Your editor calls on Monday with a frantic, last-minute plea: Can you knock out an article by the end of the week? If so, he'll pay you double his normal rate. You have the time, the energy and the motivation, but you lack that most precious of journalistic commodities: sources.
In my 20 years as a newspaper and news-service writer, I've learned that success is often determined by whom I can reach for interviews before my deadline. If you have a telephone, a personal computer and Internet access, you can master the art of hunting down sources in a hurry.
1. Discover who's been quoted on the topic before
This trick's so old it predates copy boys and Linotype. But it's become much easier with the help of personal computers and online article archives.
I usually start with LexisNexis (www.nexis.com), a searchable, international database of newspaper, magazine and news service articles that goes back decades. If you can't afford the hefty price tag for a subscription, try the king of search engines, Google.com. Google's "news" feature enables you to search 4,500 media outlets worldwide for free. The only drawback is that the archive spans just the past 30 days. If you need to dig further back than that, use the standard Google search option, which will yield you a mix of news stories, Web sites, subject snippets and just about everything else on the Internet.
If you need local sources, tap into the archives of your town's daily newspaper. Just a few years ago, that meant a trip to the local library and hours spent poring over microfilm. But most newspapers are now searchable online—find them at NewsLink.org. You might have to pay for articles more than a few days old, but the resulting leads are likely well worth the fee.
2. Begin your own source file
Once you find a good source, your index finger may be twitching to make that first phone call. Try to resist that temptation and instead begin building up your source file.
Every journalist has his or her own method of organization. Because my memory of last names is so inconsistent and I think topically, I organize my sources by subject matter. If an article subject is new to me, I simply make a new computer file. I write mostly about social issues, philanthropy and religion, so my source files include such subject files as "Islam," "faith-based initiatives," "gay marriage" and "corporate philanthropy." The advantage of a topical filing system is that when I later return to a subject, sources I used in a previous story are right at my fingertips. Some of my source files have grown so large that if I printed them out, they'd be more than 100 pages.
I know what you're thinking: This sounds tedious. And before the age of personal computers, it was. But the modern-day wonders of the "copy" and "paste" commands have streamlined the process to a few keyboard clicks. You can build up source files in no time at all. Now, when I find a potential source online, I simply highlight the person's name and title, copy the article and paste it into my source file.
3. Dig deep for more experts
Common Source-finding Fears Dispelled
"I don't have time to find the right sources." You can hunt down a handful of sources in less than an hour if you have Internet access. And many modern-day writing professionals do, especially those who work for newspaper and wire services. If they can pull it off, so can you. Don't let time be an excuse, but don't neglect it, either. Start tracking down sources as soon as you get an assignment. "I don't have any connections in this field or industry." That's OK. You can quickly line up sources in a particular field via focused online searches. You don't have to be an expert in any particular subject area; you just have to be a whiz at finding those experts. Professional journalists go hunting for new subject sources every day. "I don't know where to begin." Don't be intimidated by the vast expanse of knowledge you're sorting through. Remember: Your goal is to find a significant number of legitimate, reliable sources, not necessarily to find the ultimate, world-champion expert on a particular topic. A focused online search will yield a range of authorities, and you can weed through the findings to discover exactly the type of expert you're seeking. Break the task down into smaller subject areas and don't get discouraged by the occasional dead-end lead. Keep digging and you're bound to make the worthwhile connections you need to pull your article together. —Jenny Wohlfarth
The next step is to take your reporting beyond previously published articles. Not surprisingly, the Internet is the handiest place to start your deeper search.
For a story about philosophical counseling—a movement to tap into the wisdom of history's great thinkers for personal guidance—I did a general search on Google and discovered a book with an intriguing title: Plato Not Prozac! by Lou Marinoff.
A search combining "Lou Marinoff" and "philosophical counseling" brought me to the Web site of the American Philosophical Practitioners Association (www.appa.edu): the mother lode. It not only listed Marinoff and his e-mail address, but also provided the names of four APPA board members, eight advisers and 11 scholars practicing philosophical counseling abroad. The entire process required only a few clicks of my mouse.
