How do you come up with a story idea?

Let’s pitch being recruited into a sex cult.

Journalism is too opaque and misunderstood. Chills gives a behind-the-scenes look at how dangerous investigative journalism gets made. 

Allison Mack of NXIVM cult notoriety emailed me a lot of nonsense words in 2014. Here she is, after a 2018 bail hearing in New York. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

When I started journalism grad school in May 2001, I did it because I loved to write. I quickly learned, however, that I had no idea how to report. For years, I’d been writing all day, every day, on subways, in libraries, during classes, on streets — I always had a hardcover notebook in my bag, in which I recorded the mundane and the absurd, the observed and the projected. Mainly, all my scribbles were about real things I saw and heard, yet it felt as if nothing actually existed until I wrote it down. 

During college and after, I knew I wanted to write — hopefully for a living — but I didn’t know what form that should take. I tried writing fiction, but discovered that I am not at all good at making up stories out of nothing. Other people’s experiences, though, I found endlessly fascinating.

There was a bottomless pool of stories everywhere: a strange exchange at a coffee shop, a suspiciously empty bodega in my neighborhood that somehow remained in business. (Had to be a front, I thought. What a great “This American Life” segment that would be: A look behind the various seemingly innocuous Brooklyn shops like that one that were likely, secretly, fronts for the mafia or drug gangs. Don’t ask me what I planned to do about the extreme danger involved in reporting such a thing. I wasn’t thinking that far ahead.) The world contained more stories than anyone could tell in a lifetime. I just had to pay attention.

At the same time, I felt particularly bad at coming up with concrete ideas. It took a number of years until I truly understood what makes a good read or listen vs. what is just a simple recounting of ideas or events — or, worse, just a topic, with no specific angle. I’d learned in J-school to find a “news peg,” meaning what we hang the story on: Is there a connected event upcoming in the news that will make the article relevant to readers? For feature stories you don’t always need a peg, but it helps.

New writers and journalists often ask how I come up with stories. It turns out that this is a process that, unlike my ability to actually do the stories, I don’t fully understand. The more I try to articulate how I do it, the harder the answer is to grasp. After being a journalist for so long, thinking up article ideas feels like breathing — it’s a necessary, autonomic action underpinning every moment of a journalist’s life. Talking to sources and cultivating expertise on particular beats is a self-sustaining, generative existence. You just have to learn to recognize a story when you see it.

So when I came across some years-old emails accidentally a few weeks ago, my amygdala sparked. There was a story to be told from them, but I wasn’t sure exactly what it was. 

Here’s what I found:

Actress Allison Mack — now of NXIVM “sex cult” notoriety — had emailed me in 2014 with lots of fluffy, feel-good words that, at the time, seemed innocuous, but in retrospect seem to belie an effort to recruit me into a group under the NXIVM umbrella.  

Esquire later described the cult as “a barbaric organization that abused its members emotionally and physically,” though the group “had been operating for nearly two decades under the guise of offering self-help deprogramming to heiresses, Hollywood actors and powerful CEOs.” It took multiple survivors sharing their stories in the national news media, beginning with TheNew York Times, for the crimes at NXIVM to be revealed.

The founder of the cult, Keith Raniere, was convicted in June 2019 of racketeering, sex trafficking, conspiracy, forced labor, identity theft, sexual exploitation of a child and possession of child pornography, among other charges. He got 120 years in prison. 

Mack, known for her role on the TV show “Smallville,” pled guilty as a willing accomplice of Raniere’s. She was sentenced to three years for racketeering and racketeering conspiracy. The judge said she had “recruited and groomed” women as sexual partners for Raniere.

I had no memory of Mack’s emails. When the NXIVM story broke in 2017, I remembered that she and I had communicated at some point on Twitter, though I didn’t remember why or what it had been about. But emails? Nope.

Mack wrote to me during a painful time in which I was going through a divorce and dealing with PTSD from work. I’d just returned from a difficult reporting trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, where I had spoken with rape and torture survivors.

In her emails, Mack told me that she worked with an organization that was “a global community of like-minded women from all different backgrounds who are seeking to redefine femininity from the inside out.” A bunch of nonsense words. I guess I read what I wanted to though, because I told her I liked the idea of meeting a group of strong, supportive women. 

There were fewer than 10 exchanges between us. Throughout her messages, Mack appealed to me as someone she saw as like her. She spoke to me as if she knew me, which she didn’t. And she went for my ego, writing that I “seem like woman who is not afraid of epic circumstances and gains strength through adversity, which I greatly admire.”

I let her in a little — maybe because I was struggling, and her con let me fill her empty words with the meaning I needed. I told her how draining my work was. “It’s a tricky thing,” I wrote, “remaining connected enough to the painful bits of life to be able to express them in ways that hopefully resonate with people without ruining myself for the next pieces.” To some extent, her tactics, which I now see as obvious bullshit, worked.

In any case, the exchange never led anywhere. I was caught up in my work and stopped responding. The emails lay dormant for years — long enough that they have germinated into what could be a good story. But what should it be, exactly?

I tell all folks starting out: A topic is not a story. As in, yes, the pandemic is fascinating, but what specific story are you going to write about it? Has anyone written it before, and, if so, how will your piece be different?

This time, a friend approached me with the story idea to pitch after I tweeted about the emails. I liked her angle, did a little research on her suggestion, pitched it and am now reporting for the article, which will run in a major women’s magazine. (Will explain the details soon. See below.)

Since so many of you are curious about how journalists stay creative, I’d like to offer my process up as an exercise. Use this as a chance to hone your own skills as someone who publishes journalism or wants to, or as someone who wants to better understand how journalism comes together.

I’ll host an open thread here on Thursday from 3-4 p.m. Eastern so we can discuss your ideas in real time. Or/and we can talk about my own story and how I’m getting started on it.

You’ve got the basic info I started with, so: What are the questions you’d ask to get closer to finding that story kernel? Do you have all the information you need to answer those questions, or do you need to do some research? Are the emails a story in themselves, or are they the jumping off point of a larger story? 

There is usually not just one answer. Different approaches may work. In fact, once you have the story, more questions arise.

Answer these questions immediately with the response that feels most natural to you. Then consider, for each, what the story might look like if you did the opposite.

Will you pitch a first-person or reported article? A combination? What outlets will you target? Which publication will you approach first? Are you open to adjusting your idea for a particular outlet or for a particular editor? Do you want to offer possible variations in the pitch? Can you tell the editor what kind of sources you will speak to?

I was going to say to not think about this like homework, but I realized long ago that I’d chosen a profession in which the job requires constant homework. So: Get used to it. It’s homework by choice, at least.

Talk to you Thursday.

Have a great week!

On Chills, there are no ads, and no outside influences because of it. This is a subscriber-supported space that gives a behind-the-scenes look at how risky investigative journalism gets made, from a journalist with 20 years of experience. Read Chills for free, or subscribe for bonus content like this. You can sign up here. Thank you for supporting independent journalism.