Sourcing and Interviewing

Building a network of sources is key to good reporting. Having an established web of people who are willing to talk to you will help you find stories and obtain accurate, important information. Most of the Messenger’s best stories have either been fed to us by trusted sources or have emerged from conversations with those sources.

 

For interviews with administration and comments from St. Olaf:

The College’s media relations policy says that the Office of Marketing and Communications serves as the principal point of contact between mainstream and online media and the college: responding to media inquiries, providing background information for reporters’ investigations, arranging interviews with St. Olaf administrators or faculty, and working with faculty, staff, and students in getting the word out about St. Olaf activities and accomplishments.

To request formal interviews and comments from the college, contact Associate Director of Marketing and Communications Kari VanDerVeen. She can be reached at (507) 786-3970 / (507) 412-1036 or vanderve@stolaf.edu.

Let her know who you’d like to speak to, what story you’re working on (you don’t need to provide details, just let her know the topic) and what your deadline is.

But keep in mind: good sourcing will allow you to work around this formality!

No amount of writing or talent will overcome the ability to source well. Beth Hunt

Director of Editorial Recruiting and Development, American City Business Journals

3 Types of Sources

In reality, there are many, many more types of sources that you will run into while reporting. These categories are a good place to start when considering who to reach out to and how to think about the information that they provide you with.

1. Power Players

Ex: The Board of Regents

These people are in high positions of power and oftentimes key decision makers. They’re extremely important, but difficult to nail down. Snagging an interview with them is possible through diligent and patient source-building. While they rarely leak information, their names will often be at the center of your stories and so it’s important to be well-versed in their positions and past decisions. 

2. Talking Heads

Ex: St. Olaf Marketing and Communications

Usually a member of PR or other spokesperson. These people always know what’s going on, but they may have a vested interest in keeping the truth from you and making their client/organization look as good as possible. Don’t rely on them for interviews, but they can help you access other sources. Establishing positive relationships with PR folks can help you get closer to major sources in the future, and will put you at the top of their contact lists when there is big news. 

3. Stealth-Bombers

Ex: A custodian in the Provost's office

These sources are found in unlikely places, but they can be golden. Be careful, these people are often giving you information that puts them in a place of vulnerability. Consider carefully how you will present that source in your article and talk to your editors about how best to protect their identities. If needed, the Messenger will print anonymously.

Where do I find sources?

1. Read the archives. The Messenger has likely written similar stories, and you’ll find names in past articles that might be worth reaching out to again. For directions on accessing the Messenger archives, click here.

2. Use your eyes and ears. If you’re out covering an event or a meeting, pay attention to who is in control and who has information. Who is everyone talking about? Who is leading the discussion? Those are likely the people you want to talk to. On a similar note, pay attention to those on the outskirts, too. They might be rubbing elbows with the power players and be able to introduce you to or lead you to an important source.

3. Ask your publisher, editors, and colleagues. Your colleagues can introduce you to sources they’ve already built relationships with. An introduction by a reporter that the source already trusts will help them trust you, and it will jumpstart your source relationship.

4. Ask your other sources. They probably know others in their department or workplace that would be able to answer your questions.

5. Email Kari. If you truly don’t know who to talk to, email the College’s Associate Director of Marketing and communications, Kari VanDerVeen (vanderve@stolaf.edu). She will be able to point you to someone who has information about the topic.

Interviewing Dos and Don’ts

DO
  • Interview in-person. Schedule a time to meet with your source face-to-face. This will help you build a relationship with them and you’re more likely to get answers that will enrich your story. St. Olaf is a small campus, so it’s fairly easy to get in-person meetings. If an in-person interview is not possible, call them. You can schedule a phone interview via email or cold-call.
  • Introduce yourself as a reporter for the Manitou Messenger. Before you document anything they have to say or solicit information from them, be sure they know that you’re a reporter from the Messenger.
  • Record your interviews when possible. Recording ensures that you are quoting people verbatim and that you have documented information from the source. Your source must consent to being recorded before you begin – on the phone and in-person – so be sure to ask everyone beforehand.
  • Reach out to all parties for comment. Political journalist Ron Fournier often told his sources “I’ll never stab you in the back, I’ll always stab you in the chest.” You don’t want your sources to be blindsided when you print an article. Give all of the relevant parties in your story a heads up before you print and ask if they’d like to provide a comment. It’s up to you whether or not to include the comment in the piece. While you’re not obligated to contact anyone for an article, doing so keeps your source relationships strong and ensures that you’re reporting the whole story.
  • Most importantly, develop relationships. Your best sources will be people that you’ve known for awhile. Keep a spreadsheet or Google Doc with source names, contact information, and notes so that next time you reach out, you’ll be able to connect by remembering who they are and why you last spoke. Soon they’ll be coming to you with news.
DON'T
  • Just email them. Email interviews often lack important context and they’re a missed opportunity to build relationships with your sources. You can, however, email sources to arrange interview times, double-check information, and send clarifying follow-up questions.
  • Record without permission. Always ask your source before you record an interview or take notes.
  • Let your source go off the record. If your source jumps back and forth between on-and-off record comments, it can be difficult to keep track of what they’re willing to share in print. If your source has a habit of saying “this is off the record, but…,” stop them and tell them that anything they mention during your conversation will be considered on the record. While you might not end up getting that off-the-record information, they might also be more willing to go on record when they realize they don’t have other options.
  • Transcribe your entire interview. Instead, during your interview, make a note of the spot in your recording when your source said something valuable. It’ll be easy to find again later. (e.g. 13:46, interesting tidbit on the new football field turf)
Before finishing a big story, call up all of the parties involved and run through the information with them. Don’t send them the story and don’t read it to them, but walk through the important facts and double check things like names, dates, and numbers directly with your source. Patrick Rehkamp

Data Journalist, Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal

Anonymity

 

If a source requests to remain anonymous, it is up to the reporter and editors to decide if it’s worth keeping that person’s identity a secret. Anonymity protects the source: for example, if someone reveals sensitive information for a story that could cause them to lose their job, keeping that person’s identity anonymous allows the Messenger to use that information without putting the source in jeopardy. On the other hand, it requires the Messenger to speak more authoritatively about the information that’s been provided. We have to know it’s true. Contrary to popular belief, the reporter always knows the true identity of an anonymous source – names are only withheld in print.

Before granting anonymity to a source, you must get approval from your editor.