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Friday, December 2, 2011
Generation J Toolbox

Finding sources and stories in a new town

Jacqueline A. Ingles

Embarking on the “broadcast television tour” can evoke excitement and panic. I have always compared it to a game of hopscotch: You can land in any state or country when you make jumps in your career.

For this column I’ll assume you’ve landed that first reporting job. If you are like many reporters, it is in a small town you have never heard of and are not from.

After reporting in Valdosta, Ga., and then Austin, Texas, two cities I knew nothing about (I just showed up suitcase in hand along with my cat), I picked up some tricks to help find sources and solid stories.

1. Walk your beat. Get out there. Walking the streets, observing and talking to people who live there is the best way to get a feel for your beat.

Take a pad of paper and pen and write down what you see, what catches your eye and what people tell you. If you have a digital camera, take photographs. When you return home, look at your photos and analyze what you see. Did you notice people speaking different languages? Did you see a transit system? How is the town laid out?

It can be weird approaching a stranger. A woman I went up to on a CTA bus ignored me. Get used to it. Talking to strangers and making them comfortable is now your job.

2. Online research. The Web is a great tool when moving to a new town. Google the name of the city you are in and look at pictures, read the history and take note of what big industries are in the area. You can find almost anything online these days, including the names of officials and where city departments are located. Take a little time each day to do some research.

3. Keep up on dailies/watch newscasts. The easiest way to find out about your new home is to look at the news your new station or paper covers. Often times, video links are live for months or years, and dailies archive. Reading and watching news, especially from competitors, will show you what is important and what is going on.

For example, in the Texas Hill Country, almost every town has a small paper. Many of the people who write for these papers grew up in those towns. They have a wealth of information. You can often find out who the go-to person is for information by reading their stories. Almost every morning, I read those papers.

Listening to a newscast will also help your pronounce different streets, counties, etc. For instance, a county I cover is named Burnet. By first glance, one would pronounce it BURR-NET. Nope, wrong. Locals pronounce it BURN-IT.

4. Contact key people/organizations. Don't be bashful when it comes to cold calling or emailing sources and community leaders to introduce yourself. In terms of elected officials, it is their job to deal with reporters. Maybe you won't receive a call back or an email, but, you tried.

If you do get an email or call back, introduce yourself and try to set up a quick in-person meeting. One colleague I worked alongside wrote a homeowner's association introducing himself and ended up with the lede story on his first day: Burglaries were up in the area and police were not increasing patrols.

A few key people and organizations to contact:

• Chamber of Commerce

• County commissioners and city council members

• Police chief

5. Talk to co-workers. Reporters can be competitive, especially in small markets where the goal is to move up. The silver lining, however, is that you are all in the same boat in a matter of speaking.

Talk to your fellow reporters, producers and assignment managers about your coverage area. These people were at your station before you and can lead you in the right direction. Remember, it is called a news team because you are there to work together. Don't expect, however, for someone to hand your their lede story or black book of sources, but they can show you the ropes.

6. Be social. It is OK to go out and have a good time. It is your job as a reporter to be “"in the know.” You cannot be “in the know” if you are “on your couch.”

Does the local college have a play coming up? Is there a social hour at a church you are affiliated with? Make sure you get out into the world and experience life as the locals do — it is the easiest way to meet people in a non-intrusive setting.

Heck, in my first job, I could not afford a washer or dryer. So, the Laundromat was like social hour. Anyone around me was fair game for a quick chat.

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