Casting a great source into your story is one of the ultimate tricks of the journalism trade. A great source illuminates and strengthens a piece, adding intrigue and credibility to the facts at hand. Thanks to social media, Google, and services like Profnet, finding a source has never been easier.
Yet in an age of journalism where writers are often rewarded for the speed, not the depth, of their reporting, great sourcing is quickly becoming a lost art.
That art isn’t lost on Bob Van Voris, former attorney and longtime legal reporter—first at The National Law Journal, and now at Bloomberg. Van Voris revealed key lessons for casting a great source.
1. Sources want to talk to you.
“If you ask people questions, they’ll answer you most of the time,” Van Voris explained. “When people know a little part of the planet, and you come to them with interest, they’ll definitely help you out.”
“It was hard for me when I started as a journalist,” he continued. “I was shy and would feel nervous when I called people. I quickly found out that most of the time you’re successful, as long as you come at them with an attitude of, ‘You know something I don’t, and I want you to share it with me.’”
2. Let experts see their quotes.
Quote approval is becoming an increasingly common request by sources. You should never grant quote approval if you want to maintain your journalistic credibility, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t let experts see their quotes.
“Especially with an expert, I’ll always let them see a quote,” said Van Voris. “I won’t say that they can take it back or change it—my reporting belongs to me—but especially for an expert, where it’s not an adversarial point of view, you want to make them look smart.”
“I’ll run the quotes and I won’t give you approval,” Van Voris continued, “but I’ll shoot you the quotes, but if I missed the quote or ran it out of context, shoot me a line and we’ll talk about it.”
3. Your sourcing won’t always be pretty.
Though journalists always strive to find the perfect original source for your story, sometimes you don’t have that luxury when facing a time crunch. When the DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) case reached the Second Circuit court and suddenly became a big story, Van Voris had to act fast to get a story up, even though Bloomberg hadn’t been covering the story thus far.
“You see people saying the same thing in every publication, and you try to avoid being that person. Sometimes when I’m [rushing to find a source], it’s not pretty,” Van Voris admitted. “Sometimes I’m just looking at who was quoted in the Times.”
Still, that doesn’t mean that you have to accept the same generic quotes the source is giving every publication.
“You try to get them off their talking points,” Van Voris explained. “You see people saying the same thing in every publication, and you try to avoid being that person.”
4. Tools will help you find sources.
Though you’re sometimes forced to copy your sources from other publications, it’s always best to find an original source. Tools like Profnet that connect journalists with subject-matter experts do just that.
“I like Profnet because the people are motivated and will talk to you,” Van Voris said.
He’s developed a system to make the platform work well for him.
“If I’m on a tight deadline, [finding someone to talk to] is pretty ruthless.” Van Voris said. “I don’t let people pitch me on the phone. I tell them to email me if they have an expert pitch or a story pitch, and I [usually] get about 20 emails.”
From there, it’s a matter of separating the true experts from the pretenders. “It’s like Best Buy when you’re looking for a TV,” Van Voris explained. “It’s the same kind of instinct that weeds out the guy that’s trying to sell you the most expensive TV.”
5. Find the mohel of your story.
“When you’re writing about something that’s a little bit complicated and you need to explain it to your readers, you don’t want to drag them through a seminar in something boring,” Van Voris explained. “You need to give readers something to a little fun, a little compelling, while they’re taking their medicine.”
Sometimes, that little bit of sugar to sweeten your story comes in an unexpected form. Van Voris recalled how he was once writing a story about a doctor in California who developed a practice fixing penile augmentation gone wrong.
“You need to give readers something to a little fun, a little compelling, while they’re taking their medicine.”
“I wrote up the story, and my editor said, ‘The thing we need for this story is a mohel,’” said Van Voris. “So I’m calling up mohels. I was an altar boy, I was Catholic, so I grew up Catholic so this wasn’t a natural stretch for me. I ask [the mohel] what happens when there’s a mistake. He didn’t want to talk about what happens when there’s a mistake.”
“I came back to my editor and we decided that we didn’t need a mohel.”
This post originally appeared in April 2013, on an old Contently blog about freelancing.