A Story Is Born

It all starts with an email:

“Brexit will become official this coming week. What happens to the U.K. cases pending before the ECJ once Britain is no longer part of the EU? Might make a good analysis piece.”

One of the editors I work with has a great idea. This comes in late on Friday night. I love the idea and start chewing over in my head some questions I would like to answer. What happens to pending cases? What happens during the transition period? What happens to enforcement?

“Fifteen Stories” by cogdogblog

First thing on Monday morning, I reply to that email and say “I’m on it.” I say I will aim for a Thursday afternoon deadline (Brexit is now scheduled to happen on Friday.)

The next step is to start researching. I suspect other people have written about this. I Google “ECJ Brexit” as well as a number of related searches. I find some articles, some blog posts, some radio interviews. I look at who wrote them or who was interviewed in them and I Google those names. I also draft an email to someone I know who works for a legal organisation to see if they have any names in mind.

Then I turn to Google scholar, and after about an hour of reading academic abstracts, I compile a list of potential interviewees. I send out six emails. I more or less copy and paste the same email, changing the names and triple-checking the references to make sure everything pertains to the person I am actually emailing.

Then go make myself a cup of tea.

My friend emails me back with two more names who I also email. One of the first academics I’ve reached out to suggested someone else to speak with so I send them an email. That brings my total to eight potential interviewees.

A few hours later, I got my first real reply and schedule a phone interview with a researcher for Tuesday morning. An hour after that, I get an email from someone declining to speak with me because they are too busy, but they link me to a few more articles they’ve written on the subject. I copy those URLs into my research document. A few minutes later, I get another positive response and schedule another interview for Wednesday afternoon.

I take a good read through the links I’ve been sent and the other research I find. And that concludes Monday.

First thing on Tuesday morning, I interview my first source for the story. He is an academic and he had sent some other materials he had written on the subject, so before the interview, I read through those and make some notes. We speak for about 45 minutes and he brings up a few more things that I note down to ask other sources.

Following that interview, I research a few more questions that I have and send a few emails to
press people at the ECJ and some NGOs to clarify some points. Then I take a break from this and work on a few other things.

I got a few of my questions answered by Tuesday afternoon, but I still only have two positive responses from eight interview requests. That’s pretty standard, but I have a deadline and I need to figure out if I have to hunt down some more folks.

At this point, I’m looking for a few more sources to cross-check what other people are telling me, include a diversity of viewpoints and to ensure I get some solid quotes. I send out reminders to three people who I am especially keen to talk to.

Over the course of Wednesday, I have three more interviews. Each lasts around an hour. For each, I prepare for about 20 – 30 minutes beforehand. And after each one, I have a few more things to research. This is my entire day.

I finish with my last two interviews. In the end, I’ve spoken to six people. Two of those interviews are what’s called “on background.” They don’t want their names to be used in the story. Since this isn’t an investigative piece, it isn’t really about protecting someone. This is often more political. A lower-level person doesn’t want to upstage a senior person at their organization. Where the person works frowns upon them giving interviews. It’s a hot button issue and the person doesn’t want to get a bunch of hate mail. Sometimes it is as simple as not wanting the added workload of actually looking at the story after it’s published.

I’m finished with interviews at about 10:00 and I start writing.

There’s a lot of Googling in writing. By 13:30, I’ve searched for “protocol on ireland and northern ireland text,” “good friday agreement border brexit,” “the European Coal and Steel Communities,” and, my personal favorite, “what time is Brexit?”

(23:00 London time is the answer.)

I take a break, get some lunch and make some tea.

I’m back at 14:15 and I read through the story and send a few messages to double-check parts. Then I read through the entire thing and start to shift some paragraphs around, looking for the best flow.

At 15:30, I take another break and do some administrative things, like check my email and file my expense reports. I get back at it half an hour later, edit for typos, then copy the text into another spell checker, just to see what’s been missed.

At 17:18, I email in my draft, along with some notes and some photo suggestions.

My editor picks up the story and two hours later, it’s published.