Strategies for good research
It’s the moment you’ve been dreaming of—you finally have that dream story idea or maybe you’ve already landed the assignment. You’ve got the coffee brewed, the laptop fired up, and your fingers are ready. There’s just one small problem: you’re not quite sure where to get the sources for your article.
As a writer, I often feel like I am more akin to some kind of digital stalker because the truth is, I am always in need of sources. No story is complete without a source, right? Here are some tips on how to ease the process of finding the best sources for your piece, discover the best answers, and what comes after the story.
Where to find sources
There are a few main strategies I use for finding sources for my articles:
ProfNet – ProfNet is a great, free resource that journalists can use to connect to sources, primarily through their PR representatives. I’ve found wonderful, respectable sources and been able to develop relationships through reps and the service is very easy to use.
HARO – HARO stands for Help a Reporter Out and that’s exactly what it can do for you. Similar to ProfNet, the site connects reporters to sources looking to share their expertise.
SheSource – Are you a female journalist looking to highlight female sources in your piece? Or are you a journalist searching for female sources with expertise in the topic you’re covering? SheSource connects journalists to female-only sources who are experienced working with the media.
Cold calling – Although online connection services are a helpful resource to have, they can also be tricky because the sources you will find are those who are actively seeking more publicity opportunities. So, in other words, there may be more authentic sources available for your piece. You can work to find the right sources for your article by “cold calling” sources based on your topic. For example, if you’re writing an article about environmentally-friendly initiatives, you could look up leading environmental policymakers and email them with a source request. I’ve found cold-calling or emailing to be generally very effective, so don’t be afraid to try it.
Social media call-outs – Many writers use social media call-outs to find sources or quotes but be careful: you don’t want to break the journalism 101 rule of sourcing people you have relationships with for articles.
What comes first: the source or the article?
It’s the question that every writer has, especially at the beginning of their career: do you find sources for your articles before you pitch the piece or do you pitch your piece and then find the sources?
The answer is, it depends. I know, that’s not super helpful, right? I am by no means an expert, but after making a living from writing for the past seven years, I have found that sourcing after I pitch tends to work well and save everyone from wasting their time. The only exception to my rule is I have an article idea that requires some pre-sourcing, like an exclusive interview or a key quote that will “make” the pitch. In those cases, simply make it clear to your source that you will be pitching the article around and you don’t have an assignment just yet. Most of the time, they are just fine with that.
How to interview sources
The standard advice for journalists is to always interview sources via phone and while that’s usually the preferred route because you can get more in-depth information from your source, I’ve always found that sometimes, it makes more sense to do what’s convenient for your source. If I have a busy doctor with knowledge in her field who can’t hop on the phone, I will absolutely email some questions over for her to answer if that’s easier for her.
Most importantly, however, when interviewing sources, do your research ahead of time so you can ask pointed questions and give them the opportunity to talk while resisting the urge to fill gaps in the conversation. If you wish to record your conversation, ask for your source’s permission first. Be sure to keep records and notes of all of your conversations with your sources, of course.
Keeping in touch with sources after your piece is published
Although it might seem difficult to do, especially if there is a long lead time between when you interview your sources and when the piece is actually published, sending your sources a link to the article or informing them where the piece will be published is a thoughtful thing to do. If your business is taking off, this is also a task you might consider outsourcing to a team member or virtual assistant, as it can be time-consuming, depending on how many articles you write or how many sources you use.
And what about when a piece is killed? You might feel guilty for wasting the source’s time, but unfortunately, killed pieces are out of your control. Send a note updating your source if a piece is killed and ask their permission if you can hang onto their interview for future opportunities that might arise.
Sources can make or break an article, so they are definitely an important part of writing. Just remember to be respectful of their time and free labor, do your best to stay concise, and keep sources updated as your piece progresses.
Chaunie Brusie is a labor and delivery nurse turned writer. She lives in Michigan with her husband, four young kids, and a flock of chickens. Find her at chauniebrusie.com.