Networking is a must-have skill for any journalist. Having good contacts can help you nab stories, and get your foot in the door of a news organisation.
But make no mistake networking is a skill; contacting strangers can be difficult and daunting at the best of times, let alone throughout a global pandemic. But truth is, most people do not bite and some will be happy that you dropped in.
Building your contacts is just a matter of looking in the right places, following a few common practices and asking the right questions. Journalism.co.uk spoke to a handful of industry professionals to help you grow your contact list during the pandemic.
Attending online events
During the pre-covid era, journalism events and conferences would be a sure-fire way to build industry networks. During a pandemic, however, that becomes a bit trickier. Fortunately, many online journalism events are still happening and can be a useful way to forge contacts.
Alice Driver, a freelance journalist based in the US and Latin America, attended the National Geographic Storytellers Summit which was moved online last year, and she says these types of events are a good opportunity to build contacts in your field.
"In the online format, I met new people via participation in a group chat and by sharing the work of others present on Instagram. I am a big believer in sharing work you love and contacting those who made it to thank them for their work," says Driver.
Make your online presence known
The pandemic has pulled into focus how important it is to have a clean and clear social media profile. New contacts will often check your profile to learn about you, your work and whether you are legitimate. So keep your Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn profiles updated and make it easy to get in touch.
For students, this is especially important according to Robin Brown, lecturer at Salford University and a freelance journalist, as social media has become almost indispensable for developing stories.
"I usually use social media to get in touch with people I want to interview these days. People are easy to find, very receptive to being contacted through social media and frequently use it," says Brown.
Find an online community
The YJC has been a source of support for herself, fielding questions around pitching stories and radio work. Other members have used the group as a springboard to start their own projects, such as the podcast Views Our Own and sports website It's All Sports To Me.
"It has completely changed my approach to networking and the media landscape in general - it has taken down a lot of the gatekeeping of information and everyone is so engaging," says Iftikhar.
"It is also really easy to reach out to various people and get to know them and their work. Also, it gives a greater sense of community when freelancing and journalism can often be a very isolating career choice."
Respect people's time
It is safe to assume everyone is busy. If you reach out to someone, chances are they might not see your messages straight away and it may take a few days to respond. You must respect their time and recognise that sometimes an email gets buried in an inbox, or people are not checking their DMs constantly.
Planning ahead is therefore crucial for stories. Work out who you would like to interview and have questions ready to go once they reply. According to Brown, he is generally prepared to conduct an interview "there and then" when he contacts someone.
"I don't like 'lining up' interviews and then getting back to them later down the line. Sources often change their minds, move on to other things, forget they agreed in the first place or find reasons not to do the interview," he explains.
Make sure to follow up
It is tempting to move onto the next story once your article is published. But checking back in and staying in touch is crucial for maintaining rapport and getting more stories down the line, says Theo Chikomba, a BBC broadcast journalist.
"For ongoing stories such as political stories, for example, it's always good to keep in touch with an MP or their team. That way I am likely to get an update or exclusive from them if we are regularly in touch," says Chikomba.
Another reason to keep in touch is that your contact has contacts of their own. When you wrap up an interview, do not hesitate to ask to be put in touch with other colleagues or experts in their field. This can effectively break down barriers to new contacts.
Keep your contacts warm
The other danger with not checking back in with contacts is that those leads go cold. One of the hardest parts of journalism is developing sources, so make sure not to let your hard work go to waste.
"It's a mistake to only start looking for contacts when you have a story – cold-call journalism is really hard work," says Ian Wood, journalism lecturer at Salford University and former news editor for Manchester Evening News.
"You need to constantly cultivate contacts so you already have a relationship in place when you have a story to tell. People are much more likely to return your calls and messages if they already know you."
Show genuine interest
Cold-calling can be effective though, according to Daniel Levitt, founder of the Inside The Newsroom newsletter, provided you can make a strong first impression.
The pandemic, if nothing else, gives us a good reason to drop people an email to build out our networks and establish deeper relationships.
"Drop someone a warm email expressing how much you admire their work and you'd love a quick phone call to learn more. People love to talk about themselves so this is a really effective way of building a network," concludes Levitt.
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