Engagement Story ideas

For newspaper readers, advice can add a lot of spice

Former magazine editor Rix Quinn writes a weekly feature for 100-plus newspapers, and business biographies for trade magazines.

What writing format has flourished in American newspapers – and magazines – for over 200 years? If you answered “advice columns,” give yourself a warm handshake.

Yes, these features have been around longer than this country. Even way back in 1722, Ben Franklin wrote a question-answer column (“Silence Dogood”) for his brother’s newspaper in Boston.

An advice column offers three distinct advantages: (1) It gives the reader a chance to interact with the writer. (2) Experts can offer ideas on virtually any subject, and the column can even be sponsored by an advertiser. (3) Most important, advice columns are often cut out of the paper, saved, and quoted around the home or office.

Expert advice is big business

Think of all the famous writers who’ve offered advice over the years. We’ve all heard of Ann Landers and Dear Abby, who offer personal advice. And there’s also Miss Manners, and Hints from Heloise, plus loads of other columns about religion, and car maintenance, and animal care, and clothing selection, and internet use, and…well, you name it.

I’ve often heard that advice and self-help is a gigantic business. Americans reportedly spend $11 billion a year on self-help!

Let me share a personal story about how I discovered the power of advice features.

Many years ago, I worked for my Dad’s trade magazine company. He was a former newspaper editor.

He told me one informal way to gauge a story’s impact was to find out how many times it got forwarded to another person, or displayed in an office or home. This meant the reader cared enough to clip the article out of the publication.

What stories do people clip out?

I researched more, and found out folks displayed clips on office bulletin boards or home refrigerators. (Did that mean the news had gotten cold?)

In homes, people posted family photos, children’s artwork, obituaries, invitations, grocery lists, and advice articles.

At the office, workers displayed quotations, business cards, calendars, cartoons, and advice articles.

Of course, today that “clipping” is mostly electronic as readers link to the column in social media or forward a link by email.

Clip-ability equals memorability!

We made consistent efforts to shorten news and feature articles to under 250 words. We carried many brief quotations from industry executives.

We posted famous saying on the back of subscription renewal cards. And we regularly carried advice features from business experts…not only from the industries we served, but from experts in other professions too.

How to get started?

How many experts could offer advice in your community? Do you have an accountant, or a dentist, or an exercise studio, or somebody else who might want to write – and sponsor – a question-answer column?

I’m convinced that each column should be under 250 words. Each column should offer an e-mail address, and ask questioners to write to that address.

Here’s what we did: After we received a question, we did not publish the questioner’s name unless they gave us specific, written permission.

And…each column carried a disclaimer that said something like this: “Answers offer the views of this column writer only, and not this publication.” I am NOT an expert on this! You should check with your attorney for specific wording.


I’ll be glad to talk to you more about advice columns…for free. Just call me at 817-920-7999 or email me at [email protected].



Story ideas

Ideas for back-to-school stories

If the definition of news is something new that affects a lot of people, then the biggest news story you’ll have in August is probably back-to-school.

Maybe you’ve seen that as more of an advertising opportunity than a set of news stories – so let’s consider the possibilities. Remember that this is a significant rite of passage for any family with children or teens. And remember too that all parents care about issues related to their children’s school.

Your advertisers will appreciate stories that relate to school issues also, because people who read those stories will be more likely to see their back-to-school ads.

The most obvious stories deal with school openings and schedules and changes to faculty and facilities at schools. But there’s so much more. Here’s a not-in-any-particular order list of story ideas for back-to-school.

  • ●Everyone’s shopping for clothes. What are the latest trends in clothing and shoes? What’s hot now? And how about the latest big-seller in book bags and gadgets? And ask parents about costs for supplies and how they are coping. Also, what about the effects of the state’s sales tax holiday Aug. 5 through 7? Here’s some information you need to know and pass on about that weekend.
  • ●Ask about changes in school or district policies (tests and academics, dress codes, student conduct, even pick-up and drop-off traffic patterns. How will those affect parents?
  • ●Any additional programs, courses, curricula in high school? Or have some been dropped?
  • ●Talk to teachers about how parents can support children’s learning. Many parents don’t see the value of reading to their children, going over their homework, or even just making sure they bring their books and homework to school every day.
  • ●Involve parents in your coverage, especially on social media. Ask them to share first day of school photos or memories.
  • ●If you’re fairly close to a university that trains teachers, talk with some education faculty members about the pressures facing today’s teachers, and whether it is getting more difficult to recruit young people to teach in today’s high-stakes classrooms. Texas is estimated to be about 30,000 teachers short this fall – how does your district compare?
  • ●Summer learning loss is a phenomenon schools must deal with every fall. Kids’ scores across the boards drop after summer vacation. Talk to teachers about this problem and how they are addressing it.

