While first-person pieces can provide a valuable personal perspective, sooner or later, you’re going to need to find sources for some of your articles.
And sometimes finding helpful sources can be tough.
Whether you need to find a barber or an astronaut, there are ways to find just about any kind of source you need.
But tracking down these sources isn’t always simple. Sometimes, you need to go through a PR firm or media department, so be sure to contact sources early to leave time for this additional “gatekeeping” step (not to mention top-choice sources may be busy or out of town).
While it might be a pain to go through a media or PR department, these gatekeepers can be incredibly helpful and assist you by tracking down busy industry executives and professionals who may not be terribly excited to talk to the media. But the PR person’s job is to get publicity for their company, and they may be able to encourage someone to chat with you even when the subject would rather decline.
HARO, or “Help a Reporter Out,” can be a reporter’s best friend. To use the service, simply register and submit a free source request, including a synopsis of what you want to learn, any required qualifications, and your reporting deadline. HARO will send your message to its network and potential sources will find their way to your inbox. The site boasts over 475,000 sources in its network.
I’ve used this service to find experts in fields beyond my normal network as well as to find “regular people” to interview. Many HARO subscribers work full-time for an organization, but still fit other subject criteria you’re looking for (like Uber drivers or baseball coaches).
ProfNet is similar to HARO in that it helps connect writers with expert sources. Sign up with a query or register for an “expert alert” newsletter that highlights sources for news-worthy events.
Writing your query? Include a bit about who you’re looking for, your deadline, and even select the regions and types of organizations that will receive your message. I’ve been able to find a number of sources through this network.
3. Search engines
Sometimes, using the most basic technique is the best way to find a subject. Go to Google or another search engine and type in what you’re looking for.
For example, a search of “astronomy experts” brings up a number of great links. The top one is a link to a listing of astronomy experts at Stanford University, complete with their contact information and profiles. The first page of the Google results includes similar links to experts at a number of other universities.
You may have to sort through the Google results to find just the right expert, but simple searches often provide a great place to start.
4. Use academic sources
I do a fair amount of science writing, and sometimes I need to reach out to a high-level expert in a given scientific field. I’ll often use Google Scholar to find recent academic papers on the subject I am reporting on, and then I’ll look up the authors of those papers as potential sources.
The papers themselves frequently provide an email address from the primary author, and faculty are typically easy to look up in university directories.
Sometimes you’ll have to go through the school’s media department to reach the person you need to, but it’s often worth the hassle. If you can’t identify a specific expert you need to talk to, reach out to the media office and they can likely put you in touch with an expert in that field.
5. Use social media
You have your favorite social tools for a reason. Use them! Reaching out via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and any other social networks you use is a great way to connect with potential sources, whether you’re looking for someone to comment about their experience with new technology or for a parent struggling with a picky eater.
You never know who’s following your social media feeds, and some of them might be great sources.
6. Reach out to your network
The days of having a physical Rolodex on your desk are long past for most writers, but the days of pulling out your electronic Rolodex are in full force. When you need a source, turn to your email contacts or your mental address book to recall who might be helpful.
7. Contact past sources
While you won’t want to repeat your sources frequently, but sometimes it might make sense to use a previous source for a future article. That’s why it makes sense to build relationships with sources so you can easily get answers in the future. If they know you’re professional, they’ll be likely to promptly return your call.
8. Ask Your Editor
If you’re struggling to find a source, consider asking your editor if they have someone in their network you can contact. While you won’t want to do this with every story, an editor might be able to help you once in awhile if your other means of source-finding fall through.
9. Try Industry Sources
If you’re looking to interview the owner of a floral shop, it only makes sense to call up floral shops near you and see who you can find. But what if you’re not sure which job title would be best to talk to?
Consider contacting a local professional organization to find someone in the field. If you’re looking to interview a travel expert, consider reaching out to an organization for travel agents to see if they can send a note out to their networks to find a source for you. If you’re lucky, they may already have someone in mind.
Where do you turn when you need to interview an expert source?