In my first reporting job, I think 95 percent of the sources I tapped were the usual high-level people, the folks in charge: the Mayor, district attorney, chief of police, city manager, county attorney, school board chairman, etc.
I noticed the star reporters were cultivating secretaries, administrative assistants, the beat cop, the civil servant. I had forgotten the little people, the everyday folks most plugged in or most affected by some policy or action. And they were a lot more candid and credible than their handlers.
So I began filling in gaps, cultivating sources at every rung of the ladder. Even later, it dawned on me that I was overlooking a segment of the community that exercised tremendous influence over a city: business leaders. They were almost always pulling the strings of elected leaders and high-level bureaucrats. Power was wielded as much from board rooms as at city hall. So, I began adding more rungs to my source ladder.
Every single one of the best stories of my career has been the result of my conversations with the "little people" Ed mentioned above. (If you ever want to hear any of my really cool stories, let me know. But be forewarned: I could go on for hours ...) How did I go about actually cultivating some of these relationships?
It's amazing how far a can of soda will get you. Find a cleaning lady, a lawyer or a cop, and move them toward a drink machine. Don't say a word, buy a drink and hand it to them. That is a great way to open a conversation and it works like a charm.
Take notes behind the notes. Pay attention to everything. The name of your source's spouse and kids. The name of his or her cat or dog. His or her birthday or anniversary. Jot down all of these personal observations and tuck them away in a computer file. Refer to that file before you know you're going to see that person so that you'll be able to ensure a warmer, more personal conversation. (The best salespeople do this! Don't laugh!)
Take the time to talk. Just chat. Talk about stuff that has nothing to do with anything you're working on. Sources appreciate that because they need to feel as if you're genuinely interested in them not just constantly working them over to get a good story. There is, however, a fine line here. It is very important for you to always remember that sources are not your friends. They are not your buddies. They are not your pals for whom you can do special favors. (Sure, you will find yourself caring about some of these people because you are human and because they are indeed wonderful but always maintain a safe and healthy distance from them.)
Always pick up the tab. Ask someone out for coffee or lunch. But never and I mean never let anyone pay for you. Got it? No one who isn't your colleague or boss. That's very important. In fact, I can't stress enough how important that is.
Perform your job with a sense of integrity, humor, wit, warmth, professionalism and dedication, and people will notice. They'll be more likely to open up.