Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Finding story ideas #2: meeting sources

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“The source of a river or stream is the original point from which the river flows. It may be a lake, a marsh, a spring or a glacier. This is where the stream starts”.

This is a continuing series focusing on ideas and suggestions about how to find and come up with story ideas. To view previous entries in the series, use this tag. 

Recently I had the pleasure of meeting a Chinese journalist. As a tech reporter, she has covered China’s rapidly developing tech industry.

She told me things of which I was only very dimly aware or not at all. She made them clearer to me and painted pictures and scenes of China’s technological landscape that, heretofore, I barely understood.

Who are your sources? And where are they?

Perhaps one of the greatest training that a stint on a local newspaper can provide is the lesson on how to locate, maintain, and cultivate sources.

I cannot say that I am as well trained as a reporter on, say, The Bournemouth Echo or The Hastings Observer in this matter, but I distinctly remember observing a journalist “working the phones” when I did work experience at The Brighton Argus when I was still a journalism student.

It was around 11am, and she had already done a bit of reporting in the morning frenzy, and now there was a lull. So she picked up the phone and started calling up her contacts — her sources. From what I could gather, these were police spokespeople, town councilors, heads of housing associations, neighborhood watches, local business people; those pillars of society that are often the first receivers of news.

When she got through to these people, on the phone, after dispensing with the pleasantries, her first question was: “have you got anything for me?”

What may be obvious to those on the inside is not obvious to those on the outside

Recently, while I was at a bar, I got talking to a couple of architects. One of them told me that a lot of foreign architecture firms had been shutting up shop in China in the past couple of years.

I was immediately piqued.

When I asked him to elaborate, he was dismissive — “I thought this was obvious”, he said — implying that it was common knowledge. But the fact that he was an architect (and an employee of one of the most famous architecture firms at that) made him inoculated to this piece of information.

Among architects, in China, it might indeed be common knowledge. But to those on the inside what may seem common knowledge is often completely unknown to those on the outside; people outside of that information circle.

The job of the journalist is to get inside that circle, pluck out the information, and then to distribute it to those outside the circle — in other words, the general public.

What if you’re going abroad, and starting out as a freelance foreign correspondent?

One of the single best things you can do, upon arriving in a new country, as a journalist, is to make contact with other journalists. Best of all, local journalists. They will have a different understanding of what’s going on in that country than foreign journalists. Both are valuable.

But the fact that local journalists speak the local language (obviously), use and interact with the things that they are reporting on like locals, means they can pick up on things that outsiders may miss. Specialty journalists (tech reporters, political journalists etc) often hold information even more unknown.

Other sources can be niche publications, journals, blogs, and event organizers. When I spoke to the tech reporter, she told me things that could turn into around half a dozen stories. And having contacts herself, she can be a springboard onto the next step. It was a very productive talk. And all it took was an email, a few text messages, and a focused chat, while I sipped on a coffee, on an otherwise lazy afternoon in Beijing.

Related:

Six things I learnt about the freelance journalism market while I was in China // Five things to do upon arriving in a new country, as a foreign correspondent

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