My favorite part of writing a story is the research. I know that I may be in the minority, but to me, the beginning of a project is like a treasure hunt – and the treasure is a page full of obscure facts and the names of good sources. Perhaps I enjoy this stage in the writing process because I began my career as a researcher in the Washington, D.C., bureau of the Sunday Times of London, where for three years I was responsible for fulfilling research requests from correspondents throughout the world. This was over 20 years ago, before Google and the internet as we know it; I had to use the now-antiquated system of Lexis-Nexis, the telephone, and my own ingenuity to find sources and information.
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Doing research today is a whole different ball game. Not only do we have Google, but Alexa and Siri will gladly do your research with a voice command – look ma, no hands! The biggest game changer, however, is social media, which enables searches by name, industry, or subject. Not only is social media a great way to initially identify a potential source, but reading feeds and posts is also a good way to determine if the individual is the right source for your story.
Beyond that, there are myriad ways to track down precisely the expert you need to make your story a success. Below are my best tips on how to find, contact, and follow-up with sources.
Cast a wide net
Let’s face it: Everything starts with Google. Do a general search to get a feel for your subject. Look for other articles published on the subject in the past year, and make note of experts quoted. Then search those experts by name to determine if they are right for your piece. Follow secondary threads or sources found in the articles. But don’t just repeat someone else’s work; take the story further.
Narrow the scope
Once I’ve done my initial search, I go straight to LinkedIn and do another search by industry, profession, or subject. Zero in on experts, and look for those with a lot of followers. Read their feeds to see if they are a good fit, and keep an eye out for published work. Then go back to Google and search the individual by name. If they are the right source for the story, jump back on LinkedIn and send them a message.
Repeat the process with Twitter.
Go back to school
An often-overlooked source of expertise is academia; many professors or teachers are top authorities in their fields, and they are usually happy to share their knowledge. You might already have some ideas about which colleges or universities to approach from your initial search. If not, choose a well-respected institution and search the faculty by subject. Read the biographies and look for recent research or publications. The communications or media page will also often have a list of staff available for interviews. In either case, I recommend contacting the expert directly to save time.
For medical experts, the same process can be repeated with large hospitals (especially those connected to a medical school). Even more so than universities, I would avoid communications offices at all costs. Go straight to the source, literally.
Don’t forget professional organizations…
Sometimes we overlook the most obvious answer to a question, but if you are looking to speak to a plumber, you need to go where plumbers congregate (or clowns or hypnotists or dominatrixes, for that matter), and that’s in associations. These groups exist to promote and advocate for their industry, and they are usually all too happy to speak to journalists. My only caution here is that if it is a small group, they may not have a full-time staff, so it may take them a while to respond to queries.
…Or trade journals
As a writer, you probably already know that there is a publication for just about every industry, hobby, and fetish imaginable, and these can be a great resource. Oftentimes, large professional organizations’ websites will link their trade journal, so start there. Once you are on the journal’s site, search by subject or simply read the most recent postings to find experts in the field.
Yes, you should reinvent the wheel
Have you ever noticed that there are certain experts quoted in just about every story? That’s because it’s easy for journalists to work with a proven quantity, and there are times when this is the best option, but it can get pretty boring for readers or viewers. Whenever possible, I try to get sources who aren’t constantly quoted in the media, those who have innovative ideas or who might be just be super interesting. And if I have a choice, I include a diverse range of voices (gender, race, age, and ideas).
For case-studies or ‘average people’ sources
Finding a private citizen who is willing to speak on the record about something can be a little trickier but worth every moment of effort. Facts, statistics, and expert opinions form the structure of a story; a personal narrative brings it to life.
Don’t be shy
It’s unethical to interview close friends but not friends of friends whom you don’t know. Regardless of the subject, there’s a good chance that if you mention your story in your social circle, someone will have a friend whose uncle’s dentist is the perfect source.
Sing like a bird
Because it can take longer to find average folks as sources, I begin my search as soon as I receive the assignment. Jump on Twitter and put out the call, using as many hashtags as possible. Then, re-tweet the call numerous times a day with various combinations of hashtags. Do the same on all your social media platforms, and ask your friends to share your posts.
Put up a sign
I’m talking about electronic signs on digital bulletin boards, such as your local listserv. This is my go-to method for finding sources for local stories and always gets fast results. If you need sources from a certain geographic area, join the local ListServ temporarily.
Ask an expert
Oftentimes your expert source can put you in touch with the perfect case study, so be sure to ask. If there are confidentiality issues, offer to send your source an email that can be forwarded to their client, patient, etc.
Open your ears
I’ve often found that once I’m researching a subject, I suddenly see it everywhere. Stories jump out from the pages of magazines and voices on the radio. This can be true of sources as well. Listen to what you are hearing from your friends or to the chatter at the grocery store, and you might end up with the perfect case-study to lede your piece.
Regardless of whether my source is a Nobel Prize winner or the local football coach, I approach everyone with respect for their time and expertise. I send an introductory email explaining the subject of the story, major themes to be covered, and where it will be published. Then I ask if they would like to be included, and request that if they must decline, to please let me know. Before I sign off, I write a few sentences about my work and link any appropriate clips.
Now it’s time to put some of these tips into practice. For those who want use shortcuts and ask other journalists for sources, my advice is to take the long road. Finding sources is an important skill to master. Not only that, but through the process of researching whom you want to interview, you’ll learn more about your subject, which will result in a better story. Good luck with your treasure hunting.
Jaimie Seaton has been a journalist for over 20 years and is a former Thailand correspondent for Newsweek. Her essays and reported stories have appeared in numerous publications, including Pacific Standard, CNN Travel, the Washington Post and O, The Oprah Magazine. Follow her @JaimieSeaton.