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Write local: How to find stories in national issues and far from home

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BY GLENN SAPIR
National Hunting and Fishing Day was coming up and I had a newspaper column due. I didn’t want to pass up the chance to promote the best public relations opportunity of the year for hunting and angling, but I needed to find a way to take a national celebration and make it a local story. I checked the event website for history and statistics on sportsmen’s economic and conservation contributions and learned where celebrations were happening in my paper’s coverage area. I then called a local contact who was organizing one of the events. With national information, quotes from an area sportsman and a preview of two local events that were planned for the September weekend, the story wrote itself.
Soon after filing the article I arrived in Lake Placid, N.Y., for OWAA’s annual conference — apparently just in time to miss a session I didn’t even know had been scheduled, “Taking a Local Story National, Taking a National Story Local.” It proves that while my suggestion for a craft improvement article on the topic might not be original, it’s certainly important.
Localizing stories can mean taking national issues and events and boiling them down to show readers in your area how they are impacted or why they should care. It can also mean finding stories with direct connections to your community even when you are far from home.
I’ve written an outdoor column for a large Gannett suburban daily since 1989. Here are a few tips I’ve discovered.

  • National studies and reports can often be broken down into state components (and state reports into county components). I know that is the case at the National Shooting Sports Foundation, where I work as director, editorial services. Contact the source of the research and find out about the specific information regarding your state. If the report involves a ranking of states, use that as the news hook of your article. If your state is near the top, you can find sources to boast about it; if it is near the bottom, you can find sources calling for improvement.
  • Get local reactions to national issues. Think about why a story interested you. If you care, who else in your community cares? Who might be impacted or interested?
  • Ask questions about people’s background. Find out where they are from. It is amazing how often I’ve gotten lucky by traveling to other parts of the state and country and discovered a person or story with a connection to my readership area. In Washington, on a waterfowl hunt, I discovered my guide and the part-owner of the resort where we were staying had been a minor league baseball player for our local team back home. I tied in his experiences with one of my favorite guides, another former minor leaguer, who fishes about an hour or so west of the ballpark where my waterfowl guide had played to create a story about two men who gave up on their dreams to become major league ballplayers to instead, hunt and fish for a living.
    When my wife and I headed down to Captiva Island in Lee County, Fla., to vacation, the resort set up a fishing outing and a nature hike. I learned the resort’s naturalist had grown up in the town where my wife and I live. I was able to tie in his birding experiences in my home area with what he is doing now, and I had another good column.
    When fellow OWAA and New York State Outdoor Writers Association member Bill Hollister and I signed up for a fall turkey hunt when the NYSOWA had its fall conference at Lake Placid in October 2009, we learned our guide was the local NWTF chapter honcho and the town’s chief of police. I learned through my “Where did you grow up?” and “Where did you go to school?” get-to-know-him questions that he was raised in Croton-on-Hudson in Westchester County, one of the three counties in my readership. The rest was easy. I wrote about his background, what he does now, and brought fall turkey hunting tips into the article that would work as well in my “downstate” woods as his “upstate” environs.
  • Look for celebrities from other parts of the country, especially if they are visiting, and find out what they know about your area. Cash in on the appeal of their celebrity and bring their knowledge home to your readers. I’ve done that with turkey pros from Missouri and Alabama by getting them to discuss their New York experiences and advice. When attending the Bassmaster Classic, I always requested being paired with the entrants who came from my region. Getting hooked up with New Jersey and Pennsylvania anglers, we could discuss their New York fishing experiences. The
    Hudson River is in my readership area, and even anglers from far reaches of the country had fished national tournaments on the river, so I would ask them, too, about their experiences and advice.
  • Tell the celebrities about the conditions of your local fishing, hunting or your specific outdoor activity. Perhaps they can compare them to similar conditions they’ve encountered, even if they have not been to your area. Generic similarities can lead to helpful tips and a good article. ♦

— Glenn Sapir is the outdoors correspondent for Gannett’s Journal News and the director of editorial services for the National Shooting Sports Foundation. He is a past president of OWAA and the organization’s most recent recipient of the Excellence in Craft Award.
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