Source Work: Online Resources for Independent WritersBy James OBrien November 26th, 2013
Freelancing means change, and one of the things that changes all the time for independent writers is the beat. This month you’re a personal-finance writer, next month you’re on a project that has to do with the cutting edge of tech.
What’s constant is the need for credible expert sources.
While there’s certainly debate about what the digital age means for a writing career, gone are the days when the freelance reporter needs to spend an afternoon plumbing directories and periodicals and library shelves.
One thing that we can count on, when it comes to the Internet, is a wealth of resources for finding the voices for that next article.
“I have a constant need to find people to discuss issues related to pedestrians,” says John Z. Wetmore of his independently produced public-access show, Perils for Pedestrians. “It would be difficult to produce the series without the Internet. I broadcast inquires on lists and forums … I do searches with the name of the city I am visiting … I e-mail contacts, and they forward my inquiries to people they know.”
Wetmore is a talking about a spectrum of online sourcing. Let’s focus on one component of it, a major time-saver — platforms to which you can submit a query so that sources to reach out to you.
Short List: Source-Finding Tools
There are dozens of directories and databases online, but one of the advantages of the following list is that each service is free — always important to your freelancing bottom line — and each is a proactive source generator.
That is, you don’t have to search a database with these, you simply provide the service with a query and responses from candidate experts begin to arrive shortly after the alert goes out. This takes a lot of work off your hands, of course, but note one important caution.
“Bear in mind that they [can be] PR engines in disguise,” says Cynthia Potts, a freelance writer for the past 13 years. “So you’re only going to get people who want to talk to the media — which is good for some stories, not necessarily so good if you’re digging for something controversial.”
That being said, sources via services like those below can provide opposing views about a single subject, especially if you gear your search toward academics and away from professionals in the PR space. Services particularly useful in that regard are noted in the list below.
- Source Sleuth: The staff at this service receive your query and seek out experts that they then introduce to you via e-mail. Professionals and academics tend to fall into Source Sleuth’s sweet spot. You’re likely to get between two and four curated contacts to a given alert.
- HARO: Help a Reporter Out is a major nexus for commercial and PR professionals. You can get dozens of replies to a single query, which goes out as part of HARO’s daily missives. You’re likely to get some vendor-specific replies and pitches in the mix, but vendor-neutral sources are available, especially if you specify that they’re wanted, in your request.
- Media Diplomat: Emphasizing the search for sources overseas, this query-based platform puts writers together with industry and PR professionals as far away as Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Brazil.
- ProfNet: This one goes way back. In the early ’90s reporters would call in to ProfNet, leave a voice message describing the needed source, and then wait for a call back. Now, this all happens online. ProfNet’s strong suit is industry professionals, but it can also prove helpful for academic sources.
While all four of these stand to make your sourcing efforts easier, there’s still need for caution when it comes to letting a service do the work for you: conduct your due diligence when it comes to the credentials of the sources you get.
“It’s very easy these days for just about anybody to present themselves as an ‘expert’ through a LinkedIn profile and/or a well-designed website,” says Lin Grensing-Pophal, a freelance writer for years and one that frequently uses online source-finding tools.
“Journalists need to make sure that they’re digging a bit deeper before selecting the sources they use,” Grensing-Pophal says. “I generally do this through Google searches to see what additional information I might be able to unearth.”