Secrets to securing sources

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I’ll never forget how I picked up my first source in Missouri.
It was 1980 and my first week on the job at The Kansas City Star. I had worked the past four years in Racine, Wisconsin at the Journal-Times and I had a Rolodex full of sources. (Yes, we had Rolodexes back in those days.) But I was starting over when I moved to Missouri.
My wife and I didn’t know a soul. And worse yet, I didn’t have single source or story subject.
So I started the old-fashioned way. I hopped in my Jeep and drove to the new Truman Dam, which was creating a buzz at the time. While on the access road to the water below the dam I spotted a sign for Norm’s Bait and Tackle and turned in.
Inside I met a bear of a man named Norm Trautman, who immediately stuck out his meaty paw and gave me a crushing handshake.
As I asked him about the fishing in that part of Missouri, he tossed me a handful of homemade jigs and said, “Money-back guarantee. If you go down below the dam right now and don’t catch fish, bring ’em back and you’ll get your money back.”
Trautman laughed at his own joke. He hadn’t charged me anything.
I drove below the dam and saw a crowd of fishermen lined up along the riprap and I squeezed into a gap. Soon I was enjoying my introduction to Missouri by catching fish at a fast pace.
Later I drove back to Trautman’s shop and took some time to talk. I had my first source.
Over the next few years I did several articles on Trautman, who guided for crappies. And just as important, he supplied me with the names of other fishermen I could contact for other stories.
Several times, I got stories just sitting around at the bait and tackle shop and eavesdropping on the conversations between other fishermen. That might not seem very sophisticated, but over the years, it has proven to be one of my most effective ways to gain sources.
Moral of the story: You have to get out there.
The best outdoors writers — or writers in general, for that matter — are snoopy.
“Who was that you just talked to? “
“I heard there was a state-record size bass just shocked up during surveys at Lake of the Ozarks. Any truth to that rumor?”
“Someone just called with a story about a huge buck that was taken by a bowhunter. Any idea how I can reach him?”
Those are just a few questions I’ve been known to ask. In the process, I have a far bigger source file than I ever had in that Rolodex back in Racine.
Good sources can be the difference between a great outdoors story and a mediocre one. Here’s a few tips on how to build your source list.

  • Hang out with the right crowd: This might seem obvious, but it is the key to developing sources. Pull into that little bait shop off the beaten track, that mom and pop archery shop, that little convenience store that sells hunting and fishing equipment. Introduce yourself, then talk the talk. Convince the people that you’re not just a big-city newspaper writer or freelancer doing a story on the outdoors. That first and foremost, you share their love of hunting and fishing and are searching for unusual stories.
  • Get out of your comfort zone: It’s easy to do repeat stories on your buddies or to do first-person articles, but that’s the lazy way of doing things. Don’t let your ego get in the way of a good story. Yes, maybe your readers want to read about your adventures every once in a while, but not every week. They want to read about different characters in different settings. Force yourself to find new sources, and tag along with them
    for the day. It might not be comfortable at first, but I have met many people who have become close friends that way.
  • Develop your go-to sources: One of the keys to good source development is having a few “go-to” people with whom you have a good relationship and mutual trust. Often those people will confide in you about a big poaching case, a recurring pollution problem that is having a big impact on fishing, or the loss of public hunting land. They provide the tip, then it’s up to you to get people to go on the record.
  • Use different sources to relate the same story: After 35 years at The Kansas City Star, it gets to be a challenge to come up with new ways to cover major events such as the annual deer opener. That’s where sources come in. They’ll tip you off to unusual ways to cover the same story. For example, search for groups that have set up deer camp in the same place for years. Or someone who is older than dirt who hasn’t missed a season for decades.
  • Use social media: I never thought this would be on my list. I’m an old-fashioned newspaper writer and I believe in developing sources through personal contact. I’m still getting used to using my cell phone. But social media can be a huge help in developing sources. I have friended many guides and hunters and fishermen on Facebook, and it has paid off. Don’t be too proud to beg. Reach out via your Facebook page, simply requesting that if anyone knows someone who would fit what you’re looking for in a story to contact you. I have gotten several good articles that way

Trautman passed away June 10 at age 83, and I miss him already. We kept in touch infrequently over those last years. He invited me to go fishing again, but I never had the time. I regret now that I didn’t take him up on those offers. When we talked, I often reminded him that he was my first source in Missouri. He’d laugh and say, “You don’t seem to have any trouble finding people to write about now.” That’s true, but he’s the one who introduced me to the Missouri way. That giant file of contacts I now have started, and grew, with him. ♦
–Award-winning writer and photographer Brent Frazee has been the outdoors editor of The Kansas City Star since 1980, the same year he joined OWAA. He is an OWAA and Future Fisherman Foundation board member and is president of the Outdoor Writers of Kansas. He lives in Parkville, Missouri with his wife Jana.

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