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I’m Looking for My Next Story

How searching court records, data and talking to people can spark an investigation. I hope.

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I’m writing today from my favorite coffee shop, where I’m camping out to organize my brain and my notes and all the lists of all the things I need to do. I want to tell you about this odd place I’m in right now, in between stories, that’s amazing, luxurious and anxiety-inducing all at once.

My editors have told me to take some time — editor’s note: but not too much time — exploring what I want to dig into next. I’ve long been interested in the issues of immigration and labor, so I’m kicking around a few ideas in that general realm. I don’t have a clear story idea at the moment, but I’m getting closer.

What’s that process like? For me, it’s casting a very wide net for sources, court records, data and other public records. I’m also reading what’s already been published on the topics, checking out books from the library and looking for documentaries and podcasts to give me ideas.

Talking to people is always the most inspiring and fulfilling part of the search. I recently spent a Saturday afternoon in a brightly lit second-story office with about 30 undocumented immigrant workers who told me about a range of traumatic experiences on the job, including pervasive sexual harassment and watching their co-workers pass out on the job. What they described made me cry on several occasions.

I don’t know if what they told me will become a story, but it has already informed my reporting. I filed a half-dozen or so public records requests with federal, state and local agencies to understand workplace conditions. Some of the responses have contained surprising little nuggets that have led to new questions, more records requests and possibly a different story altogether. I’m still figuring it out.

I’m also reaching out to advocates, lawyers, researchers, government officials and others to get their thoughts. I am trying to fill my Outlook calendar with in-person meetings (because meeting in person always feels better) about the issues they’re hearing about, what they’d like to know more about and who else I should talk with. It’s kind of a snowball effect. One person might connect me to another, who might tell me about somebody else, who might lead me to somebody with an unexpected perspective or story to tell. And that then triggers more records requests.

Photo taken by yours truly of my workstation at Brew Brew, a lovely coffee shop near the Avondale neighborhood on the Northwest Side of Chicago. (Melissa Sanchez/ProPublica Illinois)

We’ll see where all of this takes me. I’m trying to keep an open mind and not be too hard on myself for not having a big, amazing story proposal yet. It will come.

I’m also interested in hearing your ideas and tips for stories on immigrants, labor or anything else. Please reach out. I’m always happy to talk. You can reach me at [email protected], at the office at 708-967-5728 or on Signal at 872-444-0011.

Thanks for reading.

P.S. Does my search for a story sound like something you’d like to try? My colleague Vignesh Ramachandran and I are doing a Q&A with veteran journalist Peter Copeland about his new memoir, “Finding The News,” which is all about becoming a reporter, next Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at Columbia College in downtown Chicago. Here’s more info about the free event.

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