You’ve probably heard of Where’s Waldo? – the series of kids’ books, posters, and other paraphernalia that involves trying to find buried in complicated and busy pictures an odd character in a ski cap.
Chances are you can sympathize with the kids because you know what it’s like trying to find people – sources – for one of your stories. Here are some techniques that can help.
First step is to understand the type of person you seek. It’s typically going to be either an “expert” or a “regular person.” You’ll probably need to look for the two types differently.
If it’s an expert, you could try one of the expert databases (more of the invisible web) such as ExpertSource from BusinessWire or ProfNet from PRNewswire. There are other collections as well:
· Go to either Google Directory or Yahoo Directory and search for the term experts. In Google, you’ll find yourself at the Ask an Expert directory listings, where you can pose questions to various types of experts, including chefs and linguists. Yahoo has an Ask an Expert directory also, and in addition has Ask an Expert as a topic in a number of disciplines, including nutrition, astronomy, engineering, and science.
· Check out a university online. Their web pages almost always have faculty listings by subject, and typically they also have phone and email contact information for each (invisible web-type databases). Or you could look up the public information officers and get help finding the right person.
· There are specialty directories for journalists that often have pointers to places to find expert sources. (I once stumbled across a web site to find Canadian political activists.) Some good ones are Megasources (from a retired journalism professor), RobertNiles.com, Power Reporting, and Journalism Resources.
· For the U.S. government’s resources, go to a Navy resource with impressive scope.
· Use business social networking. Sites like LinkedIn.com
You could also try searching the web and your favorite archive of news stories as well as magazine and newspaper archives. (That includes commercial databases like Lexis/Nexis, if you have access to them – and you’ll find some number available for free at your public library.) Think about words that might indicate an expert in the context of an article, and you might find any of the following:
And the list could go on. To find an expert, you’d use a set of keywords that got you into the right ballpark of context, then try adding an appropriate title (one at a time) to see who popped up. You can also look for authors of books about the topic; search on Amazon or Barnes & Noble, where each book has a page with author and publisher names.
You could also go to an industry or special interest group that might provide an expert. Search for the topic as a keyword and try adding association, organization, coalition (more for political activism), and similar words to find groups that address particular topics. (Check directory listings as well as Web pages.)
Often more difficult to find is the “regular person” – who,
if you’re writing for one of the women’s magazines, should be between 27 and
28, come from a mixed ethnic background of southeast Asian and Inuit, live
within a three block radius of the
Not everything is available online, and if you stick strictly with Web-accessible sources, you’re cutting yourself off from a large part of the world. Here are some excellent old-fashioned tools:
Let your fingers do
the walking. The phone book (whether paper or electronic versions) is an
excellent source. White pages help you find specific people. It obviously
doesn’t work for those with unlisted numbers, but you might be surprised at the
people who can be found. Yellow page directories give you the opportunity to
browse a given geographic area by business category. Need to find a general
Just show up. It can be fun and exciting – and certainly a break in routine – to go to some spot and stop people to ask them questions. Many will not only give you the time of day if you explain that you are a reporter, but will answer questions. There are times that shoe leather is the only way of doing research.
Get carded. Go to the public library and talk to reference librarians. They are trained to find information that will elude the rest of us. You’ll learn about such reference books as the Directory of Associations (organizations of all types) and Who’s Who (not the scam versions, but the real thing that may have organization affiliations where you can find a famous person).
Give a call. Find the most likely entities or experts that would have a connection to the type of people you seek and pick up the telephone. Often you’ll find someone who sees value in what you’re writing and will want to help find interview subjects. It’s similar to the online version, except you don’t wait for people to check their email and don’t assume that names will always be clearly available.
Place an ad. This is a little more limited in usefulness, I think but there are times that you need a specific type of person where there is no obviously associated entity – perhaps looking for the descendants of a particular person in a given town. You can always place an ad in a local paper and hope that someone sees it. Because of the hit-or-miss nature and the expense, I’d consider this a last resort, but one worth knowing just in case.
Check a newspaper or magazine. Not all publications have their contents online, but those that don’t might still have indexes or back copies at libraries.
Copyright 2007 Erik Sherman, All Rights Reserved
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