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Source Cultivation: A Process and Habit

andy-brown200By Andy Brown, freelance writer, Methodical Writing

If we ask 10 people for an interview and nine say ‘yes,’ it’s possible we’re networking-journalist superheroes. Everyone we meet likes and admires us. The mere mention of our names and the sounds of our voices inspires trust and openness.

Or we rely too much on the same small group of sources.

Developing new sources takes time, and it’s not always easy. First we must get in touch with them. Then we have to get acquainted and build a rapport. Then we hope what they say is interesting, informative and reliable.

When we’re working on deadline, that’s a lot to ask. It’s more convenient to contact people we already know will talk to us. But there’s a pretty significant downside to doing that.

Talking to a limited group means our readers hear the same limited perspectives. Our publications start to sound monotone. As writers, we risk knowing how the story will go before we begin, a shortcoming that journalist Donald Murray coined ‘cliches of vision.’

Start with a process, end with a habit

Why do most editorial processes start at the point that editorial is due? We turn in our stories at deadline and then they go through a formal process of editing, fact-checking, layout, proofreading and so on. There is a series of steps that everyone knows and does their best to follow.

Why, then, don’t you have a process for source cultivation?

There’s no reason the editorial process shouldn’t start earlier and incorporate source cultivation. Ideally, you do it at a department level, where the whole team is involved in the process. But even if that’s not feasible, you can do it an individual level. I’ve been doing it my entire career.

When I took my first reporting job, I had no experience interviewing people. Writing and editing was easy, but calling people unsolicited and asking them to talk? I didn’t know where to start.

Fortunately, I had great mentors. They sent me to Poynter workshops and got me involved in ASBPE. They shared wisdom from their years of experience. And one of them insisted that I introduce myself to at least three new sources a month. That meant calling people I’d never talked to before, introducing myself and asking to chat.

That experience is the basis of all source cultivation methods I use to this day.

The method, in brief

  • Build a Database: Cultivating new sources starts with lists of names. The good news is that you already have a list of subscribers, and that’s a great place to start.
  • Editorial calendars are friends…or enemies: An editorial calendar is too rigid if writers ask questions to get predetermined answers, just so they can write the story that’s on the calendar. That is the path to clichés of vision. However, an editorial calendar can aid the source cultivation process if it’s flexible enough.
  • It’s a long cycle: You can see immediate gains with a formal source-cultivation process, but the real benefits take time, as your relationships with individual sources deepen over years. Think long-term.
  • Expect rejection: Remember how this story started? If too many people say ‘yes,’ you’re not asking enough people. I challenge you to lower your success rate. In my experience, reaching out to 10 new people nets one or two new sources at a time.

Get Andy’s full source cultivation method at ASBPE’s National Conference in July, where he’ll go into detail about the framework and methods you can use to cultivate new sources for stories.

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