8 quick ways around the single-source story

by October 24, 2013

You often have to put up with me railing against the single-source story.But this press-release “journalism,” merely taking dictation, is one of the biggest challenges we face.

Old Rolodex stuffed with names

A Rolodex stuffed with names, numbers and business cards is a very retro database.

Every time we write a single-source story, we make ourselves more irrelevant.

A FEW WAYS TO FIX IT:

1. Analysts. Wall Street analysts cover every major company. You should have the best in your contact list. Always ask if their company has a position in the stock and disclose that.

2. Academics. Universities are rich in scholars about various sectors of the economy. Writing about real estate? Contact the Ziman Center for Real Estate at UCLA, the Lusk Center for Real Estate at USC or the Urban Land Institute. Got a story about jobs or unemployment? Call a professor at Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies. As with analysts, go for the gold standard people, not the local yokels. The Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program tracks issues and metrics for American metros, as well as having top experts.

3. The Federal Reserve. Each Federal Reserve bank has experts on a variety of topics, from employment to agriculture. They also offer reports that can offer valuable background and insights. The St. Louis Fed’s FRED charts series is a bounty of data on almost every topic.

4. Insightful critics. Avoid the talking points of politically compromised outfits. That said, there are always critics of a company or project who can add essential elements to a story. One example is the environmentalist Bill McKibben on the Keystone XL Pipeline proposal.

5. Insiders. Seek out employees, former employees, vendors and competitors. Be alert for biases, but they can often add useful viewpoints and voices.

6. Add your own context and history. No event happens in a vacuum. When a company announces a profit or the quarterly venture capital numbers come out, one of your tasks is to answer the question: Compared with what? For example, did earnings meet Wall Street expectations? How do they compare with pre-recession numbers? Are there special one-time accounting tricks that distort the news? With VC, you want to compare it with the same quarter a year ago, perhaps the high for the metro, and how your metro or state stacks up against peers.

7.  Key player. Always try for an interview with a key newsmaker, not just rewrite the press release. This will add authority to your article.

8. Ask: Who else should I call to give our readers more information about this? The news is just the outside of the onion. Your job is to peel it back, layer by layer, adding meaning, context and finding the conflict that is essential to telling the whole story.

Even a three-paragraph brief can quickly be made more authoritative and informative by using a few of these moves. Anything more should absolutely have them.