Some of the most important stories ever written start with words like these: “Fifty years ago today…”
They are stories of events or issues that changed lives and places. But how does a reporter who wasn’t born 50 years ago or even 25 years ago understand the story and tell it in a multimedia world?
Own the history
The best place to start is in your news media outlet’s library. Read all the clips, even if you have to spin through reel after reel of microfiche. Next, find out how your competitors covered the topic. Often your public
or university library will have clips, audio and footage. You’ll also find historic photos and the names of people who were alive or may still be alive.
Press for Public Records
Do an all-out search for public documents. Determine which government agencies and public or private organizations were involved. With any document search, think broadly: inspection reports, citations, disciplinary actions, police reports, correspondence, court documents, coroner’s reports and property ownership documents.
Discover the dead
People always are key to any story, but for a historic story, some, if not all of them, are dead. You still have to find them. Using the names you have found in your archival and research material, begin searching for obituaries. Relatives are listed there and may be alive and have letters, diaries, photographs, home movies and memorabilia that belonged to the people you are writing about.
Find the living
Find survivors, community leaders, bureaucrats, politicians, activists, the media who covered the event and anyone else who will talk to you. This will mean making cold calls, going door to door and introducing yourself and giving a brief explanation of what you are working on. Collect audio interviews and shoot lots of photos of the people you meet and the places you visit.
Take yourself back in time
Go to the places that are in your story. Go with the people you find, and then go alone. Photograph, videotape and collect natural sound.Make sure to record small details, a padlock on a door, a broken window in an abandoned church, cobwebs on a cedar chest. Compare what you see in person to photographs that were taken in the past. Think about how things have changed or stayed the same.
Putting it together
Once you decide what your story meant then and what it means now, you can begin to outline and write your story. Because you are dealing with multimedia components, you will need to think about how to tell your story in pieces, so viewers can pick and choose what they want to see.