Lily Canter is an experienced freelance money, health and lifestyle journalist, and a senior lecturer in journalism at Sheffield Hallam University. She is also the co-author of Freelancing for Journalists and co-host of the podcast of the same name.
Whether it is a woman who bought a divorce horse or a parent homeschooling five children, finding a case study can sometimes feel like more of an art than a science.
Yet, the human experience is at the heart of journalism and it is a vital skill to be able to track down individuals with compelling stories.
There are a number of methods that can be deployed to find the right person to illustrate a story, no matter how obscure the request may seem.
It goes without saying that social media is the number one platform for finding case studies but it is not as simple as putting out a post on your Twitter or Facebook feed. Your request needs to reach beyond your own inner circle particularly if you want diverse representation.
Using the hashtag #journorequest on Twitter will put your request in front of people keen to share their story or PRs with relevant clients. Keep your DMs open and you can quickly filter through any responses. Using this approach helped me to secure a case study for a Mail on Sunday story about homeowners struggling to find an approved Green Home Grant installer.
It is also a great idea to join niche groups to find exactly the person you are looking for. Need someone who invests in cryptocurrency? Join a crypto Facebook group. Writing an article about what to do with excess breast milk? Join a breastfeeding support Facebook group.
"Any Facebook group with 5,000 members or more is brilliant for case studies whether it is a group for parents, for pets, whatever."
Also think about where your case studies might hangout online, whether it is Instagram, TikTok, SnapChat or another platform. They might not be on Twitter or Facebook but they probably have a profile somewhere.
For a Vegan Living magazine article on tattoo artists, I discovered Instagram was the best place to find case studies and used the search function to track down individuals before sending them a direct message.
Another tactic is to target people associated with those you are trying to find. For a Guardian article on teen entrepreneurs, I posted in business Facebook groups with the aim of reaching parents and family friends who could then put me in contact with relevant teenagers.
Vocal individuals also tend to reside in online forums such as Reddit, Netmums and MoneySavingExpert. They can be a good place to hunt for someone complaining about a niche subject or to put a call out.
Make sure you read the forum rules first (the same goes for Facebook groups) because some do not allow media shout outs. One such forum saved the day when I had exhausted all options for a story on restrictive covenants.
Freelance journalist Jack Wynn has even used the Nextdoor app to find local business owners in the Vale of Glamorgan.
"I was writing a story about local business grants during the first lockdown and what changes owners were making to keep their businesses running. From the Nextdoor request I managed to find an accountant, a restaurant owner, a clothing shop owner and a freelance graphic designer."
Press offices and PR agencies
Asking press officers and public relation officers to find case studies is also a legitimate approach. They will often have a bank of people they can call on who have already given their consent to be identified and photographed for the media.
If you receive a press release on a topic you would like to cover, go back to the sender and ask them to source a case study for you.
Charities can also be a great source of emotive case studies. For example, if you are looking for someone struggling with coronavirus related debt then approach an organisation like StepChange.
You can also use services like Ask Charity which link journalists up with case studies and spokespeople.
But this approach does come with a big caveat. Never assume that a case study has been fully briefed before they speak to you and be prepared for some dramatic u-turns. This has happened to me on countless occasions and there are now certain case studies I will never source via a PR.
Each week a new database promising to provide journalists with expert sources appears to pop up online. Some free options for journalists include Help A Reporter Out, SourceBottle, Find Your Expert, with many more paid-for services out there.
Through websites or portals you enter your details, the request, the deadline and the media outlet you are working for and it is sent to relevant contacts who then respond directly to you.
In my experience, these services tend to be better for sourcing experts rather than case studies but they are always worth a try.
A top tip would be to set up a separate email account to deal with responses because certain topics will attract hundreds of emails. And remember there is no obligation to respond to them all.
Friends and family
Using friends and family may be fruitful but I would always leave this as a last resort. You always have to tread more carefully with people you are close to because you never quite know what the repercussions of a story may be.
Want to learn more about developing story ideas and finding the right sources? Build your experience and knowledge in our How to Become a Successful Freelance Journalist training course, with Lily Canter and Emma Wilkinson. Working as a freelance journalist is not just about writing the perfect pitch. Successful freelances also have to be able to negotiate rates, build up contacts and know how to brand themselves - click here for details and bookings
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