Finding Waldo: A (failed) search for original stories

You’ve been staring at the pages for hours, but you haven’t found him. You feel emasculated, befuddled, humiliated. This is a book for children ages 8-12 and it’s beating you. Where the eff is Waldo?

You found Wenda ages ago. Wizard Whitebeard? Check. The weird guy dressed in bumblebee stripes? Also check. The minuscule pair of binoculars and the minute scroll tied with a red ribbon? Check and check.

But no Waldo.

The pressure builds behind your eyes. They’re bulging, cartoon-like, almost touching the illustrated page, looking, looking…

But he’s nowhere to be found.

This is the process of searching for an original story idea in Columbia, Missouri.

Yes, Columbia is great. It’s a safe, small-town place with a big-city vibe, a hotbed of local businesses, and an unusual mix of hipster townies, budding families and college students. Charming. It’s also the home of the best journalism school in the country. Less charming.

Mizzou’s presence in Columbia means that j-school students have a monopoly on all happenings there. It also means that nothing in the city hasn’t been covered at least 23 times. Unless you’re talking fire or flood, chances are your story idea is woefully unoriginal.

This semester I’m in intermediate writing (more difficult than its title suggests). Our current assignment: find someone to profile. Someone interesting, original and easy to embody in text.

I thought I’d found the ideal subject when I stumbled upon Frequency Coffee and met Ryker Duncan. He was dressed in cutoffs, a v-neck, vans and a fedora. He had a cackling laugh that bounced off the walls and echoed in the basement space. He weighed each bag of specially-chosen coffee beans on a series of tiny countertop scales. He had sliced up 150 wood palettes with a circular saw to create the unique pattern of woodblocks on Frequency’s walls. He made steam engine noises while operating the coffee machine. He was perfect.

Like any good reporter, I began my background research with a google search. My optimism concerning Ryker dwindled when I discovered he’d been covered previously. A lot. Here and here and here and here and also here.

Every media outlet in Columbia had jumped at the chance to write about something (and someone) novel. They’d dived at the jugular of Frequency and its all-too-interesting owner, devouring sources and subject matter until nothing but scraps remained. Scraps that I couldn’t cobble together into an original story to save my life.

My professor soundly rejected my profile proposal. His motive? Too much previous coverage.

I saw it coming from a mile away, because everything in Columbia is covered and covered and covered again. People and businesses are interrogated to the point of exhaustion. If you’re a Columbia citizen and have never been interviewed, you’re in the shrinking minority.

Journalism professors and editors alike bleat that a good reporter can uncover stories anywhere. They feed us tips and tricks: “The five steps to finding stories,” “Notice what you Notice,” etc. etc. I agree that good writers should be able to uncover stories that others don’t, but I also believe that every location has its limit.

My theory is that, at some point, Columbia’s news potential will be exhausted. Ideas will dry up. The Ryker Duncans  and Frequency Coffees of the world will be the only things left to cling to.

And soon even they will reach their coverage limits.

Finding Waldo: A (failed) search for original stories

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