Writers have had great success adapting during the pandemic era
By Bill Spiegel, AAEA Member, Crops Editor, Successful Farming
Time was, attending field days, farm tours, industry events and press conferences were where members of the Ag Communicator’s Network cultivated new sources.
Thanks to COVID-19, in-person events led to webinars and Zoom meetings – still great events, but more difficult to develop relationships with new sources.
So how do members develop new sources? I emailed a panel of award-winning writers and members of AAEA – the Ag Communicator’s Network to find out how writing during the pandemic forced creativity in finding new sources – lessons that can be carried forth post-pandemic.
For many of us, writing bread-and-butter on-farm stories are the best part of the job. Yet, using the same farmer too often damages our credibility. So how do you expand the network of farmers and ranchers in our contact list?
“I get a lot of good leads from good leads,” says Miranda Reiman, editor at Certified Angus Beef. “If somebody is an expert, I ask, ‘Do you know anybody else who has done work in this area?’ Or sometimes I flat out tell an old source, ‘I’d love to use you again, but since we just featured you last month, do you know anyone else who is XYZ?’”
Reiman also queries her colleagues for sources. The CAB team is located throughout the Midwest, so odds are they know someone who knows someone who will be a good source.
Remember, while ag media has its share of “media darlings,” readers may tire of reading the same names over and over. “If you think you’ve read/heard the same source one too many times, chances are that your readers have, too,” Reiman says. “Don’t be lazy.”
“Zoom Fatigue” has plagued all of us, but Zoom meetings (and Google Meets, WebEx, etc.) offer great ways to get story ideas and “meet” new sources, adds Laurie Bedord, executive editor of ag technology at Successful Farming.
“In many of the virtual conferences/workshops I’ve attended this past year, there have been breakout sessions or roundtable discussions. One in particular led me to sources that I had not been aware of before. As we talked, the discussion led to two story ideas,” Bedord explains. “Another roundtable discussion led me to a new source who provided me with another source. It’s like a domino effect. I begin a discussion with one person and he/she says, ‘You should really talk to this person because he/she has great insight on this topic.’”
Check social media too, advises Holly Spangler, editor of Prairie Farmer. “I do use social media to vet sources. How do their opinions land? Are other farmers interested in what they’re doing? Do they come from a place of wanting to share/educate?”
Soliciting sources from social media platforms is a little iffier. “I’ve probably done more texting and DMing with farmers this year than I have in the past. It’s an easy way to establish a rapport, stay in touch during planting and harvest, set up times for interviews/visits, etc.”
Years ago, I was unable to get two sources together for an in-person interview. They suggested using email to conduct the interviews. After the conversations were completed, one source told me he thought I was being lazy. Gulp. But these days, using email is an efficient – and often expected – way to get source material.
“I like to have in-person contact with my sources (the exception could be someone like the president, in which case I think it would be fine to say, “In a January 29 press conference, the president said …”). That said, I am fine with an e-mail interview. In fact, I’ve found that some sources prefer to write their answers before sharing them. It also makes it simple to be sure you’ve got a 100% accurate quote. It’s right there in writing,” says Steve Werblow, freelance writer and photographer from Ashland, Oregon.
Werblow quoted a YouTube video once, in a case when the source was too ill to be interviewed by press time but had pointed me to an earlier speech that had been posted to YouTube.
“When I used the quote, I attributed it to the speaker and mentioned that the comment was made to an audience on YouTube,” he says. “Honestly, I would have really, really preferred to get the quote—even the same quote—in a conversation myself, but as Mick Jagger would say, you can’t always get what you want.”
It’s vital that writers using YouTube, podcasts, even webinars, must say so in the article.
“I think we have to be clear to our readers that the quote came from wherever it came from and not the reporter’s direct contact with the source. Direct contact still carries great weight in my book,” Werblow says. “That said, I think we’ll see more sources pointing us to things they’ve already posted, especially if the source is a public figure or just very busy. We’ll need to learn how to communicate that sort of information-gathering technique to our audience.”
Are your sources credible?
Vetting new sources is a must. During the research for a story I wrote in Successful Farming not long ago, I Googled the name of a highly-recommended source, as I do with every source I use. This gentleman happened to be found guilty of fraudulent activity to obtain USDA payments. Using the source Would have harmed the article’s credibility.
“A few minutes spent Googling a source can save a lot of headache,” says Steve Werblow, freelance writer and photographer from Ashland, Oregon.
“Finding controversies, complaints and iffy comments has caused me more than once to find another source rather than hanging a story on somebody whose credibility or motives could blow up later.”
Bedord checks credibility of new sources by checking LinkedIn, plus vetting them through mutual friends or other sources. “My point here is that you never know who you are going to meet in these breakout sessions, and where it will lead,” she says.
Untraditional sources for story leads
Ag media always inspires new stories and projects, Werblow says.
“But so does reading other media, whether it’s about news, food, travel, history, infrastructure. Several years ago, I got the lead for one of my favorite stories from a one-sentence mention in a travel guide. I just got a subscription to a cheese magazine because A) Cheese is really tasty and B) Visiting a farm that makes its own cheese is almost guaranteed to yield an interview with a creative person, great visuals and a story about adding value,” Werblow says.
Spangler says Prairie Farmer’s young farmer mentoring program has proven to be a great way to find new story ideas, and new contacts.
“We do a profile on each of [young farmer]. It’s a good excuse to get on their farm and spend some time with them, which always leads to more story ideas from this new group of (really good) farmers. I can point to three cover stories in the past year alone that have come from those contacts.”
A seasoned ag editor told me a few months ago, “if you never stop asking why, you’ll never run out of story ideas.” That’s still pretty solid advice.
Good information in this article! Good reminder about vetting leads with a Google searches.
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