You are here

Dark Arts of Sourcing Event Examines Best Ways to Cultivate Sources

By Maryellen Tighe

The first step in building a strong relationship with a source is arranging in person meetings. That’s what the seasoned journalists of the New York Financial Writers’ Association’s dark arts of sourcing panel told the roughly 50 attendees at the April 14 event.

In person you can discuss how your relationship networks overlap, which may make them more comfortable, or work on developing a different human connection, according to Lawrence Delevingne,’s Big Money enterprise reporter.

As with everything, journalists have different approaches to in-person meeting. Dana Cimilluca, the Wall Street Journal’s deputy deals editor doesn’t try to get information about deals at the in-person meetings he arranges. “I never bring a pen or take notes in meetings,” Cimilluca told attendees, noting that he’ll circle back around with sources on a follow-up call if they mention something he really wants to pursue on the record.

One particularly easy way to meet sources in person is to attend conferences. And, as Dakin Campbell, a finance reporter at Bloomberg News noted it is helpful to prepare a list of people you want to talk to beforehand.

Similarly, follow-up is also important.  “As soon as the conversation is over I write myself emails with very specific tips,” said Delevingne.  

Following an initial connection, there are several steps to keep it healthy. One way is by not always asking sources for things, but by instead being sure to make the relationship a give and take. For Campbell, this is done by keeping detailed notes on his sources and thinking of non-work related reasons to call them.

For Emily Flitter, Reuters’ money in politics reporter, knowing the material a source works with is critical, as it makes sources feel like they’re having a conversation with an equal.

The ways journalists go about meeting people in person are also extremely varied. For Bloomberg’s Campbell, Friday lunches are a preference because they tend to have a more relaxed feel.

Despite their different approaches, however, panelists agreed that not all sources are worth continued efforts. If a source keeps copying public relations representatives or their compliance department after multiple e-mails following an in-person meeting, it is often best to cut your losses.

For finding sources while at home, Delevingne recommended LinkedIn, noting that you can send inmail to determine who you both know in common. In fact, one way he said he gets sources comfortable enough to talk to him is by discussing any shared interests –such as general industry trends that aren’t of a very sensitive nature.

It can also be helpful to take advantage of the particular publication you work for and the specific reasons sources may have for speaking with you. As Flitter pointed out, sources are often more interested in talking to niche publications because they’re more willing to discuss the minutia of a topic.

When it comes to the unfortunate reality that there are often stories journalists must write that will not make their sources happy, panelists agreed that reporting what you have uncovered is usually worth risking a relationship –particularly when it is for a really good story. “If the story’s good then I don’t worry because I don’t think people hold grudges over good negative stories,” Cimilluca said.

But if a source is truly valuable, and the story you are writing is not worth losing that relationship, one way around ruining such relationships is by getting a contact to talk about the subject you are writing on and then verifying it elsewhere, according to Delevingne.

And don’t forget that most sources have their own agendas and reasons for speaking with the press –meaning that in many cases they are happy to provide information, but do not want to go on the record or be publicly linked to a specific topic. It is important to work with sources to accommodate their wants, but it is also important to be honest, said Cambpell.