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Forget the source’s fancy pedigree

December 14, 2020

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Credit: Pixabay user LRuss

You know the drill. You receive a response to an outstanding query, or maybe it’s something tepid coming in over the transom.

The email lauds the potential source. Went to all the right schools. Had been employed at some notable places in the past. Maybe it’s an academic at a university. Great, book an interview.

Hold on, though. Over decades now (someone get my walker), I’ve noticed that much of the hype is, not surprising, just that. And many people who don’t have the polished pedigree may have much to say that’s valuable.

There is always the temptation to look for an institutional name. Relatively few journalists, and even fewer readers, are expert enough in any aspect of business to know by name the leaders in the field. Whether academics or practitioners, we tend to recognize people by the company they keep. Or, more specifically, the company that employs them.

But we are at a time when business journalism needs to be renovated. Too many people ready to prattle on in support of some personal or corporate agenda. Too much credulity on the part of reporters. Time to take a different approach.

Instead, you want to find screen your sources to find people who can provide solid, knowledgeable, and honest insight. Here are some suggestions on how to do that.

Forget the institution

Time to give up on the pedigree. Unless you’ve got someone who currently works at a company you’re covering (and even then, be wary) or who left and might offer more candid insights, the associations the person can boast should not be the main draw.

Your interest is in finding the people who can tell you most about something, not who is hanging out at the most popular places. Now, there is a reasonable argument that people at a top entity might have to meet higher expectations. But don’t assume it’s always true. I remember long ago, when I was in product marketing, before getting out of the corporate world, a meeting with representatives of a software giant.

I kept asking questions about a product totally new to us and the answers were blurry. After they left, the vice president of sales at the company where I worked looked at me and said, “Am I mistaken, or did you know more about the product than they did?” I said, “Yes, and that’s scaring me.” Eventually the biggest organizations run out of the most talented people because there is so much competition for them. They need too many and have to begin settling. An affiliation is no guarantee that someone knows what they’re talking about.

Find the right people

You’ve likely seen many times when some source with a long and respectable pedigree addressed questions said they’d offer you some great soundbites. Or answered questions in a generally acceptable while not truly satisfying way.

Here’s the reason: they’re winging it. I’ve had professors at big name universities ask for the general gist of something so they can riff on it. Why do you think PR people ask for question lists ahead of time? They’ll say they want to make sure a CEO or VP has the relevant information. But if the person is really an expert, either on their company or industry or a business topic, why do they need to brush up? They should already know.

Go for real expertise. So what if the person has a degree from—heavens!—a state university or is teaching at a lesser-known school or with a more obscure company or law firm or market analyst. If they have some solid information, can discuss how they came by it, and can discussion your questions and face push-back rather than expect you to take dictation, they’re worth talking to.


  • Erik Sherman

    Erik is an independent journalist and author who primarily covers business, economics, finance, technology, politics, and legal/regulatory, while elegantly expressing the complex and often incorporating data analysis.

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