I’m not really a journalist, but they don’t know that. Some tips?
December 22, 2017 7:02 AM   Subscribe

I got a writing assignment and the editor thinks I have much more journalistic experience than I do. I know how to write and have lots of experience interviewing people, but in all my work, the interviewees have been selected for me; I haven’t had to find them myself. But for this article, I do.

The topic is on innovative trends in K-8 education, and I think I need to talk to a principal or superintendent who is knowledgeable about such things. A friend gave me this suggestion:

As for contacts, if you're looking for superintendent types, try AASA or even ASCD. There are principal groups you can reach out to, or even subject specific groups, such as a national social studies group.

So my question is: what do I do now? Do I just call or email these groups and ask if they can put me in touch with the right person? What's the procedure or protocol here. Thanks!
posted by gigondas to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Yes. Start with an email because it'll help people have a reference for the details and it can be passed around easily. Begin with something like "I am a reporter on assignment for X, working on a piece about innovative trends in K-8 educaton." Then describe a bit of what you'd like to learn - maybe a couple of sample question areas - and ask if they could recommend someone who would be well positioned and willing to speak to you about the topic.

Think about levels. Some principals and superintendents will be really knowledgeable about recent trends - but you might be surprised that some really will not, and serve more as business managers. So also be sure to include teachers themselves, particularly those known for good practice. Sometimes it's productive to ask around among your friend set / social media for contacts: "do any of you know a really amazing teacher who always seems to be on the cutting edge?" A lot of journalists maintain a contact email list of friends and connected folks just to serve as a sounding board for ideas and a contact generator.

Don't overlook academics and research centers. If you're writing for a regional publication, check the regional universities to see what programs and centers deal with education policy, pedagogy, and teacher training. It's their job to be up to date and they may know of outstanding local practitioners.

You may also want to check the national organizations for teachers - there are many, not just general orgs for primary and secondary teachers like the NEA, but groups specific to teaching math, science, language arts, etc. Their journals will have articles about emerging practice, and their offices may provide further contacts.

Good luck.
posted by Miko at 7:20 AM on December 22, 2017 [5 favorites]

I've done this kind of thing with little experience / lack of official "journalist" status, and it's super easy.

Just craft a professional sounding email explaining what you're looking for and add a little flattery, ie: "I am looking for your expertise in xyz". Research a bit about the person ahead of time and then mention something about them in the email to show that you have a grasp of what they do. The idea is to get the message across that you admire and respect their work and that they can make a great contribution to your article due to their years of experience and vast knowledge. People LOVE to be interviewed for articles on their expertise, it's a huge compliment to their status. So as long as you convey that I think you should have no trouble.

Also, if you can name-drop your company, your boss, or anyone famous/ well reputed that you are working with, that can really help even if it's in the form of just, like, "I read in XYZ newspaper that so-and-so did abc. I was wondering your thoughts...." Just to hook their attention away from the fact that they don't know who you are.

Also--- never apologize and never even mention the fact that you are "not a journalist" (according to you). They don't care, and they won't know unless you tell them.

Add an email signature after your name to make it more professional, like:

Researcher at XYZ

Even try adding a link to your LinkedIn profile and embed it in the LInked in logo to make it even more fancy.

Good luck!
posted by winterportage at 7:26 AM on December 22, 2017 [5 favorites]

Many of those organizations probably have press offices. If you are working on a piece of journalism, you could contact them - it would have a higher hit rate than just contacting a generic organizational email (info@org.org or somesuch).

I would also recommend digging around to find out what the latest research is on the subject - who's writing about it, who's talking about it and doing it. Google's advanced search function can be quite helpful here. Believe it or not, the reference links on Wikipedia pages for a given topic are also a good place to start. Once you've got a list of names, you can google around to find contact info. Academics are usually easy, most have their email addresses listed somewhere on their organization's website, and they tend to like talking to journalists.
posted by breakin' the law at 9:08 AM on December 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

Another way to find sources is to find industry publications or conferences that cover those topics and look for the authors and speakers at them. In that case you will want to be aware of bias in your source but speakers in particular live and die on exposure and are often really good at getting back to journalists (which you are) quickly.

