The one thing that amazes me whenever I read about freelance writing online — no one ever mentions sources. What’s a good story without a good source? In fact, think it’s so important I’m leading off this series with the topic.
I blame blogging. Or the internet. You could say it’s lazy journalism, but I’m going out on a limb and saying people just do not know any better. Say you’re a reporter. There’s a fire, and you have to write a story. That’s easy. Everyone knows what to do, even if you’ve never written anything before.
Talk to the homeowner. Talk to the neighbors. Get the info from the official sources like the fire department. There’s your story.
Common sense, right?
The Problem with Online Writing
Now talk about online writing, and this is what happens. The Associated Press or some local news outlet writes an article. Great, but say you have a Google alert or RSS feed set up (of course you do, right?) for whatever field you’re writing about. That’s odd, you begin to think. It’s the same story, the same quotes, popping up in your inbox again and again. No one is adding anything of value. It’s all a big circle jerk of reconstituting and regurgitating other people’s work.
Now, let me add that I’m no expert. I work from home part-time as a freelance journalist, and I just started again after taking a hiatus from journalism. But I’ve been successful enough to only work my other job part-time. Readers of this blog seem interested in that, so here’s what I know. I have a journalism background. That helps. A lot of people — especially bloggers — are interested in how to make money online. But they come at it with a blogging mentality.
And, honestly, I think that’s what separates me when I do query someone or pitch a new client. I think that’s why I’ve been able to actually make money — sources.
How to Find Expert Sources
I just started writing articles on cybercrime, hacking and computer security. I didn’t know anything about those topics when I started. Lucky for me, there’s tons of people bursting with knowledge just waiting to be interviewed.
The problem with sitting at home behind a computer — it’s not exactly obvious who to quote. There’s no neighbor standing there watching the fire to walk up to and grab and interview. And you may land a job writing about something that’s happening 2000 miles away. Lucky for you, there’s plenty of options. I’m sure long-time freelancers and real journalists have more and better ideas on this than me, but remember, this is just my newbie knowledge that has worked for me so far.
People love to talk about themselves and their expertise.
1) Be a consumer
If you’re Joe Blow interested in how to fix a toilet, where do you go? You buy some books. You ask someone who does it for a living. Maybe you even take a course. Finding expert sources is the same concept.
Go to Amazon and check out who has written a book on the subject. With the proliferation of ebooks, that even includes bloggers and independent authors who would absolutely love the free publicity. Call up a company. If they’re big, they probably have a PR person who can give you info or connect you with an interview. If they’re small, you may find yourself talking to the owner. Find professors or universities who are leading names in the field. All this contact info should be readily available online. Send them an email, or better yet, call them to ask about an interview.
2) Use Profnet or another site that connects media to experts
I’ve only used Profnet twice, and both times were just this past week. It has worked great. Essentially it’s a free tool where you submit a query for an expert, and then they blast all those queries to universities, PR agencies, businesses and other places that want to get their experts quoted in the news. Sure, they have a motive, but doesn’t everybody? Professors want to appear as an expert. Small business owners want to get their name out there. Authors want to get their book sold.
I’ve heard horror stories of getting hundreds of leads flooding an inbox, but I was very specific — I needed an expert on DDoS attacks and how they disrupt small businesses and lead to financial extortion. Then I specifically listed a few of the types of questions I needed answered and requested a phone interview. The first query I sent out got two responses. The next received about six. I’m sure if I sent a query like “looking for a health expert” I’d have been bombarded.
3) Use social media
Use Twitter. Use Facebook. Use Google+. Use LinkedIn. I’ve haven’t particularly used this method, but I do use Twitter to read news, find story ideas and connect with like-minded people. Sending someone a message asking for a brief phone interview is probably even easier on social media. It’s built into its DNA. The communication is open. I imagine this works well, especially if you’re already following their page or their group and are part of the community.
I started with just two Profnet queries. Yesterday I needed to start a spreadsheet to keep track of all my sources. From those half-dozen contacts I’ve grown a list of about 20 people I can contact for cybercrime related stories. And last week I had zero. Some of them are the PR people that act as middlemen and can refer me to other sources. Some are lawyers in the field. Or professors. Or people who own cyber-security firms.
I follow-up my interviews with a thank you email and a link to the article when it goes up, usually asking if they know anyone else who would be good to add to my roster of contacts. Sometimes, if I need more sources quickly, I ask them directly at the end of the interview.
How to Interview and other thoughts
I know. How condescending, right? Like you don’t know how to ask someone a few questions. I only include this section because I had no idea.
I once interviewed the chancellor of my old university on two hours sleep in the most rambling, incoherent mess of an interview ever conducted in the state of Wisconsin. I was also a reporter for student television and helped out a fellow reporter by operating the camera during an excellent interview with the school’s hockey coach. Imagine my surprise when we discovered I had recorded walking up to the coach and had recorded walking away from the coach but had actually stopped the video camera and didn’t record anything during the ACTUAL INTERVIEW.
That was the one and only time I was ever asked to help out.
-Email interviews are awful. Don’t do them if you don’t have to. A phone is quicker, easier and more natural. In person is better, but then this is about online writing, so that isn’t likely.
-Buy a recorder. I bought this one. Yes, it was expensive, but listening to the interview back I can hear everything, even my nephew screaming on the other side of the house. Get a nice one so that when you record off the speaker on your phone it’s clear enough to get accurate quotes. Actually, I run two sometimes to be safe — see my idiot behavior listed above for a reason why.
-I never take notes, other than to jot down follow-up questions that come to mind. When the interview is over I listen to it back and type up a rough draft of what they said (i.e. “great quote on this topic at 8:47” or “uses a good example to explain how it works at 10:00”)
-Why waste the time doing this? First, a 15 minute interview only takes 15 minutes to type up. Second, it allows me to ask some broader questions or questions about other stories I’m planning to write. All I have to do is open up the notes a month later, and I know exactly when in the recording I’ll find what I need.
-ALWAYS get permission to record. And make sure you’re not accidentally doing something illegal.
For more fantastic tips on how to use sources and not come across as a jackass, check out Reuters guidelines. They are thorough and excellent.
Want more tips on freelance writing? I’ll collect them all on my Freelance Writing Guide Page for future reference.