How developed is your contact list: freelance journalists better become collectors

How many e-mail addresses do you have in your address book?

Sources have been important to journalists of all shape and caliber for the profession’s entire history, perhaps even more so for freelancers, who are guiding a ship and finding their story pitches on their own. But in an age of social networks and e-mail clients, it’s important to reevaluate how you’re collecting, retaining and organizing your sources.

During a seminal internship of mine in a big, urban daily newsroom, I remember being floored by some of the old-style newspaper sights I saw. An adjacent cubicle had a tall, lean gent whose desk had lost a battle to yellowed newspapers in the same way his Rolodex had lost to business cards. A Helleva beat reporter had tacked a list of her sources to her wall. The first sheet was a printed, word-processed document, then covered with scribbled blue-point pen writing.

I’m not one for asking anyone to toss his old ways. If business cards or hand-written lists work, then, seriously, do it. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.

But boy are there opportunities today for journalists.

Perhaps more than a year ago I was working with a good, young reporter on a story for our college newspaper. In discussing a story, an idea came to my mind. I popped open my newly-minted GMail account. My graduation was looming, so I was in the process of transferring my contacts (professional, family and friends) from my college account to Gmail. I just started the transition, so I had less than one hundred addresses, yet he issued surprise at what he thought was a bloated address book.

How many contacts one has doesn’t matter, but that my colleague collected none of his professional contacts or sources surprised me. Because, after all, your e-mail account should be ground zero for your sources.

Get yourself a Gmail account to start. Collect and store every contact you ever get that you might even possibly use again in the future. Phone numbers, e-mails, screennames, why not online biographies or birthdays, if you come across them. Then organize everyone in groups, by location, business, or type of story for which you might use them. I always include notes on who the indvidiual is and any information that might help me remember or more easily connect with the person if I contact him months or even years later.

Good journalists are made by their sources, whom they best cultivate not by memory but by organization.

With a crowded address book, you can better connect with your sources.

Because, well, while your address book is a whole lot better than a Rolodex or spreadsheet at organizing your contacts, it’s likely to get just as stale. Sources will forget you, or worse, you’ll forget them.

But a funny thing can actually happen through professional networking sites like LinkedIn, or even Facebook.

While e-mail was once a respite from the labors of a telephone call, online networking sites just might be the same for e-mail. I have a handful of sources who message me occasionally on Facebook. I have found mutual contacts with other sources after connecting on LinkedIn. What’s more, while your business cards and the e-mails on the them which you’ve stored in your impressive, bloated e-mail address book might become outdated, it seems – though it’s early enough in the game for it to be somewhat unpredictable – social networking accounts will be carried and updated for years.

If you want to return to a story you wrote three years ago, but the contact information you have has changed, a social network connection proves crucial, or at least a whole lot more efficient at finding that source you want to rediscover.

This is why a thick Gmail address book – which can be used with your company-issued address with varied forwarding options – and active social networking accounts need to be a part of any good journalist’s tool box.

Outlets like BeatBlogging.org let reporters connect with other writers covering similar content in different regions, to better find trends. Sources, or at least information, galore to be found there.

So grab those business cards and organize them – I do have them alphabetized with notes and often physical descriptions to help me remember the individual – but get all that information into an e-mail account and use it to connect elsewhere. (I do all of the same practices for professional contacts who just might offer me sage advice in the future, but more on that in later posts.)

It’s not how many sources you have, but how easily you can retain their services.

Photo courtesy of MichaelMartine.com.

One thought on “How developed is your contact list: freelance journalists better become collectors”

  1. I use excel to keep track of my contacts. I have about 13,000 approximately (and ever growing). When having this many organization is key. I have groups devoted to categories and subcategories. For example – Forbes would be under business and trade magazines, under magazines. This way I can browse contacts and not just search them.

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