A great resource for reporters is Education Writers Association. Membership is free to working journalists who cover education stories, and every week you get a great list of story ideas and resources.

Story ideas

Tips for reporting on Texas weather

May could be a bad weather month in Texas, and if so you’ll need the resources of the Weather Channel in your reporting. The Weather Channel has all types of information that will give you perspective on local weather emergencies — including this interactive map that will allow you to monitor weather radar for your city and county. SPJ’s Journalist’s Toolbox also has good weather reporting sources.

Story ideas

Story idea: the impact of high gas prices

You think high gas prices are hurting your bottom line? What if you had to fill up a school bus? And what if that school bus made pick-ups in rural areas and drove many miles every day? Here’s a math problem for your fifth grader: Suppose a school bus gets 8 miles per gallon and drives 50 miles a day. The gas tank holds around 60 gallons and gas costs $3.81. How much more will the district spend on that bus per week than it did when gas cost $2.50 a gallon? It’s a great word problem for a fifth grader and a great story idea for any community newspaper in a rural area where school buses drive long distances. The link shows you what a Michigan TV station did with this idea.

Story ideas

Story idea: Check out Galbraith’s reporting on Texas energy resources

Kate Galbraith, who is one of our speakers at next week’s one-day workshop on reporting on electrical energy, continues to give us a master class on the possibilities of the energy beat with her reporting in the Texas Tribune. Check out her piece, for example, on whether the blackouts will cause higher electric rates. Or her “Texplainer” story on why Texas has its own power grid. Or her stories on wind-generated energy in the state. If you follow Kate’s reporting you’ll get lots of ideas for stories that can be localized for your paper. We still also have fewer than five places open for the energy reporting workshop on Feb. 17. To register for this free workshop in Austin, February 2024

  • January 2024
  • October 2022
  • June 2022
  • April 2022
  • March 2022
  • February 2022
  • September 2021
  • August 2021
  • August 2020
  • July 2020
  • December 2019
  • November 2019
  • August 2019
  • June 2019
  • April 2019
  • March 2019
  • February 2019
  • December 2018
  • September 2018
  • August 2018
  • July 2018
  • June 2018
  • May 2018
  • April 2018
  • March 2018
  • February 2018
  • January 2018
  • December 2017
  • November 2017
  • October 2017
  • September 2017
  • August 2017
  • July 2017
  • June 2017
  • May 2017
  • April 2017
  • March 2017
  • February 2017
  • January 2017
  • December 2016
  • November 2016
  • October 2016
  • September 2016
  • August 2016
  • July 2016
  • June 2016
  • May 2016
  • April 2016
  • March 2016
  • August 2015
  • July 2015
  • April 2015
  • March 2015
  • August 2014
  • June 2014
  • April 2014
  • March 2014
  • February 2014
  • January 2014
  • December 2013
  • November 2013
  • October 2013
  • August 2013
  • June 2013
  • April 2013
  • March 2013
  • February 2013
  • December 2012
  • November 2012
  • October 2012
  • September 2012
  • August 2012
  • June 2012
  • May 2012
  • April 2012
  • March 2012
  • February 2012
  • January 2012
  • December 2011
  • November 2011
  • October 2011
  • September 2011
  • August 2011
  • July 2011
  • June 2011
  • May 2011
  • April 2011
  • March 2011
  • February 2011
  • January 2011
  • December 2010
  • November 2010
  • October 2010
  • September 2010
  • August 2010
  • July 2010
  • June 2010
  • May 2010
  • April 2010
  • March 2010
  • February 2010
  • January 2010
  • December 2009
  • November 2009
  • October 2009
  • September 2009
  • August 2009
  • July 2009
  • June 2009
  • May 2009
  • April 2009
  • March 2009
  • Archives

    Post Categories