With apologies and thanks to Elvis Costello, I want all my journo students to remember that phrase.
Every day, you better be writing your book. Your source book.
If you haven’t done this yet, create a source book. Some are simple. Some are complex. Some are digital. Some are a motley collection of stained notebook paper pages and cocktail napkins. It doesn’t matter if it works for you. But you need it.
What I suggest to the aspiring young reporter is to buy a spiral notebook in the standard 8 1/2 x 11 size. Every time you interview someone, give them a full page. Paper is cheap and can be recycled. Write on their page the source’s name, correct title, phone number, e-mail address, website and any other pertinent information including personal observations (Joe has three sons. One, Pete, is an accomplished photographer). Those notations come in handy for building relationships.
I learned this trick as an undergraduate at Missouri Southern and it was a habit that served me well when I later went into sales with Hallmark Cards. I didn’t spend precious time finding people I needed and I didn’t fumble around looking for ice-breakers. Those were in my source book.
As your source book expands — and it will expand — you can revise it and further organize it. You can put it online or create tabs in a loose leaf notebook. It is all up to you. But this is the one rule that is inviolate:
Update a source entry every time you speak with that source.
I am dead serious here. Titles might change, sure. But more importantly, you want your information to be up-to-date and complete. You want to be a reportorial J. Edgar Hoover with your source files. Information is powerful. Old information is useless.
They need to be in pictures
Carry a cheap point and shoot camera with you. Hell, use your phone. But take mug shots of all sources you interview in person.
This serves two purposes. First, it gives you a file photo of that person in case it would ever come in handy for a future story. Second, you should print it and put it with the source’s page in your book. It will remind you what that person looks like and that sometimes comes in handy.
Sources aren’t always people
Sometimes sources are organizations that have frequent personnel turnover.
So cross-reference those. Create a page for your personal contact, but also create a page in your book for the organization itself. Include website URLs and other information that you can access quickly later.
Also make notes about the organization and its activities. This can give you a good ice-breaker, too. (“How did last week’s fund raiser go?” or “Isn’t this the time of year for your annual awards?”)
Don’t share. Much.
Never let a friend, colleague, loved one or editor see your source book. Hell, deny it exists.
Of course, you can share a phone number or e-mail address and name from your book. But your book should contain the little observations and details that give you the “in” with sources. That is proprietary information that gives you the edge.
Don’t give that up.
Don’t worry. Be crafty
Here is my favorite.
Many officials and lawmakers almost exclusively call back from their cell phones. When you leave a message to call you back, don’t give the newsroom phone number. Give your cell phone number.
They call you back on your cell from their cell and boom goes the dynamite. You have their cell phone number, too. In a pinch you can skip a secretary or aide and call direct.
Source books aren’t just an address and phone book. They are your notes from a career. They are the information you collect while sourcing and developing relationships. And they are the resource that keeps you from having to re-invent the wheel.