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Sniffing out Washington stories in a coffee house

Some stories require a reporter to go to a specific place, a crime scene, a school, a sports arena or a government office. Some stories, sadly, get reported in the worst possible place -- the newsroom, where phone calls and email can never really capture the nuance of an event or the emotional reality of a character. But the best stories come from the most unexpected places.

There's a truism in journalism that says stories are everywhere, that every person contains the material for a story that can reveal to readers some essential truth about who we are and the pressing questions of our time.

To test that theory, six Washington Post reporters this Wednesday will fan out to coffee houses in Virginia, Maryland and the District to find stories that tell us something about the way we live today. These may be stories about individual people who are struggling to make ends meet, or to find love or happiness, or to map out their futures. Or they may be stories about places and events that shape our lives. Each reporter is tasked with finding a story in one room, one gathering spot. The reporters have just a few hours to identify their story, report it out, write it up and send it in to their editor.

All day long, you'll be able to follow their progress -- or send suggestions -- in real-time
here on the blog or via Twitter (we'll use the hash tag #storylab). By evening, all six stories will be posted here on Story Lab.

Then Story Lab readers really take over. You can read the stories and then choose the one that best captures life in these parts, the one that most effectively tells some important truth about how we live now. By your vote, you will choose which of the stories becomes the main ingredient in the Coffee House Newsroom package that will then be published in The Washington Post in print and online.

After this experiment, we'll be asking you what was missing from these stories--what themes, issues, realities we didn't get to in this first round of stories. We'll then use your suggestions to assign reporters to another, more targeted set of stories.

This week's experiment will take place at the coffee houses listed below -- please feel free to drop by and talk to the reporters on Wednesday starting at 9 a.m. Maybe they'll choose to tell your story, or maybe they'll be more intrigued by that quiet, lonely woman sitting over in the corner, the one whose story tells us much we need to know....

View Story Lab: Coffee house stories in a larger map

St. Elmo's Coffee Pub, 2300 Mount Vernon Avenue, Alexandria, VA
Caribou Coffee, 11947 Grand Commons Avenue, Fairfax, VA
Java Shack, 2507 N. Franklin Rd., Arlington, VA
Starbucks, 121 Market St., Kentlands, Gaithersburg, MD
The Coffee Bar, 1203 Stamp Student Union, University of Maryland, College Park, MD
Big Chair Coffee, 2122 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE, Washington, DC
Ebenezers Coffeehouse, 201 F St. NE, Washington, DC

By Marc Fisher  | July 26, 2010; 10:21 AM ET
Categories:  Local Life  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Story pick: Finding evidence of child abuse
Next: Story pick: How the Grim Sleeper got his name


If one is struggling to make ends meet, one should not be drinking coffee in an (overpriced) coffee shop. But perhaps that is why the person is finding it difficult to stay afloat financially.

Posted by: cossack2 | July 27, 2010 9:29 AM | Report abuse

You're not going to find the stories you really want, or the stories I really want, in the coffee houses - how out of touch. I'm middle class, my husband has gone back to school - and we haven't bought a $3 coffee in about eight years!! Why don't you send your reporters to a laundry mat, a work force center, a local park, a bus stop, the library or maybe the $1.50 movie theatre? People who are just trying to survive this economic disaster - living on $200 a week for gas for two cars, groceries, and other bills, after rent, utilities and health insurance have been paid for (cars paid off) - these are the places you will find them and these are the stories I want to hear - about people like me right now.

Posted by: paulaann25 | July 27, 2010 10:23 AM | Report abuse

Coffee houses? Go to any grocery store where the haves and have-nots gather if but for a short time. Talk to a cross-section of life there. Or a pharmacy where a guy tells the clerk to only supply two weeks of pills as a full month is just too costly. Go to bus stops where I and many others "catch the early bus" (credit: Rev. Jackson, 1988). Go to both low-end and high-end department stores where one family fits the kids with a wonderful wardrobe for fall. But another is just buying underwear on sale, if you please. Check out lots of small businesses of all type and nature to take a full measure of what an economy that is purportedly beginning to grow (or not) looks like. For real. In real time.
Visit the VA hospital in my town (Los Angeles) and I can show you the depth of our commitment to injured vets. Not inside, but outside when they leave the facility to what is, for 6,200+ in this city alone, another night of homelessness.
Then, go to hospital lobbies for slices of real life, Main Streeters trying to get some healthcare to simply live. To simply stay alive before reform kills them. Check in and talk to non-vets and regular people and families kicked to the side of the road people who are sick and in need of acute care but have no insurance and will die (thank you for no public option and give up selling a high risk pool at $24,000 per year in California). Talk to people who want their kids to go to college but have to tell them that they cannot attend as the state only wants kids who can pay high tuition with cashola preferred. Visit the fired school teachers whose life missions were cut short by politics and Duncan's follies and illogical programs that leave teachers, kids, parents behind. Always behind. Of all races. Stand outside libraries now closed because the rich must have second homes and Mercedes. Visit city halls on a Friday afternoon. Wait! They won't be there, particularly in summer.

