The tools you need to become a Story-Idea machine

Great journalism requires enterprise.  Don’t just cover handouts, press conferences and announcements.  Go beyond the events everybody else covers to find your own story.

I hope these resources help:

Property Records
Every county in America has a property records office. Sometimes it is in the tax assessor’s office, sometimes it is called the Clerk of Deeds.  Most counties, even small ones, keep this information online now.  It usually is searchable by owner’s name, by address or by parcel number (which you probably don’t know.)   Here is a story about how property records show the Church of Scientology is buying up virtually all of Clearwater, Florida. The property records were key to the story.

Investigate charities
For a non-profit organization to enjoy tax-exempt status, it must be designated as a 501 (c) 3 charity.  That is an IRS designation.  In exchange for that status, the charity must disclose how much money it takes in and how it spends the money.  It discloses that on a form called an I-990, and those tax forms are open records.  There are a few good places to look up any I-990.:



Non-Profit Explorer by ProPublica (this is newer and includes a really useful search function.)

Occupational Safety-OSHA
This government agency investigates workplace safety.  You can pull the inspection records on both the state and federal basis from this one site.

When you see that OSHA has leveled fines against a company, don’t get so wrapped up in the size of the fine. Ask how MUCH the company actually paid for the fine. Fines are often plea-bargained for pennies on the dollar. As an example, look at this story from NPR about massive fines for grain bin safety that were settled for a fraction of the original penalty.

NHTSA (Highway Safety)
This is one government website that will always have a story idea for you.  From recalls to vehicle and highway safety issues, this is the place you will find resources about ties, car seats, crash tests and safety trends.   Stop by the newsroom section for good tips.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety also is a good place to find vehicle testing and safety information.

Voting, Politics and Elections

Screen Shot 2019-10-22 at 8.40.27 PM.pngVoteSmart is one of the easiest and most complete websites to track political fundraising and spending, background a candidate and monitor a candidate’s voting record and speeches.   VoteSmart has a big advantage over other sites in that it ALSO includes state officeholders in addition to federal politicians (House, Senate, President.) is a reliable and deep website that tracks campaign donations and spending.  It is especially useful for tracking PAC and SuperPAC contributions and to see what industries and special interests contribute to politicians. Open Secrets also explains the U.S. election finance system and provides some insight (not a lot) about Dark Money PACS, which are gaining influence.

All federal camapign spending information comes from data supplied by campaigns and PACS to the Federal Election Commission.  The FEC’s website is easy to use to look up donors.

The FEC also has deep archives that allow you to look at past campaign cycles.

Investigative Reporting Resources
I am a member and avid supporter of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) which has a library full of regularly updated story ideas from reporters around the world.  It also is a website that includes hundreds of tipsheets from IRE conferences throughout the years.

IRE’s sister organization, the National Institute for Computer Assisted Reporting (NICAR) keeps an extensive collection of government databases that NICAR will sell to journalists and even help you to use them.

Screen Shot 2019-10-23 at 9.20.07 PMBellingcat: A Beginner’s Guide to Flight Tracking

Bellingcat Online Investigation Toolkit


Covering Health and Healthcare

The Association of Health Care Journalists is a good place to start.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has constantly updated alerts and health news.

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The CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report is a first-alert page that tracks outbreaks, deadly threats and front-edge research.

Kaiser Health News is a substantial and reliable resource on all sorts of health information including tracking of health insurance coverage.  For example, see one day’s coverage below.
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Kaiser also has a “must-read of the week” column that summarizes the best health reporting of the week.

Screen Shot 2019-10-23 at 8.14.44 PMKaiser Health News allows you to search data and documents that shed light on the quality of U.S. health care, as well as influencers on the health care system. Kaiser  reporters have compiled databases and documents that are exclusive to KHN — and free for you to explore and share.

Search tools

Google Public Data Explorer

Google Dataset Search Search for data in this Google search tool.

US Local Data Portals This Github account lists dozens of portals.


tweetdeckTweetdeck’s main strength comes in being able to watch a large number of customized Twitter feeds, based on lists or searches. You can create your own lists of Twitter accounts around specific beats if you so wish, or follow those created by others and have them displayed together side-by-side to track the Twitter chat.

Twitter has a Google-style list of search functions as well, which can be combined to find niche corners of the 6,000 Tweets per second that could be the start of your next story.

twitter search operators

Covering Crime, Courts, Jails and Prisons

Screen Shot 2019-10-23 at 8.24.52 PMThere is no better source of story ideas on this beat than the Marshall Project’s daily newsletter. Marshall not only collects stories from around America, it also enterprises a lot of original stories.

Covering Education

This respected resource covers the good bad and ugly in higher ed. Much of the site requires a subscription but top stories are usually free.

The Chronicle also has a YouTube Channel that is worth a look for story ideas.

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The Education Writers Association
includes front-edge education coverage and webinars for journalists.

Screen Shot 2019-10-23 at 8.35.29 PM Is a fact-checking website that debunks web and social media rumors and claims.

Verifying photos: FindExif lets you extract exif data from any jpg online photo, just paste the URL of the photo, no need to upload photos to a server. Another helpful tool for verifying photos is FotoForensics, which includes a helpful tutorial. VerExif lets you view and remove exif data online of your pictures without downloading any program.

SciCheck is a fact-checking site that looks at science claims.

Screen Shot 2019-10-23 at 8.50.23 PMis a website and Google Chrome plug-in that let you watch YouTube and Vimeo videos frame by frame and in slow motion. It is a great way to analyze videos to verify the content or to see if they have been altered.

Using an image with sensitive data — image or information — you need to hide? Image blur is your solution.


Women Also Know Stuff Experts More than 1,600 experts.

Expert-Finding Tools for Journalists

Style Guide to Writing About Transgender People

Diverse Sources- Find expert sources.

Religionsource This site allows journalists to find sources for their stories when religion intersects society on their beats. Journalists can log in and easily and quickly search a database for contact info, credentials and publications for about 5,000 religion scholars in more than 1,400 areas of expertise.


Screen Shot 2019-10-23 at 9.02.15 PM
Enter a long word and Thsrs will give you a simple shorter choice.

Screen Shot 2019-10-23 at 9.05.16 PMThe FOIA predictor looks at your open records request and compres it to others that have been filed asking for similar information. The predictor will help you identify the strengths and weaknesses in your document to improve your chances of getting the records you want.

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Pew provides this resource for journalists. For example here is a page about
guns and America.