I was in New Mexico to celebrate my grandma’s 96th birthday when I got an email I couldn’t ignore. It was from the editor at Good Neighbor magazine, a custom pub for State Farm insurance.
Subject line: Happy New Year, and an assignment?
A $1.50-per-word feature story was mine for the taking, but there was a big catch. I had to find three people who had survived extreme situations — with a story deadline less than two weeks away.
Successful article writers often have to scramble to find sources like this.
Going into January with zero jobs lined up, I was desperate to get the gig. I wasn’t sure I could pull this together in time, but I had to try.
I deployed an arsenal of strategies from one of Carol’s Useful Writing Courses for finding sources. A few days later, the assignment was mine.
Need help finding sources for an assignment or crafting a killer query? Here’s how I did it —
In just four days, I lined up interviews with people who survived a middle-of-the-night house fire, a massive tornado and multiple hurricanes. Most importantly, I landed a $2,000 assignment and earned “a gold star” from my thankful editor.
Scoring good quotes or engaging anecdotes can make a story shine. But finding sources with amazing, tragic or totally relatable stories can seem next to impossible, especially when you’ve already exhausted your friends, family and Facebook following.
The next time you need to find people with compelling stories, try these six surefire methods that worked for me:
1. Cast a social net
I started with social media. I sent a message to all 85 of my Facebook friends and my 228 contacts on LinkedIn.
Then I emailed three people I know who have experience dealing with emergencies: a nurse, an EMT, and a firefighter.
I let them know I was looking for disaster survivors to interview for a story.
Reaching out to your social network can be a good place to start your search for sources. You might even be surprised at what your social network delivers, when you make a request like this.
In this case, my social network efforts put me in touch with one possible source who survived a disaster.
2. Hit up HARO
I’ve used the site Help a Reporter Out before to find sources and had real success.
And it works for just about any niche. You submit a detailed request about your assignment. Then your request goes to PR folks, authors, speakers and others looking to become media sources. And they email you if they’re interested.
HARO is another tool you can use to help you find sources, but it shouldn’t be your only strategy to track down the right people to interview for an assignment.
It was worth a shot to see if I could find disaster survivors using HARO. But this time it was virtual crickets. I received two responses and both were off base.
3. Contact insiders
You don’t need to know someone on the inside. You just need to know how to find someone on the inside. And it’s pretty easy, once you know where to look.
If you know your niche, or do a little industry research, you’ll likely find a professional association, non-profit organization, business group, or government agency and people who will agree to an interview or point you to the right person to talk to.
Reach out, and people in these organizations will help you find sources to interview for your assignment.
I checked the websites and recent press releases for the American Red Cross, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the National Center for Disaster Preparedness. Then I emailed the media contacts at each of these organizations. I also reached out to a disaster clean-up company.
After a lot of back and forth, I ended up with material and stats I could use for the story, as well as one solid interviewee.
4. Call on PR folks
Public relations pros know a lot of people. They know the key players in a specific niche. And many have a broad network of contacts in multiple industries.
If you’ve worked with any PR agencies or PR professionals in the past, reach out and see if they can help. If you don’t have a book of PR contacts, try a Google search for: “your niche” + “media relations” and look for PR agencies to contact.
I tapped my personal network of PR professionals, and they came through, putting me in touch with another disaster survivor I could interview for the piece.
5. Use the Google
With my deadline looming, and at least one more source to find, I was getting anxious.
Then I thought of something Carol has said:
“Be an unstoppable force of nature. Simply don’t stop until you have the contact information you need.”
Next, I tried a long list of creative Google searches and keyword phrases to find people who met the criteria for the kind of source I was looking for.
I scanned news stories for names and quotes, and then used whitepages.com to find phone numbers and contact information.
I even media-stalked people on Facebook and Twitter to try and connect.
Be prepared to hustle using this method to find sources. Not everyone is responsive to talking to a total stranger. But I did manage to connect with a couple people via social media this way, who agreed to be sources for the story.
6. Ask your interviewees
With a couple sources lined up, I set up the interviews, knowing I still needed to find at least one other person to talk to for the piece.
Then it happened. During one of my interviews, my source told me a heart-wrenching story about a family she met whose home had been demolished by a tornado. She was still in contact with the family and offered to connect me.
Instead of waiting around in an interview for someone to put you in touch with a valuable contact, ask.
The end of an interview is often a good time to ask your sources for other sources. For example: Do you know any else in a similar situation? Had a similar experience? Or knows a lot about this?
You can find real people to interview
Scoring this assignment required some serious legwork to find the sources. It took about 33 phone calls, emails, and social media contacts, and about 12 hours, over a couple of days. I used every one of these tactics. And it paid off.
If you’re an article writer who needs to find real people to interview for an assignment, you can. I’ve used these strategies to find great sources and write everyday-people stories that run the gamut — from what it’s like having your identity stolen to birthing twins.
What source-finding methods have worked best for you? Share you tips in the comments.
Kristi Valentini writes parenting, travel, and lifestyle content for magazines including Redbook and GoEscape and brands from Brawny to State Farm.