If you want to be a freelance journalist, you need to know how to find and interview sources.
But if the idea of calling up a total stranger and asking for a few minutes of their time for an interview freaks you out, then what?
Stick with low-paying content-mill assignments? Give up on freelancing? Sell your soul to the devil? Don’t do that, OK.
Ask any veteran freelance journalist about finding and interviewing sources, and most will tell you they felt the same way starting out.
It takes a little practice to learn how to find sources, build relationships, and ask the kind of interview questions that get people to spill their guts and plenty of juicy details for your assignment.
You might need to ignore those first-time jitters to ask a source for an interview. And once you’re on the phone or face to face with a source, guiding the conversation takes a little practice. But it’s a skill you can learn to develop.
Want to learn how to find and interview sources as a freelance journalist? Here’s how it’s done:
Interviewing tips from freelance journalist pros
In a recent Freelance Writers Den podcast, we caught up with two freelance journalist pros to talk about finding and interviewing sources.
Follow the advice from Kelli Matthews and Brian Klems, and you’ll get expert advice on things like:
- Facing fears about interviewing people
- Tips for finding sources
- Email vs. phone or in-person interviews
- Building relationships
- Asking questions to get juicy details, and more.
Brian A. Klems is a veteran freelance journalist. He’s the former senior online editor of WritersDigest.com. And he’s the author of the book, Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A dad’s survival guide to raising daughters.
Kelli Matthews is a public relations pro, and founder of the PR agency Verve Northwest Communications. She also teaches public relations and communications at the University of Oregon.
Q: How can do you get up the nerve to ask people for an interview?
Klems: Getting up that courage is something that I believe just comes with experience. I feel like the more you call sources, the more you reach out to sources, the more you ask people for interviews, the more comfortable you become with it. And when you ask someone for an interview, lay out what you want. For example:
“I’m a freelance journalist working on an assignment, and I’m looking for some tips. I would like 10 minutes of your time… to pick your brain about this for potential quotes in an upcoming article.”
Q: How do you feel about phone interviews vs. email interviews?
Klems: My preference is always phone. I’m a bit old school in that way, and always try to use
phone. But if I’m just looking for a quick quote or two, or potentially some background information, then emails don’t bother me nearly as much. I prefer phone conversations, because I feel like you can get a lot more out of that by asking follow up questions.
Q: What magical words will help a writer land an interview?
Matthews: There’s this idea that you’re going to run up against a PR wall when you ask for an interview. But it’s unfounded. Look at it like this…It’s a public relations professional doing their job. It’s their job to facilitate your story. It’s their job to be a good source. It’s their job to find you a good source and they help with that.
If you need an interview with an expert source, just reach out. We want to help you. We want tell a good story. We want to understand the story that you’re trying to tell so that we can facilitate the right person.
Q: How can a PR person help a freelancer with an assignment?
Matthews: Generally speaking, our job tends to be more on the proactive side. So we’re looking for opportunities. We pitch story ideas to freelance journalists, writers, and editors. We’re looking for coverage to help our business or clients.
If you can come to the PR professional with a question about the kind of story you want to cover, we can help you. For example:
- What’s the story about?
- What kind of angle you’re interested in?
- What type of sources do you need to talk to?
- Are you interested in this CEO?
- Are you interested in maybe products or someone with a particular kind of expertise?
- What is it that you need to help tell your story?
If you’re dealing with a PR pro, the response is going to be: “Great! Let me figure out how to help you with that. Let me figure out how to get you the information you need and the person that you need to talk to.”
A good PR person can be a fantastic facilitator and really help far beyond even what you may come to the initial conversation with, because we have a lot of background information. We know a lot of sources.
Q: How do you find good sources to interview?
Klems: The truth is, this question always blows my mind. Maybe because with the internet, you can connect with nearly anyone anywhere. I just continually refine Google searches for what I need, and then contact the person. Once you get over the hump of being fearful about calling people, it’s not that hard.
I often reach out to universities for help finding sources, too. ““Here’s what I’m looking for. Is there someone there who can speak with me about this?”
Q: What if a source asks to see your story before it’s published?
Matthews: Oh gosh, I hate that. As a PR pro, I would never in a million years ask to see an article in advance. It’s a definite “no.” The only maybe tiny exception would be to clarify if there are specific specs. And it wouldn’t be to review the whole article, but just to double check facts, data points, or quotes. But that’s not an editorial review of the article.
Klems: I don’t like that either, mainly because I can’t promise the source anything. I tell them, “I have interviewed other sources, but I can’t reveal them.” And also, I don’t want to reveal them because you don’t know what’s going to be cut during the editing process. Ultimately, you just have to tell your source, you either want to participate in this article or you don’t.
Q: Why is building relationships important for freelance journalists?
Klems: In this industry, we are freelancing, writing, and doing everything, trying to connect with people. However I have to do it, I will do it. And I hope from there, I can build those personal connections in order to reach out in the future. And I always end interviews or emails with sources with something like: “I hope you don’t mind if I reach out to you in the future for anything else.”
Q: Is it OK to reach out to multiple sources?
Klems: Yes. Just let people know upfront that’s what you’re doing, especially if you’re working under deadlines. You need to get information, and you can’t just wait around forever for people to get back to you. I think it’s OK to reach out to multiple sources or give them a quick turn-around deadline like: “I need this. I need to connect by this time. Otherwise, I have to move on somewhere else.”
Go make some calls to get juicy details
If you need to find a source to interview for an assignment or need a a quote from a subject matter expert to nail your next query letter, go make some calls and send out emails to make connections. Work on building relationships with sources. And when you do land an interview, ask open-ended and follow-up questions, and you’ll get all the juicy details you need.