By Chuck Nelson
David Moye was having trouble finding sources for a story. His topic? Humans having sex with aliens. Not the kind of thing you bring up in casual conversation with strangers waiting for a bus or shoppers at a local mall.
To find people to interview, the pop culture journalist who writes for the Huffington Post’s Weird News section, went online for help. He posted a query on HelpAReporter.com “to speak with people who’ve had sex with aliens, UFO experts, biological experts who can discuss the potential problems of mating with a foreign species, psychological experts who have studied the phenomenon.”
Moye told JimRomenesko.com he got at least 15 responses from the site, “two or three of them were for people pimping novels.”
The site — also known as HARO.com — is a public relations platform designed to connect potential sources with a story to tell to reporters, who are always looking for interview subjects.
It’s just one of the digital tools available to journalists on a quest to find real people — RP’s we call them in my newsroom — who might be able to add anecdotes to balance professional or expert sources in a story.
“I do weird news and that means I need experts who can comment on things,” Moye told The Village Voice. “Sometimes the story is so weird you want to have somebody corroborate it.”
The popularity of Facebook has also made it a prime destination for reporters trolling for sources. With a billion people using the social network, there’s bound to be someone out there with information on any potential topic.
Reporters at the Columbus Dispatch in Ohio have used the paper’s Facebook page to ask readers to comment on various topics: the length of their commutes; mailboxes damaged by snow plows; the dating scene for senior citizens.
Many news outlets also use social media to “crowdsource” a story. That’s the practice of asking a group of readers to participate in news gathering — the larger the group, the better. It’s not really a new concept for news gathering, but social media platforms have elevated it to an art form.
A popular crowdsourcing technique is to ask readers to submit photos or videos on a particular topic, usually a big weather event. The best of these can then be used online in a slideshow or as a feature package in print.
When Austin, Texas, was approaching a record for 100-degree days in the summer of 2009, editors at the Austin American-Statesman set up a Posterous site where readers could submit photos showing how they were coping with the heat. The paper wrote a story about what readers sent in and set up a slideshow in its website.
In a similar example, the Dispatch built a slideshow around Christmas with pictures of less-than-successful visits with Santa. Reader sent dozens of photos of their children — and sometimes shots of themselves as children — crying on Santa’s lap. “Scared of Santa” was very popular with visitors to the paper’s website.
The Guardian in London frequently uses crowdsourcing to gather information for big stories, including a project that recruited readers to help comb through expense data Prime Minister Tony Blair filed with Parliament.
For breaking news stories, location-based apps also can be a handy tool. Check-ins on FourSquare or Facebook and location information on Twitter can help identify potential sources by placing them at the scene of a news event as it happens. This turned into a key technique for journalists covering the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011.
A new app call Banjo is also proving to be useful to journalists for finding people in the middle of news stories. The app lets users see who’s checking in or posting messages to social media in real time from any spot on the globe.
Many journalists didn’t travel to Italy for the papal conclave, but still wanted to talk to people who witnessed the events. By pointing Banjo to St. Peter’s Square as the white smoke wafted over it, they likely could have identified dozens of people posting to social media networks at that historic moment.
Depending on the amount of information users included in public profiles on Facebook or Twitter, the app would essentially have created a contact list. Messages to the posters could have resulted in a timely interview, one that might even have localized a story for readers by talking to one of their neighbors.
No word on whether Moye has used Banjo to crowdsource potential interview subjects at Area 51.
Chuck Nelson is a veteran journalist at Dispatch.com in Columbus, Ohio, and earned a master’s degree in Interactive Communications from Quinnipiac in 2011. His twin boys were also afraid of Santa.