In San Antonio, Texas, I stood at a microphone and prayed I wasn’t about to be laughed-at for the question I was about to ask.
It was 1998 and I’d gotten a free ride to that year’s Radio-Television News Directors Association convention because I would be receiving a college scholarship from this esteemed group.
On the panel in front of me, little did I know at the time, was my future mentor, former CNN political correspondent Brooks Jackson.
Suddenly, the room got quiet. The panel looked at me at the microphone out in the audience. It was time to ask my question.
How do you cultivate sources? I wanted to know, though I doubt I used the word “cultivate” back then.
Nobody laughed. Brooks actually took the question seriously. And he gave me some of the best advice of my career: If you’re naturally interested in what your potential source does for a living (like running a political campaign) the relationship will develop naturally.
Later, as a college intern in CNN’s Washington bureau, I’d be assigned to work with Brooks as his field producer/tape logger/personal assistant/lunch fetcher. I learned a lot from him and saw him put his source cultivating skills into action.
He had one of those phone headsets that made him look like a Time-Life operator. And he’d be on the phone for hours — just chatting — and taking some notes on his computer. These were relaxed, no pressure, on background chats. After so many years in the business, he had a lot of phone numbers he could call. And people were happy to talk to him because he has a reputation for being one of the fairest journalists you’ll ever meet — and a guy with a great sense of humor, I might add, which makes him fun to talk with. But he’d also cold call people. And he’d get them to talk, too.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how TV anchors and reporters can cultivate sources because I think it’s the key to our personal survival in this business and it’s the key to our newsroom’s survival in this great big media universe. If you aren’t creating original content, then you’re irrelevant. And to create original content in a newsroom, you have to be plugged-in to the newsmakers, community leaders, businesspeople and activists of various causes in your market.
We often don’t like to talk with other journalists about how we go about getting sources or how many we have in our back pocket at any one time. I think we have an inferiority complex about it. We don’t know if we’re doing it right and we’re sure that the “star reporter” at the station across the street (or maybe even within our own newsroom) has dozens more sources than we do. Well, I don’t know how many sources your competition has. But I can help you cultivate more sources of your own.
Here are some tips:
1) Invite a potential source to breakfast. If you’re a dayside reporter, you don’t have time to “do lunch” and chances are the people you want to be your sources schedule lunches with a lot more important people than you. It’s when business is done. But they’re more likely to make time for you at breakfast. Yes, it’s a pain meeting them at 7:30 a.m. so you can be sure to be at your morning meeting at 9 a.m. But you don’t have to do this every day, just every once in a while. And here is the most important point: Do NOT ask for this breakfast at a time when the person you’re trying to get on your side is in the midst of a scandal or other huge news story. You want to develop this relationship when things are calm and you both feel free to talk.
2) Keep the Breakfast “On Background.” Let’s say you’re going to have breakfast with the new mayor because you want to develop some trust with her and her staff. Make sure when you call to invite her to breakfast that she knows anything said is fair game to be reported on but you won’t quote her directly. This is called “on background.” (It is embarrassing how many journalists graduate from college and don’t know these terms. Take a look at the glossary of terms, from the Atlantic.com. You will find the list in the middle of the linked article.) She’ll feel much more at ease talking with you this way. Make sure she understands what “on background” means. If she wants it off the record, that’s ok, too. You’re trying to show her here that you’re not going to burn her. Ask her what’s coming up on her agenda that’s really important to her. At the end of the breakfast, give her your card and try to get her mobile phone number if you don’t already have it. Promise not to abuse it. And don’t.
3) Aim Lower. The mayor is great to have as a source. But let’s be realistic. Everything she tells you will be weighted in one way or another to advance whatever agenda she has, be it for a city project or against a political rival. Keep in mind, she is also at the top of a very large bureaucracy and probably has no idea about all of the things the city is doing. So aim lower. Yeah, you need to get to know the city manager, members of the city council, the city attorney and some of the department heads. But you also need to get to know their receptionists at city hall and — most importantly — some of the anonymous bureaucrats who actually carry out the mission of the city council. They will probably never appear on camera for you. But they will give you valuable nuggets of information that you can use to question the leaders of your town who do appear on camera.
4) Cold Call. You work at a television station. Even in 2011, 86 years after its invention, people still think television’s pretty cool. So when you call a defense attorney who’s handling the big death penalty case that’s headed to trial next month, guess what he’s going to tell his wife that night at dinner? “Honey, guess who called me today? Patrick Murphy from News 4!” Note that I said you’re calling him a month before the trial — not the day before jury selection begins. Cold calling can get a chilly reception from average folks who suddenly find themselves in the news, though. They’re intimidated. They never thought Patrick Murphy from News 4 would be interested in what they have to say. So go easy on them. Don’t be pushy. And for goodness sakes, if something horrible has happened in their life, be genuinely compassionate. The Washington Post recently published an excellent article about how the networks’ morning show producers deal with this issue all the time.
5) Be interested in your source’s work. I learned it from my mentor Brooks Jackson and it’s true. When I show genuine interest in what a campaign consultant, psychologist, doctor, city leader — or anyone else — has invested their life’s work in, I can see their face soften, their eyes light-up, and hear their speech become more excited. You’re showing them that you value them as people and the expertise they’ve acquired. They will honestly enjoy talking to you. They’ll remember the conversation and your name. And when you call them on a breaking story, they’ll be much less likely to let it go to voice mail.
For more ways to cultivate sources when you don’t get much time on the job, check out “How to generate story ideas when you are swamped.” Got other tips for cultivating sources? We hope you’ll share them with us.
Matthew Nordin is a morning anchor/investigative reporter at WMBF News, Raycom Media’s NBC affiliate in Myrtle Beach, SC. You can follow him on Twitter @MatthewNordin.