The role of serendipity in the story ideation process of print media journalists

Matthew Bird-Meyer (School of Information Science and Learning Technologies, University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri, USA)
Sanda Erdelez (School of Library and Information Science, Simmons University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA)
Jenny Bossaller (School of Information Science and Learning Technologies, University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri, USA)

Journal of Documentation

ISSN: 0022-0418

Publication date: 9 September 2019



The purpose of this paper is to build upon the studies of journalism from an LIS perspective by exploring and differentiating the purposive behavior of newspaper reporters from their serendipitous encounters with information that lead to new story ideas. This paper also provides a path toward pedagogical improvements in training the modern journalism workforce in being more open to creative story ideas.


This study utilized semi-structured telephone interviews. Participants were recruited via e-mail after collecting contact information through the Cision database. The study sample was drawn from newspaper reporters who work at or freelance for the top 25 metropolitan newspapers in the USA, in terms of circulation size, based on data from the Alliance for Audited Media. A total of 15 participants were interviewed.


This paper provides insight into the story ideation process of journalists in that the study participants generally do not think about how they are coming up with story ideas as much as they are striving to place themselves in situations where, based on their experience and interests, they know they are more likely to encounter a good idea. Each encounter proved meaningful in some powerful fashion, which speaks to the historical importance of serendipity in achieving breakthroughs and discoveries in a wide variety of fields.

Research limitations/implications

The sampling frame for this study was relatively small, representing 8 percent of the total number of working newspaper journalists from the top 25 newspapers in the USA, in terms of circulation size. Therefore, the findings are not generalizable to the entire population of journalists in this country.

Practical implications

The findings point to the importance of a prepared mind in facilitating serendipitous episodes. In the case of journalism, that means developing a heightened news sense and cultivating routines where they place themselves in trigger-rich environments. Pedagogically, journalism education must include courses in creative storytelling to help train the modern newspaper workforce in an ever-expanding and competitive media landscape. These courses, ideally paired with techniques and models from the field of information science and learning technologies, could help train young journalists in methods that enhance their ability to identify, seek and pursue serendipitous stories.


This paper fulfills a need in journalism studies in finding variability in news routines by utilizing an interdisciplinary approach that combines journalism studies and library and information science models to probe how journalists encounter ideas incidentally. Previous research in this area has focused on how news consumers serendipitously encounter information. This paper takes a fresh approach to explore how creative ideas are encountered serendipitously in the construction of news.



Bird-Meyer, M., Erdelez, S. and Bossaller, J. (2019), "The role of serendipity in the story ideation process of print media journalists", Journal of Documentation, Vol. 75 No. 5, pp. 995-1012.

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