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How freelance writers can find fantastic interview sources

How freelance writers can find fantastic interview sources

If you’ve got a great idea for a feature article for a magazine or newspaper, you need the talent to back it up. But for journalists or freelance writers, finding case studies or sources can be a tricky thing. You might need experts to translate complex ideas so that a general readership can understand recent research, or you may need to find someone with first person experience to speak eloquently about the topic you are exploring. But how do you find those people who are going to bring your story to life?

How freelance writers can find fantastic case studies and sources for interviews

finding great case studies

A case study can make or break an article. You want interviewees to give you colourful quotes and to lend a new perspective to the topic you are writing about.

Sometimes editors will provide you with case studies, but more often than not, if you want to write articles for magazines or newspapers, it’s likely that you’re going to need to find compelling interviewees on a regular basis.

When I was starting out as a freelance writer I would often get myself in a tangle, wondering if I should find my case studies first but then risk not getting a commission and having to let them down, or whether I should pitch an idea and then take a chance that I would not find the right sources.

Which comes first - case studies or the pitch?

 I’ve now developed a simple process that I use before I send a query letter or pitch to an editor.

pitch chart

The general consensus is that if it's going to be tricky to find a case study, find them before you pitch. But if sources will be a dime a dozen (like an academic willing to speak about internet addiction) then it's fine to send a query letter to an editor first.

Ultimately though, I think this really depends on this question:

How risk averse are you?

Are you someone who likes a bit of adrenaline? If you pitch a killer story (without securing interviewees first) and it gets commissioned do you think: “Now all I have to do is find a real estate agent who moonlights as a organic snail farmer and who brushes their teeth with a horsehair toothbrush. Easy.”

Or do you err on the side of caution (hello, soul mates) and think: “Hmm, maybe I better check just how many real estate agents who are also organic snail farmers who use horsehair tooth brushes are out there” before I pitch my idea.

If you think your article idea has legs but are not sure you can secure the talent, it’s always worth validating your inkling before you pitch.

Finding great case studies: Put out feelers for interview sources

If you’re not sure how hard it’s going to be to find interview subjects for your story try these avenues:

-       If you're in Australia, post a callout on Sourcebottle or in the USA, Help a Reporter Out (known as HARO) 

Be mindful that these places can be full of people looking to self promote so you may not always get your sources from here. And just a warning: If you put a call out for a life coach on Sourcebottle, your inbox is likely to be clogged for days.  

-       Think about where your potential case studies likely to hang out. Are they members of associations? Clubs? Do they chat on discussion boards? Are they members of specific Facebook groups? Send emails, requests to join Facebook groups, join discussion boards (often more established discussion boards will have a Media Requests area)

-       Ask all your friends if they know of anyone who could be a potential case study

-       Put a call out on social media – pop up a post on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn saying what you are looking for

-       Google like mad – don’t just use the regular ‘search’ function in Google – use the ‘news’ tab and see what’s been written about your topic lately and who other journalists or freelance writers have used as case studies

-       Get in touch with Public Relations people – PRs have a huge network of contacts and they may be able to suggest someone

-       Once you’ve secured an interviewee – ask them if they can suggest anyone else who would be good to speak with

Don't want to secure case studies without a firm commission? Do a ‘soft pitch’

Soft pitching was a revelation to me recently.

I had an idea for an article about women in their 40s doing internships. I wasn’t sure that I could find compelling case studies so I ‘soft pitched’ my editor.

As you can see from the excerpt from my email below, I wasn’t even sure that I could test the waters to gauge the editor’s interest before I looked for case studies.

I sent this email:

Hi editor,

I've got an idea for another feature, but I wanted to run it by you before I officially pitch it (can I even do that?!)

I have a feeling it'd be difficult to find case studies, but if you think it's interesting, then I'd feel more confident to put a call out there.

 I have this idea for an article of "The 40 year old intern" - I see so many of my friends in their 30s and 40s retraining or changing direction in their career and I wondered if anyone has interned? It seems like interning is the domain of young people, but surely there must be some 40 year olds who intern at a magazine or with a fashion designer, or even less ‘glamorous’ places? 

Recent stats show a quarter of Australians over 30 years of age have done unpaid work experience in the past five years.

 Let me know what you think?

The editor replied:

Hi Lindy - yes always feel free to soft pitch!

I like the idea but I agree it could be difficult to find case studies. Maybe see how you go?

Keep me posted, and no worries if it doesn't come off.

Thanks

 So I went ahead, confident that if I found the right case studies I had a commission. And I did. The story ran last weekend.

I should add that I would only send a soft pitch to an editor I had a relationship with - it wouldn't be a good look to send an email hedging my bets (like the one above) to an editor I'd never worked with before. 

Put yourself in the shoes of your case studies: Know why people will come forward

Lastly, and I think this is so important, as writers and journalists we have to recognise the reasons why people might want to talk to us. For experts who are commenting on their professional area of expertise it’s easy – they want to share their knowledge around a particular topic or area.

But for ‘real people’ the reasons they agree to be interviewed by freelance writers or journalists can be more complex, such as:

They might want to get publicity for a specific topic

They want to set the record straight about something

They want to share their experiences so others can learn or be inspired

They want to raise awareness about something

The more emotive a topic, the more care needs to be taken. As writers, we have a duty of care to do the right thing by the people whose stories we are sharing and telling. 

And sometimes, even if you have secured case studies, things don't always go according to plan. 

A few years ago I wrote an article about young Australians who die while travelling overseas and half an hour before the scheduled interview with my main case study, I received a text message saying she had changed her mind. Her son had passed away in confusing and complex circumstances while he was travelling overseas and at the last minute she had decided it wasn't the right time to share the story. I got it.

I think all my years as a social worker helped me see it from her perspective - I was not her priority. This story was not her priority.  

People often need to have a reason to talk with a writer or a journalist and share something of themselves. If you can’t find case studies for a particular article, it may be that you’re not looking in the right places, or even if you do have case studies but they pull out, it may be that the topic is too difficult for them to discuss. 

With the story above I asked a few psychologists I had interviewed for previous stories whether they knew any families in similar situations who would be happy to talk with me and luckily one did. 

But always ask yourself what the case studies would gain from speaking with you.

And another tip? Once you've found great people to interview, think about case study spoking as a way of building up your 'talent' base of willing sources.

How do you go about finding case studies? Do you pitch first or pitch after finding case studies?

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