Tuesday, June 21, 2011

When to use your prior articles as primary source material

I've covered the difference between primary and secondary sources in previous posts and told you that you should always strive to use a primary source rather than someone else's reporting of that source material. Obviously, an original interview that you conduct is a primary source. Don't overlook that fact if you later write on a similar topic. You can cite the expert you interviewed with a link back to that interview as a primary source for future articles.

This is an exception to the rule. Ordinarily, I think linking back to one of your articles as a source of factual information for a news report is not a good idea if the information you're citing was originally drawn from another source. In other words, many articles (especially news articles) are themselves secondary or even tertiary sources.

If your previous article said, "The FBI, on their website, are asking for the public's aid in locating Whitey Bolger." That's a secondary source with the FBI website being the primary source. If you wrote "ABC News reported that the FBI Director asked for the public's help..." Your article becomes a tertiary source, ABC News is the secondary source for the primary source which was the FBI Director himself. These kinds of chain references where the reader who wishes to check your source has to go through several links to get to the source are damaging to the writer's credibility, in my opinion, and should be avoided.

However, articles in which you personally conducted the interview and are bearing witness to what the relevent source said to you, are fair primary source references. There is no extra link in the chain for the reader to chase down because you've done the original investigation and reporting and these articles can credibly be used as primary source references for future articles.

Note that this is for news source references. If you include links to other articles you've written as additional background material, further reading, related topics, or also of interest pieces, that's a separate thing altogether and I don't take issue with that at all.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

PR firms, time commitments, and maximizing returns

Recently, I received a message from the PR firm that handles Ford Motor Company and who helped arrange a previous interview for me with Ford's Vice President of Manufacturing informing me that they also work with Coca-Cola. They wanted to know if I'd be interested in covering Northeast Coca-Cola's involvement in the NRRA's 30th Annual Recycling Conference and Expo in Manchester, NH. They would be featuring the plant-based PET bottle now being used for Dasani water.

While I didn't think this had the broad appeal to warrant use in my highest paying beat which is simply "newsworthy interviews," I did think it was relevant to both my New England Regional News and my Environmental Issues beats with the Yahoo! Contributor Network, and for my Manchester Green Living Examiner title.

I saw several article angles that I could write up and the PR firm offered to set-up interviews with both the event's executive organizer and the general manager of Northeast Coca-Cola. I was particularly interested in learning about the PlantBottle technology which uses plants to make 30 percent of the plastic in the bottles used for Dasani Water. However, whenever dealing with a company representative, a writer has to be sure they are not just receiving one side of the story, and has to do a a little extra fact-checking to keep them honest. So, instead of the usual Q&A format, I incorporated a "fact check" paragraph after a couple of the answers I received clarifying or correcting information fed to me by the Coke reps. (Read the PlantBottle technology article here.)

Another interesting side note of this is that I actually went to the conference with a press pass provided by the event organizers and had the opportunity to not only interview the organizer and the Coke people directly at the show, but I walked the floor and picked up several serendipitous interviews with other vendors presenting at the expo. I'll be using these in future articles. I also noted that on the day I attended area schools were invited to attend the show, and awards were being given out to the top recycling schools, student, and staff. That seemed like a good local interest story, as well, so I wrote that up using a couple of relevant quotes from my much longer interview with the event's organizer and a list of award recipient's they provided to me under embargo terms (just until after the actual presentation so the winners would not read of their victories before they were announced). (Read the school awards announcement article here.)

In the end, this call from a PR firm will probably yield me six or more articles, maybe more, although not all of them will go up immediately as some are time independent. I spent about two hours driving to and from the event (recording mileage total as a business expense for tax purposes), about two and a half hours at the conference, and about 2-3 hours researching the NRRA and the Brazilian sugarcane industry, plus writing time.

For one article, even under the Interviews beat at Y!CN, it would have been hard to justify that amount of time investment, but for 6 most of which will go to Y!CN beats with good guaranteed upfront payments in addition to page view royalties, the math works better. The key here was keeping my eyes open for additional story opportunities. I also wanted to get some journalistic practice in covering live events and trolling crowds for interviews, so that figured into my equation as well.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Why use original interviews as source material?

As a journalist, non-fiction writer in a niche topic, or a generalist, your work can benefit greatly by interviewing others and using their knowledge and quotes in your articles. By asking questions and listening to the answers, you as a writer are acquiring original source information that is absolutely unique no matter how many other writers are working on the same topic. By going directly to the source, your article benefits from increased credibility.

A thousand people can write about the latest study linking the excessive eating of ice cream and unprecendented gains in longevity by using the original published research paper as a primary source. All one thousand of those writers will have access to the same facts, the same researcher comments, and will all see that original source material worded exactly the same way. Many of their reports, even those found at major outlets like Reuters, AP, and Yahoo! will be very, very similar in content and tone. By talking to the lead researcher directly, however, you can follow any angle of questioning that you think is interesting. You'll get original quotes that are different from those that appear in every other published report on the subject and you'll almost certainly get facts and insights to which no other writer has access.

In other words, you'll be able to turn out a better article than anyone who relied only on material that is presented in identical fashion to everyone. That's not to say good, or even great articles can't be written without original interview material. They are every day. It is ultimately a question of the writer's imagination, creativity, skill with words, discipline and experience that dictate the quality of any article. Starting out with higher quality, more unique source material such as an original interview, however, gives the artist a bigger pallette from which to fill the empty canvas.

As if that weren't enough of a reward, you may find yourself earning higher upfront payments for these highly original articles as well.

For some, finding the right people to interview can be difficult, though. On one of my other blogs (Interviews with Experts), I am launching into a series of posts about identifying, contacting  and securing interviews with original sources from many different walks of life from the everyday person, to the knowedgeable expert, to the celebrity.