Getting the Scoop, Part 2

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Tips on how to break more news stories

Yesterday, I revealed that a strong contact list is the most effective way for a reporter to break a steady stream of new stories. When I went to work at The Sunday Express, Editor In Chief Michael Harris insisted that I develop my own list of contacts, and to call them in a systematic way.

And it worked. People immediately began telling me stuff. Apparently, nobody else in town was doing this. It clicked right away, and I was soon breaking arts and entertainment stories every week. The hardest part was talking them into giving me an exclusive, but most agreed to it.

I was lucky. I was already established as an arts writer and had a head start on my contact list. But what do you do if you're a young journalist, starting from scratch?

There is a method.

Quite often, as a journalist, you will bump up against famous, influential or connected people. It is inevitable. They are all potential contacts, but you must go about recruiting them gradually, methodically.

You don't approach them and say, Hey, will you be my contact?'

You have to impress them. Win their respect. Gain their confidence. You do this by writing about them.

And no, I don't mean writing a suck piece'. That doesn't win respect. It's enough that you simply interview them as part of a larger story. You might even write a profile about them, if they have an interesting story to tell. Either way, you must be fair and intelligent in what you write. Impress them with your journalistic skills.

Once you've written a smart, balanced piece that involves a good prospective contact, you wait a few days then call them up.

Be honest. Tell them you are building a network of contacts, people who you call every week or two to find out what's on the go', and would like to add them to the list.

They may be a little incredulous, but make no apologies tell them in a matter of fact way that this is how you get stories.

Appeal to their vanity by telling them that they are well connected and in the know'. And assure them that you will be talking off the record, and won't betray their confidence if they open up to you.

Look for people who have many facets, such as a career in business as well as politics. Or multi-talented people with activities in many different areas. When I worked in entertainment, one of my contacts was Pete Soucy, before he created the popular Snook character. Pete was a teacher, a writer, a graphic artist, a set designer and an actor. So he moved in many different circles, and knew everything that was going on. He made a great contact and gave me lots of stories. I started calling him after writing a profile about him after becoming aware of his many talents and winning his trust.

The same would apply to anyone who is a mover and shaker' within their sphere of influence, be it politics, the arts, business, not-for-profit, the public service, and so on.

You can also recruit new contacts when out in the field', at news conferences, luncheon engagements, business receptions, wherever interesting and influential people gather. If you meet and connect' with a person of influence and have a great chat, don't let it end there exchange business cards and let that person know that you will be in touch.

There is a standard approach you can take when making regular contact calls. After the hello, how are you' stuff, engage in some small talk. Ask what they think about developments in their organization or industry. Be knowledgeable enough about their area of activity to indulge in some intelligent banter.

Slip in some of the latest gossip you've heard (possibly from your previous contact call); something juicy that doesn't quite qualify as a story. Never repeat the really good stuff, the potential stories, as it may leak out the back door to someone else.

If they don't offer something juicy, ASK! Ask what they've been hearing. Always ask. Don't expect them to always volunteer. Some of my best story leads were revealed in the last seconds of a phone call, after asking such a question.

BUT don't ask about their own area of work unless you have a very high comfort zone. Contacts are most useful for what they've heard in circles that overlap with their own. Few, however, will violate their own commitments to confidentiality.

If you ask someone to divulge things that are confidential, you could burn the relationship. If they offer, that's fine go for it. But be careful how you ask, and even more careful how you use it; you need to protect your source.

You are building a relationship of trust. Be clear about the rules up front. If they say something interesting and you want to pursue it, be up front' about that. Always clarify what is on' and off' the record.

Some pointers

Call two or three contacts per day. Don't try to contact everyone at once. This keeps you in a story-gathering frame of mind at all times. Get yourself pumped up and think hard about each person, and their interests, before you make the call.

Dump a contact if they aren't bearing fruit, or call them less often once monthly, perhaps.

Do what you always do when at the daycare, cub scouts, supermarket or bank: keep your ears open for interesting tidbits. If someone you know says something really interesting, tell them you'd like to call to chat about it, at a time that's better for you both. In addition to feeding you a story, that person could become another contact.

