The curious tale of a lack of curiosity

My friend Sian is a modest, self-effacing soul.

But last week, she had her 15 minutes of fame thrust upon her.

Every day, she buys a Starbucks coffee on her way to work. Every day, the baristas ask her name. And – virtually every day – they find a new and entirely innocuous but slightly annoying way of misspelling or mishearing it.

When this happens, Sian shares their scrawled efforts in a picture on Facebook.

She’s been doing this for months. It’s very entertaining, and Sian’s lovely way of spreading a little happiness to her many Facebook friends.

Dozens of them are fellow journalists.

But it was only last week that it struck one of them, who works for Wales Online, that there was a lovely story here.

Within a few hours, the caffeine container cock-ups had been picked up by Metro, the Mirror, Mashable, i100 and Buzzfeed – as well as the papers she has worked most recently for.

I kicked myself. My newsdesk successor kicked himself. I think Sian kicked herself.

Here was an entertaining piece right under our noses. And we hadn’t quite noticed it taking shape.

I was regaling a reporter with this vague tale of woe in a conversation where he mentioned the fact that he was now part of a squash ladder.

This is one of those odd set-ups where you get to play strangers every few weeks.

It suddenly occurred to me that there were the makings of a nice feature here, too.

These people who barely know each other, meeting up and sweating it out in a box room, and then disappearing again. Do they talk? Is it weird, compared to the fellowship of the five-a-side, or the banter of the badminton court? Do they ever meet for games off-piste? Do they ever become friends?

So there are two messages here, I think.

The first is an age-old one, but one which bears repetition.

There are stories and features everywhere, on every street, in every office, on every train, and in every pub. Everywhere we go, under our journalistic noses, as long as our antennae are switched on.

The second message is that we need to develop these stories, to squeeze the most out of them.

I didn’t notice any comment from Starbucks or any interviews with baristas, and not all the pieces invited readers to send their own examples of similar mix-ups.

A few months ago, there was a spate of stories about men who purport to create sand sculptures of dogs on urban pavements.

The suggestion was that the sculptures were never seen at either the start or finish stage, and that the whole thing was a bit of a con, spreading its tentacles across the country.

It was a good story, very shareable, very intriguing.

And yet, with a few notable exceptions – including I’m glad to say my friends at the Gloucester Citizen – there was little evidence that anyone had tried to speak to the sandpeople.

Here you go, make of this what you will, the stories seemed to say. We don’t know the truth, so we’ll leave it to you to make up your own minds.

Both Sian’s cocked-up coffee cups and the phantom pavement performer were real stories – part of the warp and weft of modern life.

But neither have been developed to their full potential with the trusted techniques of journalistic insight and enquiry.

There is, perhaps, a curious lack of curiosity at times.

I had an interesting discussion with a news editor the other day about his worries that the demand for instant content is eroding his reporters’ ability to think laterally and to properly develop stories.

There’s something in that, and I’m now planning some training accordingly.

If our mission – as it should be – is to tell people something they don’t already know, we need to work our stories harder.

Those stories may be lighter snacks compared to the heavy, well-prepared meal of investigative journalism.

But there’s no reason they shouldn’t be hearty, nourishing, surprising – and satisfying.






3 thoughts on “The curious tale of a lack of curiosity

  1. When I was training as a journalist, part of the course involved being sent into a city for an afternoon with a simple, open, brief – ‘bring back a story’. Nobody ever failed and the lesson that stories surround us all time has never left.

  2. Speaking for myself and, I’m certain, most of my colleagues, we aren’t losing the ability to think laterally but losing the will. What’s the point when there’s no time available to chase answers to even the most obvious questions? The online mindset we’ve all been coached in is ‘get it up and move on’.

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