Anecdotally speaking

The key to finding “real life” sources is to search broadly, keep lists and get out of the house.
By Kelly James-Enger | Published: October 29, 2013


illustration [Converted]-01Several months ago, a regional parenting magazine assigned me to write a piece on avoiding heart disease. A quick call to two local universities helped me locate a couple of medical experts, but I wanted more than an expert’s viewpoint. I wanted to hear from a mom who had experienced a heart attack.

Reaching out through social media produced no leads, so I contacted the American Heart Association and asked for its public affairs department. Within 24 hours, I had the name of a local mom who had suffered a heart attack when her younger child was just a few weeks old. Her story became not only the lead for the piece, but also a dramatic example of how heart disease can affect women.

Experts for articles are usually easy to locate, but finding anecdotal sources often takes more time and legwork. These strategies will help writers locate even hard-to-find “real people.”

Go online.

Sites such as helpareporter.com let you post your request and send it to more than 200,000 potential sources. (PR Newswire and SourceSleuth offer similar services.) Make it clear that you’re looking for an anecdotal source – a former homeowner who was foreclosed on, for instance – and not a financial expert to talk about the mortgage crisis so you’re not inundated with experts who want to be quoted.

Meetup.com is another useful site for writers. You can search for groups of people who share an interest and live in a geographical area, and contact the group’s leader, requesting leads. “I used Meetup.com to find sources for my OCD book, OCD Demystified,” says author, editor and ghostwriter Mary Mihaly. “There were 50 or so OCD-related Meetup support groups across the country, and I was looking for OCD sufferers with certain traits – someone who had harming obsessions, a parent of a pre-teen with OCD, someone with an OCD-related disorder such as skin-picking or hair-pulling.”

Reach out in more than one way.

Holly Ocasio Rizzo, a Southern California freelancer and former reporter and editor, has used a variety of methods to locate potential sources, including asking listserv owners to post requests; locating Facebook pages on the activity or topic; and reviewing speeches, reports and transcripts of congressional activity. She has also used LinkedIn to find a specific source – such as a Latino CEO who drank high-end scotch.

Rizzo casts her net wide to locate sources. “I still use a tried-and-true deadline reporting technique: When I research a story, I dig up as many sources as I can, build a list of them and prioritize their importance to the story,” she says. “The list saves time and panic later if a top source can’t be reached or turns out not to be what I expected.”

Get away from your computer.

Online resources are helpful, but I’ve found strong leads by chatting with fellow parents after school and working out at the Y. These “IRL” (in real life) contacts are often overlooked.

“One of my best ‘scores’ came from dropping by the historical society in the town of a person I was profiling. It had a file on the person that contained names of friends, relatives and associates. The person was a well-known writer, and one of the names in the file was of his high school English teacher,” says Rizzo. “The teacher was listed in a phone directory, so I called and got a nice anecdote from a regular person to add to the profile.”

Find the right group.

Many associations provide journalists with the names of members who are willing to speak with the media. Or look for relevant online communities or bulletin boards and post your request there. Just be sure to check the board’s rules first; some do not allow posts from journalists or outsiders.

Plan ahead.

Perhaps the best advice for freelancers is to know where you’ll find your sources before you pitch a story. “I tend not to pitch stories unless I already have a good idea of where I’m going to find sources,” says author Jennifer Lawler. “For example, for years I was involved in martial arts. If I wrote something related to martial arts, I had a zillion contacts in that community just arising from my interest and participation in it.”

Create your own list.

Longtime freelancer Lisa Collier Cool has an email list of about 500 people, including PR professionals, friends, relatives and prior sources, that she uses when looking for sources. I, too, maintain a list of friends, family members and other contacts throughout the country. I reach out to them when I’m looking for a particular kind of source – and I’m always willing to help a fellow writer in a source bind. This favor-swapping makes it easier for me to find that perfect person – well ahead of deadline.

Kelly James-Enger is the author of books including Six-Figure Freelancing: The Writer’s Guide to Making More Money, Second Edition.