Cultivating Sources

IRE Better Watchdogs Workshop, Las Vegas NV, Oct. 23, 2006



Duff Wilson

The New York Times






Keep a list of prospects and their telephone numbers


n        Anybody who calls in to the newspaper or station.

n        Anybody in the employee union. Especially shop stewards.

n        Anybody who is ever quoted in a candid way in another media.

n        Anybody who ever talks to a reporter.

n        Friends, family, people in your personal circle.



Find them in the records, too.


n        Phone books. Obtain the employee staff directories and phone books for the agency the past five years. Compare names to see who’s left.


n        Lawsuits and claims. Lawsuits will often lead you to prospective inside sources. If you’re looking in a government agency, FOIA the agency’s top attorney asking for “a copy of your office indexes to grievances, claims or lawsuits brought by employees or ex-employees, and to payments of public funds settling grievances, claims or lawsuits by employees or ex-employees.” By asking for indexes and following the money, you can sidestep the attorney-client privilege and plumb the records for whistleblower candidates.


n        Disciplined employees.  Here you find some people with big axes to grind, and best of all, a lot of them still work there. Naturally, agencies don’t want to talk about these people. A lot of the folks who have been suspended or fired don’t want to talk, either. But some do. My suggestion: a regular public-records request asking for “all notices to employees for proposed or final suspensions of one day or more, or terminations, from (date) to (date). If the agency notifies the employee, ask them to include a note from you. You can also find federal disciplinary appeals, by department, through the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, www.mspb.gov.



The approach.


n        Ask open questions when you visit. “What’s new? What’s going on at your agency?”  Show your interest the agency’s work.  It won’t take long to figure out who’s going to help you as a source.


n        Be direct. When you get to know people – and sometimes at a first meeting in a friendly sort of way – say that you’d love to hear any tips, leaks, anything that might be news or interesting. They’ll know what you mean.  Once upon a time I was shy about simply asking for tips and leaks. I got over it. You can say almost anything when you’re smiling. A lot of potential sources respect the power of the press. With your approach, they can be a part of it.


n        Off the record means absolutely off the record. Know the difference between “on the record,” “on background” and “off the record.” You are looking for tips, leads and leaks, not quotes. Don’t even pull your notebook out. If you do need to write some notes to remember things, ask the source if it’s okay and then write in big letters at the top of the page, “Do not quote.”


n        Be professional. Don’t pal up to sources. You’re a reporter looking for sources, not a friend. Your ability to be worthy of sources by doing serious journalism will show up in the stories you write. The better your stories are, the more sources will approach you.


n        Bring them in on your work. This is the key to good source work. Sell your journalism. Explain the importance of your investigative reporting -- public service reporting -- and how they can help you. Explain why you need to document problems to make things better. I always assume my sources are public spirited, or at least they like to think of themselves that way.  They can do better by helping you.


Keeping your sources


n        Check in. Once you've hooked a source on what you can do together, call once a month or so.  Have a cup of coffee with them. Drop by to chat -- not just when you want them to give you something.


n        Show you can keep a secret. Be careful what you say to other people. If you are asked how you know something, the answer is, "Sorry, but I can't talk about that." Prospective sources catch on if you talk too much. You're the person keeping multiple sources safely compartmentalized.


n        Don’t expect too much.  There might not always be something to expose in the agency or company. Be patient. It will pay off.


n        Keep them involved in on your work.  Once a source starts to help you inside an agency, you might have a problem explaining why you can't do all the stories they suggest. Here again, you need to bring them in on your profession. Explain why you need a news hook or a dramatic angle that will capture public attention.  Your sources are your eyes and ears.