Tips on how to grow to be a degree of contact

If you do a web search, you can find endless advice – from decent to total BS – on how to get media attention. A critical part of this pursuit is less emphasized: being a good source.

As a reporter and editor who has worked in newspapers, magazines, and online fields for many years, I have found that good sources are more memorable than awards. I have built long-term relationships with many of them. And I’ve found that they all have similarities that make me think of them first as the deadlines get closer.

I started paying more attention to what makes a good source when years ago I urged my ABA Journal team to look for more diverse sources for interviews and photos. Women and marginalized lawyers were underrepresented, and at least I needed to see justice in the way we reflected the makeup of the profession we covered. I started checking the pages of the magazine and returning stories to editors and reporters who didn’t meet my diversity expectations.

There is much discussion about why older white men are cited more often in publications than in any other group. Wisconsin Public Radio recently recognized the problem and is taking corrective action to diversify its source pool.

In order to be able to tell better stories from different perspectives, I do everything possible to reach and rely on experts who stay under the radar and are less well known for many reasons. However, when news comes out and I need a source right away, it’s hard not to rely on the usual suspects.

For those who want to be the expert a reporter thinks of first, I’ve included some attributes of a good source. Good sources make reporters’ lives easier when they juggle multiple stories within tight deadlines.

Good sources are:

Responsive. Quick response to requests for comments or background information. The early bird catches the worm. When reporters have the luxury of long lead times, they can wait to get a response from the first people they call or email. Otherwise, the first to respond will likely be given priority.

Flexible. You are flexible and make yourself available. If you’re hard to come by, unless you’re already a superstar or a critical part of a story, the chances are the reporter will just move on.

Tolerant. Complainants and second guessers are the worst. At best, they return to reporters and ask for unnecessary adjustments, word changes, or quotations. At worst, they claim the reporter misquoted or made a mistake. This triggers a series of internal reviews at news outlets and sometimes a tremendous amount of work that can make you feel bad about a source. If there is a factual error or a clearly misquoted quote, it is important that it be corrected. But if you don’t like the way you sound and you think you could have articulated it better, take this as a lesson and move on. If there is a mistake, be respectful and kind when requesting correction or clarification.

Understand. By that I mean that a source should know at least a little bit about the reporter’s work. Most journalists have professional ethics guidelines that prevent them from pre-sharing articles or allowing sources to negotiate on language. Before an interview, it is good to understand the reporter’s methods and basic rules. For example, what is “background”? And does the reporter allow you to review, or does the reporter repeat direct quotations?

Supportive. Good sources appreciate the opportunity and let the reporter – and possibly the reporter’s manager – know that they appreciate the work that went into a story.

The best sources:

Are generous. Reporters don’t forget when a source goes out of their way to make a story come true. This can help gather or interpret documents, or spend time helping a reporter understand some arcane aspect of the story.

Share. The best sources understand that the reporter is not a PR agency. Reporters have sweeping beats and tasks. When a source can offer up-to-date tips that don’t directly benefit the source, that source gains credibility.

Sponsor others. The best sources encourage those who are not getting that much ink or airtime. You take the time to observe others in the field with similar or, above all, different perspectives. This should go without saying for many lawyers I know who enjoy surrounding themselves with their peers who have points of view that can be politely discussed.

Know when to pass. I can name sources that are cited on absolutely anything, even if they have no experience on a particular subject. This is a disservice, especially for publishing. This is also a perfect opportunity for a source to sponsor others (see above) or make a recommendation. This is a win, win, win, win. The reporter gets a better source on the topic, the source gains brownie points with the reporter AND the person they promoted, and the previously unknown source is given the opportunity to speak.

When lawyers ask me how to quote, a good pitch is only part of the equation. Being courteous and reliable can help build credibility and develop a reputation as a point of contact.

Molly McDonough, a veteran legal journalist, is the producer of the current events show Legal Talk Today. She is also a media and content strategist at McDonough Media LLC. McDonough was previously the editor and publisher of ABA’s flagship magazine, “ABA Journal”. She writes about access to justice in A Just Society.

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