The Care and Feeding of Your Sources

Your story is only as good as its sources, whether they be researchers, people-on-the-street or business SMEs (subject matter experts). Their quotes and perspectives are the lifeblood of every story, so you need to know how to work them and keep them happy.

Happy sources don’t sue. They will work with you again for follow up stories. They will also speak highly of you when they are contacted by other writers and publications, and if you work in a business environment they will spread the word that the “content department” knows its stuff. This is a valuable perspective to nurture, especially in a company trying to add or grow content marketing activities.

Some of this you may have learned in J-school, but I got it from years of hard experience and many mistakes (remind me to tell you about the time I made a source cry, but still got the story). Here are five important facts to know when working with any source:

1. Know that your source has better things to do. It can be hard to remember, when you are on deadline for an important piece, that your source doesn’t care. He or she is overwhelmingly busy closing sales, running a company, driving research or maybe even raising a family. Your interruption asks them to step away from these urgent matters for something they far less critical. Be respectful of their time, and explain what’s in it for them.

2. Listen more than you talk. Once your source decides to spend time talking with you, he or she wants to be heard. It sounds elementary, but make sure to listen more and talk less. Leave gaps in the conversation for them to fill. Don’t talk about yourself (if you work with your source, save the socializing for other events). A good trick is to record your conversations a few times and listen to the playback – my bet is you’ll be surprised by how much talking and interrupting you do.

3. Ask the tough question, respectfully. For some stories, there is the “awkward question” moment, and the best example here is Scott Simon interviewing Bill Cosby on NPR after he faced rape allegations. After chatting politely about the Cosby’s donation of important art works to a museum, Simon changed the subject, pointing out that as a news reporter he would be remiss in his job if he didn’t ask about the accusations. When Cosby refused to answer, Simon pushed back, gently adding that Cosby’s fans, who cared deeply about him, wanted to hear a statement. Although Cosby still didn’t answer, Simon executed his job perfectly – respecting his source while also asking the question everyone wants to hear. And the lack of answer was quite revealing.

4. Get the facts right. Magazines used to have entire fact-checking departments but sadly most have disappeared amid budget cuts. That means the job fact-checking a finished draft before it goes to the editor is now usually up to the writer. Some outlets show the source the entire story and/or quotes beforehand. Personally, I’m not a fan of that approach (sources tend to micromanage unimportant story details to match their own image of themselves). But I do send an email to the source listing all facts to double-check them. Not only will this ensure your story is accurate, but it builds trust with the source.

5. Follow up. Alert your sources when the story comes out so that they see the payoff for the time they invested in working with you. Thank them, and explain why the story is important and what it will achieve. And encourage them to share!

Some reporters see the source as an antagonistic figure, one who the reporter is supposed to “fight” to get a good, accurate story. That’s crap. Sources want to share their stories, and all of their stories deserve respect. Keep these five facts in mind and you’ll be able to tell fair, compelling stories that keep your sources coming back to tell you more.