RFA2019 Highlights — How to Develop Sources in a New Community or Beat

Ken Ward Jr. address the 2019 Report for America corps members in Houston on Monday, June 10, 2019.

Our 2019 corps members spent one week in Houston, Texas, training with top journalists from around the country. This included attending three days of RFA-exclusive sessions, the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference, several smaller RFA gatherings and evening events. Here are highlights from those sessions.

Any good journalist knows that quality sourcing is the key to good stories. But when jumping into a new community or beat, it can be daunting to get up to speed. Our training featured top industry professionals who’ve faced those challenges time and time again.

Director of Corps Excellence Alison Bethel McKenzie advised the corps members to find “the unofficial mayor” of their community. “Find out who everybody knows and get to know that person,” she said. And whether it’s a hairdresser or a neighborhood bartender, she also recommended they find the people in the community who hear from everyone.

Investigative reporter Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette-Mail reminded the corps members of the importance of persistence — especially when writing stories that expose wrongdoing or raise questions. He told a story about heading to a courthouse to track down the subject of an investigation, in an attempt to get questions answered after repeatedly trying to get in touch. The source ultimately used that moment to schedule a meeting with him.

“He can’t ever say to anyone that we didn’t bend over backward to try to give him his say,” Ken said. “And in fact, he had some interesting things to say that were included in the story and it made it a better story.”

(Ken also reminded the corps members that being a local reporter means you might run into sources at unexpected moments — like when you’re sitting down to brunch with your family and the subject of that day’s investigation is at the same restaurant, while another patron reads the newspaper nearby!)

Corps members Rafael René Díaz Torres and Risa Johnson work on an interviewing exercise in Houston on Tuesday, June 11, 2019.

Here are more takeaways on sourcing from our trainers:

*Second-year corps member Samantha Max, formerly of The Telegraph in Macon, Georgia, recommended being up-front with sources about the story you’re writing, and even sending clips to past work so they can see the style and quality of your work.

*Carolyn Powers of the Listening Post Collective advised the corps members to spend as much time as they can in their communities doing activities and meeting people. “This is the part where you are building your roots for the next year or two years.”

*Mary Meehan of Ohio Valley Resource suggested tailoring your approach to the source’s position — calling someone three times in one day for a story about an award-winning pie recipe might be overkill—a lesson she learned the hard way early in her career. Instead, she advised corps members to be patient and respectful of their sources’ time. Even a council person or other public official in a small rural town may have a day job or not be as plugged into their phone for calls and emails as a reporter.

*Ken Ward Jr., who is a MacArthur Fellow, advised corps members to ask sources what stories are missing from local coverage. Then, they might be able to suggest other sources who are experts on that topic or provide helpful research. (This is an especially useful strategy in an era when publicists outnumber reporters “a zillion to one,” as Ken put it.)

Robert Hernandez addresses corps members in Houston on Monday, June 10, 2019.

*When a corps member asked Ken whether they should hold a story to give public officials more time to answer questions with a helpful litmus test, he questioned: “Is there an ongoing risk to readers if we don’t publish this? That really matters.”

*Robert Hernandez of USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism advised corps members to stay in touch with sources and make sure their relationships in the community aren’t only transactional: “Your sources are not just the ones you need to talk to when you’re on a deadline for another story,” he said.

More highlights from our training: 

How to Engage with the Community You Cover

Building Trust in Undercovered Communities

Tools and Tactics to Help You Report Better