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Pry That Valuable Information Out!


crucialinterviewWhen you can’t sell a piece without conducting a crucial interview first, but the source won’t give you the time of day until you have the assignment, how do you convince potential sources to help flesh out a piece that might never even see print?

You can lie, of course, telling sources you’re under assignment. But if an editor finds out you claimed to be working for her magazine when you weren’t, kiss the market goodbye. And if word spreads you’re untrustworthy, well, good luck in your next profession. So what’s a poor freelancer to do? Try these four tips.

* Re-evaluate how much information you need. Is it necessary to write the entire story before contacting editors? Unless your target markets refuse to accept query letters, it’s unwise to devote a great deal of time to a piece before receiving editorial feedback. Odds are good you’ll glean enough information for a solid query from secondary sources and library research. This backgrounding will also serve as great preparation for the major interviews you’ll conduct after nabbing the assignment.

Sometimes an editor will hesitate to give your story the nod unless you can deliver a specific expert, official, movie star, author, captain of industry or pop-culture icon. Here’s what you do: Convince her to make the assignment contingent on landing that source. Then, if the interview comes through, wonderful. If not, refocus the story for a different market or move on to greener pastures. No harm, no foul.

(True example: I once saw a newsflash about a young Cuban who windsurfed his way to freedom in the Florida Keys. Within minutes, I found a listing for a California-based surfing magazine in Writer’s Market and called to pitch a profile. After landing the gig–contingent on obtaining an interview with this amazing defector–I tracked him from a Florida ,sheriffs office to a nearby federal processing center for refugees. Unfortunately, he’d already left by the time I called. Worse yet, nobody knew where he’d gone. Instead of making waves, my story crashed onto the rocky shoals of failure. But so what? If my timing had been a bit better, I might have crafted a fantastic clip. As it was, the thrilling chase cost me only a couple of bucks and an hour out of an otherwise boring afternoon.)

* Piggyback your spec work on a real assignment. This strategy works for both established and novice freelancers. Say you want to write a piece on mountain biking for Outside but you need to talk to the best cyclist in the nation before you send the query. Why not sell a mountain biking story (with a different angle, of course) to a local or regional publication first?

Then you can tell the source you’re writing for the Times Picayune -Gazette and that you hope to use the material for a national magazine piece as well. Established writers can try a variation on this approach: Sell a piece on your chosen topic to an editor you work with regularly, then obtain extra information from sources for a spinoff story aimed at new markets. (I did this when I sold a piece on audiodescription–otherwise known as movies for the blind–to WD. Sources were eager to talk when I mentioned I was working on assignment, and they didn’t mind that I also interviewed them for a related story I planned to pitch to a national movie magazine.)

* Dust off that resume. Some sources refuse to talk to freelancers without assignments for fear of being misquoted or otherwise maligned. Ease their worries by mentioning past publications and offering to send samples. If you’ve never been in print, talk about your journalistic training and/or any special knowledge you have of the source’s field. Rounding off such introductory remarks with the phrase, “I’m hoping to place the article in (name of publication)” is both ethical and permissible.

* When in doubt, gut it out. If none of the previous approaches will work for you, pick tip the phone (or turn on the computer) and ask potential sources for interviews anyway. Tell them you’re passionately interested in their work. Tell them you’ll keep the questions brief. Tell them the world deserves to read their story and you’re just the person to write it. You’ll find that most people love to talk about what they do. And being accessible to the public is part of the job descriptions of many potential sources, including teachers, government officials and some businesspeople.

Whatever your style of reporting, keep in mind that it’s part of a freelancer’s job description to be resourceful and persistent in trucking down sources–even if you don’t have an assignment from a bigname publication to open doors along the way.

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