Journalism vultures (or, how I’m learning to source stories)

(This post re-blogged from the spring 2013 Advanced Reporting blog.)

I’ve spent the majority of this week gaining traction on my project, which has required me to find a fairly diverse array of people. I’ve had to fight fairly hard to source the story, taking longer than I wanted to feel like I was gaining momentum.

Between getting advice from Jeanne and getting creative from sheer “I have to make this story happen” desperation, I’m learning what it means to enterprise sources and sources. While I’ve been happily surprised to realize that finding stories is less terrifying than I originally thought, I’ll admit that it hasn’t necessarily been easy. But after a week of walking around talking to people, driving across town and digging through the bowels of the Internet, I’m starting to better understand how finding my own stories/sources works.

Thus do I present my newest offbeat brainchild, which I’m lovingly calling “the vulture metaphor:”

Enterprising stories is like being a vulture. (I mean a vulture that only eats choice steaks, because I’m not about to compare my stories or sources to rotting, dead animals. They’re far more interesting and important than that.) You start way up in the air, trying to find something to eat, fuel to keep you going (borrowing the “clips as food” analogy a member of my 4450 beat once used). At first, you feel panicky, and you wonder where your next meal is going to come from, how you’re going to get your next story.

So you scan the landscape. You look for places you think might be likely to have something, anything you could use. Eventually, you figure out where you want to look for food. You pick a category of people, a website, a neighborhood. You swoop in a little closer.

Then, you spot something beneath you and circle a little tighter. You see a herd of antelope (a sign or a location or a description that catches your eye), and you start watching, looking for something that stands out. You walk around downtown and identify places where you’re likely to find the people you’re looking for. You get in your car and drive around, get out from time to time to ask a couple of questions.

Eventually, something really catches your eye. You’re doing an offhand interview and a source mentions something. Suddenly your brain explodes with flashing lights, screaming “ASK ABOUT WHAT THEY JUST SAID.” So you do. You follow up, circling in even tighter. You make continually smaller circles, honing in on one subject or idea or person or place.

You make another phone call, send another email. You wait. You circle. You ask another question. You can feel yourself getting closer and closer. You make even tighter circles — do a quick interview, make another phone call, send an email and ask someone if they’d be interested in talking with you.

If you’ve made it this far, sometimes, with a little luck and a lot of skill, you get in. You realize that this is your story or your source. After circling and circling closer and closer, you swoop down, grab the story, and breathe a sigh of relief. You can eat for another day.

——

OK, so maybe the analogy is a little overblown. And I realize it breaks down at some point. Hence the modification of the vulture to one that only eats choice steaks. But I’ve had a lot of practice this week learning how to strategically find sources. It hasn’t been perfect, and I’ve made some mistakes and gotten hung up and lost time where I wish I’d been more focused, but I’m learning. And I’m growing from it.

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