In the world of journalism – local, national or international – contacts are how you bring in the good, sometimes great, off-diary stories. Contacts, who come in many different forms, like to feel like they matter, and because they’re the ones providing you with stories, they should matter to you. Just like any relationship in your life, you need to nurture it so that both parties are getting the best out of it. There’s no substitute for hard work when it comes to making contacts, but here’s a few tips to help smooth the way.
Keep in touch
Don’t just call contacts when you’re desperate or when you need them for a comment. Make sure you give them a ring every so often just to check in and see how they’re doing, or go out for coffee with them. If you’re in regular contact, they’re more likely to remember you when a story does come up, and they’ll give you a call. And if you’re speaking to them on the phone often, then sometimes they’ll mention something they might not see as a story, but you do.
Everyone is a contact
At journalism school (a bit like Hogwarts without magic) I was taught to put everyone I ever spoke to into my contacts book. It might seem a bit odd, but it’s very, very useful. Always try and put as many details as possible about them in, like where they live and work, as well as contact numbers. That way, if something happens in the area they live or work, you’ve got someone you can ring to try and get some information from.
Never miss an opportunity
One of the best stories I ever did came about because I once gave a talk to a bunch of junior school kids about journalism. At the end, despite the fact that they were 11, I gave them my business card. Lo and behold, a year later I got a call from one of their mother’s, telling me she had a story and that her daughter had my card and liked me, and they wanted to tell me about it. And that story was picked up nationally. It’s highly unlikely I’ll get a story that way again, but it taught me to never underestimate where a contact can come from.
Contacts have lives of their own – they’re not simply there to provide you with stories. Remember little details about their lives, and ask them how they’re getting on. It’ll make them like you and want to talk to you when they’ve got something newsworthy.
Show off the paper
At my first paper we used to go to court every week on the morning the paper came out. We’d take along copies of the paper for the security staff at the courthouse, and for the court clerks. The papers would get passed round so everyone (solicitors included) could see what was going on that week, and could see what cases we’d put in. Giving away a few papers that would otherwise languish in the office meant the court staff liked us all, and were easy to deal with when it came to getting court lists etc.
Put in the time
Sometimes contacts don’t work the same hours as you, in fact, a lot of the time they don’t. And while it’s not ideal, occasionally you will need to put in unsocial hours to make contacts. I can’t count the number of parish council meetings I went to when I started at my first paper, but sitting through numerous discussions on street furniture and the like meant I was not only trusted by councillors and was their first port of call when a story occurred, but I was also trusted by people living in those areas, because they could see I’d put the time in.