)
- Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor
- Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
- The Poverty Industry: The Exploitation of America’s Most Vulnerable Citizens
- The Undeserving Poor: America’s Enduring Confrontation with Poverty
- Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life
- Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America
For more on thinking about class and poverty in newsrooms and designing and managing effective, equitable news collaborations, you can find me on Twitter at HBCompass.