Listserves, which are basically e-mail-based discussion groups, can be another treasure trove of sources, particularly when the subject is highly specialized. (You can find online discussion groups at www.groups.google.com.) For a story examining the psychology and motivation of people who seek thrill rides, I joined a listserve of roller-coaster enthusiasts. In an e-mail I posted, I identified myself as a reporter looking for people willing to describe what draws them to this crazy, up-and-down experience. I received half a dozen e-mail responses from people willing to be interviewed for the story.
Another dependable site for finding expert sources is ProfNet (www.profnet.com). Now in its 11th year, ProfNet is the oldest and most reliable of several Internet-based services designed to help journalists find sources. Scoured daily by more than 1,000 public relations agencies eager to get their clients' names in print, ProfNet has expanded beyond universities to include experts from corporations, nonprofit organizations and government agencies.
The key to ProfNet success is crafting a query that's broad enough to get a variety of timely responses, but specific enough to weed out an avalanche of useless publicity seekers. The beauty of ProfNet and its imitators is you can take five minutes to write a query at 9 a.m. and, within hours, have dozens of replies from potential sources stacked up in your inbox, some of them providing quotes you can immediately plug into your story. For a list of other expert source finders—including SourceNet, ExpertSource and AllExperts.com—go to AssignmentEditor.com and scroll down to "Find Experts," which provides a list of handy links.
While these services are advertised as expert finders, I've also used them to find "ordinary" sources, such as parents trying to monitor what their children see on television and the Internet. For that story, my best sources, found through ProfNet, were two mothers working for public relations agencies—reminding me that PR folks are potential sources, too.
4. Compile phone numbers and e-mail addresses
Once you have a virtual wheel-barrow full of names, organized in subject folders and safely stored on your hard drive (and backed up onto disks), you can start compiling digits and e-mail addresses to make those vital connections. Here's where Google, along with those handy copy and paste commands, can assist you again.
Highlight a name and title from your list, copy and paste it into the Google search box and hit enter. You'll see Web sites mentioning your source, ranked by popularity. Add the words "phone" or "e-mail" to your search and you're likely to hit pay dirt.
If you can't find contact information for your source that way, let your fingers do the clicking—via online phone directories. Popular ones include Ultimatepages.com, WhitePages.com, Switchboard.com and AnyWho.com. Again, AssignmentEditor.com, founded by the managing editor of a Chicago TV station, is another source for helpful links like these.
5. Contact your sources
Before you pick up the phone to connect with your newly found sources, consider the e-mail route first, which can be cheaper and more efficient than leaving a dozen messages on answering machines. I often create a master e-mail message explaining who I am, what publication I'm writing for, what my questions are and when I need a response. Don't forget that last detail: Just like writers, sources procrastinate, and a firm deadline keeps them on track.
I tend to send mass e-mails when I need to cast a wide net for non-expert sources. For example, when I wrote an article about the impact of hard liquor TV ads on children, I sent a mass e-mail to most of my address book, stating that I was looking for parents and children willing to be interviewed. I also invited recipients to forward my e-mail to anyone else who could help. I sent that e-mail to perhaps 200 recipients and received only four solid responses. But those responses gave me what I needed for my story. It's a numbers game, the same game "spammers" use to send e-mail advertisements. The risk you run is alienating people with your solicitation, so be careful not to use it too often.
When you do send a mass e-mail, you can avoid the lackluster laundry-list quality by typing your own e-mail address in the "To" field, and then typing all your recipients' e-mail addresses in the "Bcc" (blind carbon copy) field. When a recipient sees your e-mail, it will appear as if it's a private exchange between you and him, with a copy sent to you—not an impersonal mass mailing. This also protects the privacy of people who don't want their addresses widely distributed.
And whether you contact your sources by e-mail or phone, be sure to ask them politely to recommend anyone else with similar expertise who could contribute to your story. If each source recommends only one additional source, you'll reap double dividends for your effort. You'll have an abundance of sources in time to meet not only this assignment deadline, but also any future ones on a similar subject.
This article appeared in the March 2003 issue of Writer's Digest.