First off, let me say that I’ve never been a newspaper reporter, have never set foot inside a journalism school and only know who William Allen White is because there’s a building named after him at my alma mater. I do write for magazines, but that does not make up the majority of my writing. Mostly I write books and coach writers.
That said, I have watched a lot of good writers head directly into a train wreck because of the way they think about sources.
When you write a reported piece – whether it’s a service article on how to clean your kitchen for Woman’s Day or an in-depth investigative piece for the New York Times – you need expert sources to quote. Fair enough, right?
How you get those sources is another story for another day. How you think about those sources is today’s topic.
I see writers take two common approaches, both of them wrong-headed. The first is to think that a source or a PR person who’s going to connect you to a source is a friend. “I don’t want to upset my source!” I often hear. “I don’t want the PR person to think badly of me!” is another cry I hear too often. One writer gushed that she’d thanked a PR person for her time and the PR person wrote back! And thanked her for the thank you! And wasn’t it wonderful and shouldn’t everyone be so nice to everyone else and maybe we should all sit around the campfire and sing Kumbaya.
Look, PR people are in the business of being pleasant and responsive (except for the ones who aren’t, and I’m pretty sure the recession is weeding them out). Take any compliment they give you with the same grain of salt you give to anything your grandma says about you and your beautiful blue eyes. PR people have a vested interest in making you feel flattered and loved – because possibly you’ll give their client lots of lovely press if they do.
In other words, PR people have ulterior motives. Actually, their motives are not very ulterior, they’re pretty exterior and anyone can see them if they’d just look. That doesn’t mean you should be a jerk to PR people or that you shouldn’t bother thanking them for their time or whatever. But please. They’re just doing their jobs. You don’t need to get all hot and bothered because of it.
The same with sources: they have a reason for wanting to talk with you. An editorial mention of a business or an expert is worth more than an advertisement, as any fool knows.
So be professional, but remember that you don’t owe sources anything except accuracy. If you end up not being able to use their comments in your article, then that’s okay. You don’t have to screw up your story just to fit them in. They don’t get to approve your final copy. You get to decide what you can use and what you can’t.
The other wrong-headed thinking writers have about sources goes something like this: “I have an article assignment from the Podunk Times. Anyone I talk to is lucky I’m talking to them, and if they don’t appreciate the favor I’m doing them, then I’m outta here.”
Look, you can’t do your work without sources, so a little appreciation is in order. I’ve been the subject of interviews more times than I can count, and I try to be gracious but you know what? Your story is not the most important item on my agenda today. In fact, if you don’t quote me at all, it probably won’t make one tiny bit of difference in my life. If you do quote me, even in the New York Times, it still probably won’t make one tiny bit of difference in my life. So a little perspective is in order. Yes, when I agree to talk to a reporter, I have a motive besides liking to talk to reporters, and that motive is I’d like to get some press coverage of my books. But in the end, you’re the one getting paid, not me. You’re the one who is assured the benefit (the clip, the check), not me. So treat me with a little respect, will ya?
In other words, sources (and PR people) are neither friends nor enemies. They’re just sources (or PR people) that you need to treat professionally and respectfully, but you don’t owe them anything – and they don’t owe you anything, either. ‘K?