It is fun to know things before anyone else.
Sure, that’s kind of juvenile. But it is my experience that many of the best journalists have the traits of immaturity, irritability and a filthy mind. And all are good tools. But I digress.
I like to know shit. And I like to know it before you do. I like to know shit before the shit happens to the person the shit is about. And when they discover that I already knew, I like to watch them shit themselves.
See? Immaturity. But the point is still valid. And the key to knowing stuff is sourcing.
All you journo students out there take a second. Ask yourself, “What is sourcing?”
You back? Good.
You’re probably wrong. But thanks for playing. It isn’t the stuff that gets into the stories. Sourcing is the hard work and immense time you spend just chatting with people. It is the relationships you develop with people you might normally never even speak with. It is “liking” a photo on Facebook or acknowledging a birthday there.
If you are writing it down, you aren’t sourcing. You are reporting. And you can’t do the latter effectively until you have mastered the former.
So how does one become a master sourcer? Glad you asked, Grasshopper.
Sweepers and Gatekeepers
I have one word for you. Plastics.
Oops. Wrong lesson/movie. I actually have two types of people for you: Custodians and Secretaries.
Those people have two qualities the true sourcing ninja values most. They know everything and everyone. And they have access.
Custodians are a tight tribe. They work their own buildings but they have a communication system among each other that is without peer. Get in good with one custodian and you just got the knowledge of all the others. And they operate in the background, largely ignored and all the while absorbing everything they hear and see like broom-toting sponges.
Alright, Grasshopper, you need to talk to the university president.
You don’t just drop by his house. You don’t just drop a dime on his cell phone. No. You call his secretary.
Secretaries are the gatekeepers. They keep the schedule. They know the schedule. They say “sure” or “he’s in a meeting” while he is standing in the hall drinking coffee. They are your livelihood. They are the bouncer at the mouth of the Bat Cave.
Kiss their asses. Know their kids’ names. Know their birthdays. Know that they can’t wait until Bath and Body Works unveils Twisted Peppermint products each holiday season.
This is very important to your kung fu. Don’t interrogate them. Get to know them. This takes time. Semesters. Even years. And share your loves, hates, hopes and dreams with them. It is a relationship, not an interview.
I still maintain relationships with Missouri Southern secretaries I first knew as an undergraduate 20 years ago. It isn’t about using people. It is about knowing people. And that is a win-win.
Call the fire department. Someone got burned
Never burn a source.
I don’t care how tempting, honor your sources’ job security and the confidence they have placed on you. If a boyfriend or girlfriend cheats on you, you might take them back but you will never trust them the same way ever again. Don’t screw around on your sources.
If you are going to use something, be up-front. Just because a custodian or secretary isn’t being quoted doesn’t mean they aren’t a source or that they can’t be burned by your actions.
Sources are long-term relationships. They are not one-night stands. If you treat them that way, you are calling them whores. And that makes you a john. And it cheapens you more than them.
Never. Burn. A. Source.
Tip. Tip it in the Bud
Get to know one campus police officer really well.
When it comes to sources, campus officers are more mercurial and harder to corral than custodians and secretaries, but they are gold.
They are like the previous two sources on steroids and Angel Dust. They are everywhere, know everyone, have a communications network that boggles the mind and know where all the skeletons are buried.
You bag this one, Grasshopper, and you got the sourcing white whale.
In the HBO original movie, “Long Gone,” William Petersen’s character tells a young infielder, “All girls fuck.”
Well, young journo, “All cops talk.”
The point Petersen and I are making is that you have to convince them to.
Don’t be a tool
All these relationships take work and time to develop. And if you try to develop them in a craven, cynical way from the position of a “user,” it won’t work and you will look like a huge tool.
Honestly get to know people. Respect people. Then you will be a better journalist and a better person.
Oh, and the stories will come like a fisherman who has the fish jump into the boat.