Make sure to at least Google your source to be sure that you aren't missing a very obvious bias or controversy. I once had an inexperienced writer turn in a piece on a lifestyle topic with some lovely quotes from a source who, when you took even a cursory look through Google, was well-known for some extreme actions that pretty much torpedoed any expertise. Your editor hopefully is on this ball as well and you don't have to treat it like Watergate, but pretend you're a reader curiously looking that person up. That is probably obvious but sometimes as people get closer to deadlines they drop the basics.

Since I went through the trial by fire that you're going through I thought I'd share a couple of tips with you that I really wish I had had:

1. Start a spreadsheet now of everyone you contact and when you contacted them, who got back to you, and keywords so you can find them again. In a few years you will be THE BOSS of contacts.

2. It's okay to contact multiple sources at once, just be respectful of people's time. So if you send 10 inquiries and 4 people get back to you and you end up quoting 2, communicate truthfully and gratefully along the way. Even if someone gets back to you 3 weeks later and you have no need of them and don't think you'll ever write on the topic again, communicate gratefully and with class and note that on your spreadsheet. This has saved my bacon on deadline a few times because people remembered that I had needed information quickly the last time, but had not annoyed them with anything terse.

You've got this. Don't worry about special journalist tricks on this one; most journalists learn to chase sources by chasing sources.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:11 AM on December 22, 2017 [5 favorites]

Side note. Don't make any declarative statements in your own voice that you can't prove to be true. That one thing is the big diff between journalism and writing, and I'd suggest you pay careful attention to it. Either CYA via hedge/weasel words, or find an expert to make the point for you within quotation marks.
posted by Quisp Lover at 12:03 PM on December 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

Submit a request through Help a Reporter Out. HARO emails go out to a list of thousands of potential sources for articles every day, so once you hone your pitch to potential sources that you're sending out to contacts at those organizations you listed, try submitting a variation on that write-up to HARO as well. Don't worry about whether you're a "real journalist"; there's no certification or anything required to do the work and talk to people and write and be a journalist. Just be professional and ethical. And when you're not sure how to be professional or what's required ethically (in writing or in addressing a possible source), ask here or Google the specific question, because likely it has been asked before.

Also, Miko's advice about levels is really good—the thing I was thinking about was that it's useful to figure out criteria to narrow down the potential pool of sources from any person in education to people who work with specific populations that might appeal to your audience. E.g., if this is a piece for an audience of teachers, you'd want to talk to teachers, but ones who might have more specific innovative ideas, so perhaps people who teach or train teachers, or people from an organization devoted to that. Or if this is a piece for an audience of parents, you'd want to talk to sources who can explain current trends in education in a way that's going to make sense to a lay audience of parents. Or if this is for a publication with a specific regional or country audience (or an international audience), think about who the leaders are in that area or space.

Some of the most interesting and innovative work I can think of personally has to do with international teaching and innovation in that space (teachers who work abroad and/or teach kids to connect what they learn to their communities, as well as others all over the world). Someone like Sarah Harkin, for instance, might be good to talk to in that regard. She's the Social Innovation Coordinator K-12 at the International School Dhaka, and her email address is at the bottom of that piece. (Full disclosure, I know her, but she's nonetheless doing really interesting work connecting social innovation and social entrepreneurship with international learning.) But whether the work she's doing is relevant to what you're writing will depend on your audience and whether they're looking for more localized info or something more global.

Let us know how it goes or if there's more specific direction for the piece for which we might be able to help you find sources!
posted by limeonaire at 12:31 PM on December 22, 2017

Came here to recommend HARO — it's great.
posted by Brittanie at 7:07 AM on December 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

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