A few times in my freelance career, I’ve found myself going after The Big Story along with seemingly everyone else in the freelancing world. Emails and phone calls, I’ve since learned, aren’t necessarily your best strategy for getting that exclusive interview with the arsonist or the widow or the fugitive. Neither is showing up at the subject’s front door, usually. I’m convinced the snake-handling subject of this story I wrote for Men’s Journal would have shot at me, or let his snakes loose in my car, if I’d knocked on his door in rural Alabama. I’ve gotten cussed out on a few front stoops, too, and didn’t enjoy it.
So, what’s your best for getting the access that will lead to the big scoop? A low-tech hack: write a letter.
That’s how I got the exclusive with the snake wrangler. Another letter got me the controversial story for Atlanta Magazine about a pivotal case in the assisted suicide movement, which won a regional magazine award. And another hand-written note helped me land a big story that came out in late May, “The Many Lives of Aubrey Lee Price,” about a pastor-turned-banker-turned-fugitive who embezzled $30 million from a small town bank before faking his death and disappearing for 18 months. Both stories were pursued by major media outlets like CNN, Good Morning America, and the New York Times. But a short personal letter ultimately landed me—a relatively unknown freelancer in Atlanta—the scoop.
To send a letter, of course, you simply need paper, pen, stamp, and an address. The address is the hardest part. In the case of a criminal, your best shot is likely giving the letter to his or her attorney. The attorney’s name and address will be filed and publicly available. Indeed, that’s how I got through to Mr. Price: by handing my letter to his attorney in a mobile-home-turned-office in Vidalia, Georgia.
I only had a few minutes to write it after Mr. Price’s arraignment in rural Georgia back in January. As I sat in my car, outside his lawyer’s office, I decided to include the name of a man I’d interviewed, who knew my mother as well as Mr. Price. Mentioning this person, I later learned, made Mr. Price feel like he and I shared a common world—though, in fact, this one acquaintance was our only connection. Play the cards you’ve got, no matter how paltry they seem.
But what if you don’t have a mutual acquaintance? You can still accomplish a lot with the tone of the letter. Consider the recipient the same way you consider the readership for a typical assignment. Will he appreciate formality, levity, brevity? Will she respond better to slang or the Queen’s English? I tend to err on the side of short (one-page or less) and formal (Mr, Mrs.)—but always with a personal touch.
If you convey a bit about yourself in this letter, the recipient will be inclined to feel it’s a two-way exchange. You’re not just a prying journalist; you’re a human being with experiences that may even relate to those you’re inquiring about. You could endear yourself to the person you’re hoping to talk to.
When I wrote a letter to a potential source for the assisted suicide story noted above (“Final Exit“), for example, I mentioned my family had dealt with a suicide in the past. I didn’t need to go into it. Simply mentioning this personal fact helped the recipient feel that I would be empathetic to her story. (And I think I was.)
Finally, if you can, include an appropriate sample of your writing with the letter. An actual magazine clipping is better than a link. But be sure the clip showcases not just your writing and reporting skills, but also your ability to empathize with a difficult subject. That, more than anything else, is what will win the subject over. A great story requires just as much empathy as skepticism—from gaining access, to reporting, to finally putting words down on the page. And letters are the most empathetic medium we’ve got.
Two weeks after I sent my letter to Mr. Price, I was at my desk eating lunch when the phone rang. It was a collect call from Statesboro County Jail. I accepted, fumbling for my tape recorder. He was kind and soft-spoken. It took him some time to consider my offer, he told me, but the letter itself had made the difference between my request and the many dozens of others he received.
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