As a freelance writer, it’s rare that an editor will approach you with a story idea and ask you to execute it. Usually, you need to come up with an idea, do some advance research and reporting, and then pitch it to an editor and hope they commission it.
Of all the skills necessary for a freelancer, the one I struggle the most with is finding those the story ideas. Once I have a good idea, I don’t have a problem pitching it, I love the reporting and researching, and I enjoy the writing process. But coming up with an idea that I’m interested in, that hasn’t been done before (at least from the angle that I want to take) and that an editor will actually pay for? Not so easy.
Perhaps ironically, given its sometimes questionable reliability, several of my story ideas have been inspired by Wikipedia.
When I need to look up a person or event, Wikipedia is often the first place I turn, not because it is a definitive source (although it often does provide a decent summary), but because articles there generally link to more respected sources and provide a decent starting point for further research.
But sometimes a Wikipedia entry doesn’t provide much detail for a given subject, or mentions something about them in passing that isn’t further explained. If it interests me, sometimes I start digging and discover that the reason there isn’t more detail on Wikipedia is because not much has been written on that particular topic.
An example: When I was working as a Formula One columnist for Bleacher Report, I would frequently use drivers’ Wikipedia pages to quickly check statistics or records of past seasons, as these were generally reliable. Any time I looked at Jim Clark’s entry, I was always fascinated by the fact that he won his last three grands prix. Only one other driver in F1 history had won their last race—usually, even top drivers retire after their skills have faded or after a few seasons in uncompetitive cars…or they are killed the grand prix that becomes their last (at least back in Clark’s era).
— B/R Football (@brfootball) April 7, 2015
But Clark was killed in a Formula Two race at the age of just 32 and at the peak of his career. Plenty has been written about that fateful F2 race, but not much about his last F1 race, the 1968 South African Grand Prix. At the time, it was just another race. True, he had broken the record for most career victories, but everyone assumed there were plenty more to come. And then he was gone. Naturally, the focus went to his final race and the mystery surrounding his death (there were no cameras at the part of the circuit where he crashed and the car was destroyed, so piecing the accident together was not easy). Even later biographies of Clark did not cover his last F1 race in great detail. But I wanted to know more, so I pitched the story to my editor and he bought it, my first long-form feature.
Another time, I was reading about the Hubble Space Telescope and Wikipedia had a sentence or two about a program that allowed amateur astronomers to use the massive scope for their own, pre-approved research projects. That brief mention became this story for Vice. (Later, in an amusing twist, someone even footnoted my story as a reference on the Wikipedia page.)
— Motherboard (@motherboard) April 24, 2015
And that brings us to a new story I have coming out for The Athletic in the next few days.
Ever heard of Scotty Davidson? I hadn’t either until I was clicking around on Wikipedia one day reading articles about athletes who were killed in the First World War.
Davidson was one of the best hockey players of his era and led the Toronto Blueshirts to the city’s first Stanley Cup championship, then enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force and was killed in France. There wasn’t much about him on Wikipedia and as I dug around more, I realized that much of what had been written about his death was wrong (and not just the stuff on web).
If you want to read the true story of Toronto’s first Stanley Cup hero, well, I’ll link to it here as soon as it’s out. (Edit: Here it is!)
Until then, you can check out his Wikipedia page.