But coffee houses? That's a cross-section? Not. Silly. Even a left-coast leftist like myself can safely observe that your elitism is obscuring what you, I take it, hope to be a view of Main Street. Coffee houses?

Posted by: youngsag | July 27, 2010 4:40 PM | Report abuse

Forgive me, but coffee houses for pity's sake?
That should provide a "cross section" of a single stratum.

As others have eloquently pointed out, the "real" stories are on the street or at the laundromat.
I find your premise insensitive.

Posted by: NellieB | July 27, 2010 5:30 PM | Report abuse

Amen about coffee houses not being truly representative of a place for stories. It may capture most of the upper middle class folks who work in politics/lobbying/media. But there's more to DC than that, as any true local can tell you.

It's still a good idea, though. So here are some alternative suggestions:

-- Thrift store

-- Diners (yes, there are a few left in DC area)

-- Unemployment/Job training offices

-- Hospital ER waiting rooms

-- Police stations

-- Public park and/or pool

Posted by: ablasko73 | July 27, 2010 9:31 PM | Report abuse

Frankly, I've had enough personal "human interest" stories about people hurt by the economy. I hope the reporters can find subjects of greater community/political interest. A coffee shop seems like a good place for a reporter to hear and evaluate leads.

Posted by: pundito | July 28, 2010 1:26 AM | Report abuse

I respectfully disagree with you, pundito. Survival is not simply "human interest." People struggling to stay alive goes beyond "human interest."

Posted by: paulaann25 | July 28, 2010 10:43 AM | Report abuse

This will lead to a great series of pieces on bloggers and recent graduates tidying up their wicked screenplays. Yawn City, USA.

Posted by: Jerkstore | July 28, 2010 12:03 PM | Report abuse

I think that "people not being able to make ends meet" is just an example of the type of story that may work. I'm sure not all the stories will be about the economy. I think it's cool that the Post is looking for inspiration somewhere outside the newsroom

Posted by: stc1926 | July 28, 2010 12:12 PM | Report abuse

If the point of the experiment is to go somewhere and FIND good stories, haven't you just ruined the exercise by publishing the coffee houses and suggesting people come by to tell their stories? There's a big difference between going to a place and randomly observing in search of a story and having those stories COME to you. Why not just stay in the office and have people call you on the phone at that point?

Posted by: thebizrunner | July 28, 2010 1:06 PM | Report abuse

Try having a reporter talk to people on a METRO train/platform. . . even a busline
(30's, 70, 80, 90, 16's, REX, C, F, J, Q, R, S, X, Y, Z-lines.

But I'm sure WaPo wont be able to reprint the responses. This IS a family paper.

Posted by: Robbnitafl | July 28, 2010 1:52 PM | Report abuse

Agree that Metro would be better for this, and further agree that a slice of life in DC is someone who is working after 9 a.m. and not at the coffeehouse! But given that it's a little late for process comments I would just caution reporters about not trying to stretch lame or cliche narratives into stories (I echo the preemptive warning against stories about bloggers.) One day of being there isn't equivalent to a local reporter hanging out in the coffeeshop, laundromat, metro on a daily basis as part of their job duties). That said, I think it's good the Post is trying to have some initiatives like this. Generally I find the local reporting to be high-caliber and very useful.

On another note, my preference for a local story would be one about how loudly people listen to their ipods in Metro cars, especially during rush hour. Violates the spirit (though not the letter) of the stereo ban and is something incredibly difficult to police informally (much easier to ask someone to scoot over than to ask them to remove the headphones and turn the volume down because you're annoyed).

Another story would be how much empty corporate real estate there is downtown and whether this will be an "office expansion-less" recovery as people begin to telecommute more often in the private sector.

Posted by: PBandJ | July 28, 2010 2:17 PM | Report abuse

A really great coffeehouse to visit in the Kentlands is Chloe's. It's on Main Street near the Main Street Pavilion and the Kentlands Manor. There are lots of interesting people of all ages that come there. It's also a great way to support local businesses as opposed to Starbucks.

Posted by: ujavitiz | July 28, 2010 2:40 PM | Report abuse

┬┤There's a truism in journalism that says stories are everywhere, that every person contains the material for a story that can reveal to readers some essential truth about who we are and the pressing questions of our time.┬┤

Do you really think you tell random stories when you are telling people to come to these 6 places? Otherwise it would be a really interesting experiment!

Posted by: letterbox | July 29, 2010 1:59 AM | Report abuse

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