Write every story as if you winning a new contact every time. Because you are. If you do a good job, people of influence will notice. And they will remember your name.

Not all tips will pan out. In fact, at least half of what you hear is going to be hollow rumour, the kind that migrates from a friend of a friend'. Do your homework and never accept what you hear as gospel.

You also need to know when to abandon a story idea. It's easy to cling tenaciously to what sounded like a great story long after you know it isn't.

A story is never really over. If you break a story, take ownership of it and keep advancing the story yourself.

Freedom of Information requests are a useful tool in breaking stories, but they are expensive and time consuming. You can't afford to fire them off randomly and without reason. However, if a contact tells you that a certain minister's travel expenses are unusually high, then you file a request.

This may sound counter-intuitive, but don't write a weekly column at least, not until you are successfully breaking plenty of new stories. I remember telling Michael Harris that I was starting a new column.

He said, with clear disdain, Why?' I said that it would add another voice to the paper.

Clearly unimpressed, he said that columns absorb time that could be better-spent chasing stories, and are best avoided altogether. He said I could write it, but only if I did so on my own time, outside of regular office hours.

He was right. A column can easily expand to fill the time you have available, and create the illusion that you are 'busy'.

Imagine that you are doing a this week in history' piece. You can spend a day at the archives browsing old headlines, looking for the right mix of historical tidbits. A full day of potential story gathering could be wasted on researchand and writing a column that no one cares about. This is time that should be invested in contact calls.

A column just provides a comforting distraction and allows you to feel busy when, in fact, you aren't.

And there you have it. Once you establish a good network of contacts and work them dutifully, things happen for you. Success begets success. The more stories you break, the more your phone will ring, bringing tips from the general public.

I invite reporters and editors to post their own ideas on this subject, or to recount some interesting experiences they've had during the story-breaking process.

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Recent comments

  • Peter
    July 27, 2010 - 14:53

    Hi, Geoff I think your columns about breaking stories is extremely important and timely.

    Unfortunately in recent years the media generally - in this province and across the country - has placed less emphasis on original reporting and more emphasis on giving people want they want as fast as they can on as many media platforms as they can. That has lead to too many stories about Britney Spears and Newfoundlanders on Canadian Idol saturated across multiple media lines. Cut backs and media concentration has only contributed to this trend as doing what everyone else is doing is cheaper faster and easier than breaking stories.

    The public has played its part in this by its seemingly endless appetite for this stuff. Fast, populist reporting that incorporates the web is the new reality for all media outlets and journalists must realize this. The Golden Days of Watergate are gone.

    That said, people still love to hear or watch or read a good yarn and if a reporter can break an original story there is still a market for it.

    To that end I'll throw in a few tips I picked up over the years that have helped me tell original stories.

    * Absorb other media with a critical mind. By that I mean take note of any questions that pop into your head when you read or listen to a story. If you're wondering about an unanswered angle to the story, then probably others are too. Write that question down and phone the person who knows the answer. If they do know the answer and tell you, then you have an original story. As simple as it sounds, it really works.

    * Think Big. Too many reporters (especially in Newfoundland) don't think about looking outside the province for interviews. They stick to the usual suspects (Andy Wells, the Premier, the Cabinet Minister etc). Media outlets don't mind paying for long-distance calls so take advantage of it. Use the web to find the heavy hitters on issues wherever they may be and write them an email or better, phone them and hit them up for info. Often they're happy to answer your questions. Out of province people don't worry about the baggage that goes along with public comment in small communities like Newfoundland and they don't care about stepping on toes.

    * The last thing I'll mention is to take the systematic approach to building a contact list that you mentioned and apply it to access to information and freedom of information requests. if you have a question, then take ten minutes to write it up and throw it in the mail to the appropriate government department. Aim for a few requests a week and - most importantly - track them. Don't forget about them. Most turn into nothing, but if you file them regularly they will bear fruit regularly.

    I'd like to hear more form others because I really think breaking stories is in all our interest as journalists and keeps the job interesting for us while serving the public at the same time.