Think With a Filter: How to Grind Your Own Story Angles

Writing for the web doesn't always mean you need to pack an editorial calendar to the gills. Before my presentation at the 2014 Great Ideas Conference next week, let's talk about some of the content techniques we use on this site. Maybe they'll help you percolate your own ideas.

Sooooo… we cover a lot of stories on

Some of them are weird. Really weird—like things you’d never think about when talking about associations, membership, meetings, or the nonprofit world at large. But I’d like to think we (usually) get it right.

Obviously, when you’re covering a niche as specific as the ins and outs of the association world, actually finding the right topics can be a challenge, especially since you’re writing the script. I can’t compare what I’m doing to Wired or Politico, at least not directly. We can be inspired by them, but as we’re working such a narrow niche, we’re creating the beats.

Curious about all this? There’s a good chance you might be; I’m speaking about this very topic at ASAE’s 2014 Great Ideas Conference in Orlando on March 9, and while I’m sure I’ll be just as awkward at public speaking as I am at tweeting, I can’t wait. Prior to the event, though, I’d like to touch on a couple of my tips in slightly more depth than I’ll be allowed during an Express Learning session.

Yeah, we curate news, but we curate with a purpose. The filter helps give it its specific flavor. And just like a good cup of coffee, that cup isn’t always best served a week later.

Playing With Filters

Recently my wife and I got a French press, and it’s awesome. If you’re not familiar, here’s a quick primer: You put coarsely ground coffee beans at the bottom of the glass container, add boiling water, put the lid on top, and press down on the handle, which doubles as a filter. It takes a few extra minutes, but the process results in a way richer taste than you might get from Mr. Coffee. (Apologies to the Mr. Coffee Manufacturers Association in advance, if one exists.)

I’d like to think our process of finding content for Associations Now is pretty similar. We let the news of the day pour into our Google searches, and then we filter it using all the stuff we know about association management. The result? A perfect blend each morning.

We don’t write a ton of stuff in advance on AN; in fact, most of our web stories have a lead time of just one to two days, tops. How do we do it? I and the other regular newswriters spend a chunk of each morning looking for content to build on the fly. There’s a lot of stuff out there, but we have a pretty good idea of what we’re looking for as far as subject matter and storylines.

If the news of the day affects a lot of industry groups, it obviously holds some interest to this audience, but it goes beyond that. If there’s a pop-culture story with an association angle, great. If there’s a state or local association dealing with a interesting legislative conflict that gets picked up by a local newspaper, even better.

I use a few tools for this—my favorite is Prismatic—but by and large, my approach is a bit more traditional than you’d think. Basically, my Google skills are pretty good. I also know that certain news sources, like The New York Times, Bloomberg, or the Associated Press, cover so many topics in a given day that there’s a good chance an association or nonprofit might crop up in their coverage—but in a nook or cranny far from the front page. It might be a single quote in a story, but that quote might uncover a hook we can use to build something fascinating.

Yeah, we curate news, but we curate with a purpose. The filter helps give it its specific flavor. And just like a good cup of coffee, that cup isn’t always best served a week later.

The Story’s Shape Matters

Just because you’re a media outlet doesn’t mean you have to always write like a newspaper.

In J-school, a trick of the trade that you’re taught right off the bat is to write in an “inverted pyramid” style, which means the newest information comes first and the backstory comes near the end.

When I was formulating some of the content ideas for, I basically came to this conclusion: When the goal is context, what’s the point? The backstory stuff on a story new to an audience is just as important as the latest information.

In reaction to that, uses a “breakdown” format for many of its stories. Here’s how it works:

A short introduction: The format focuses on giving some very basic information about the story, but rather than working the way a hard-news intro might, the intro paragraphs essentially work as a tease to the meat of the content.

Scannable blurbs: Below that, the posts split up elements of the story into quick bites, complete with quotes and lots of linking out. Generally, this means a bold intro in front of the text. Each blurb should stand on its own and tell its own little micro-story.

The goal? We’re trying to encourage people to read more of the story, and we want to emphasize quick bombs of context over stories that otherwise could run so long that you probably wouldn’t read to the end. Our readers are pretty smart people: They’re CEOs, other senior executives, meeting pros, project managers, programmers, and people who know their way around a spreadsheet. But just because they can follow a detailed New Yorker story doesn’t mean we shouldn’t, y’know, help them out a little bit. You guys are smart, but you’re also busy.

If you haven’t been here before or need a refresher, here’s an example of the form.

So anyway, there’s my spiel about our approach to content. I’ll have a little more of this in Orlando. I hope I see you guys there—but if not, there’s always the internet.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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