Finding the Ever-Elusive “Real People” for a Story

New York Times Newsroom 1942 – Majory Collins

Every freelance journalist dreads being told to quote a “real person” in a story. Experts are easy to find and love to talk on the record—but how are you supposed to find a random woman who’ll cop to the fact that she still sleeps with a teddy bear at age 50, or a man who’ll admit to an embarrassing medical condition like excessive drooling? Here are a few ways to track down those ever-elusive “real people.”

1., a mailing list with more than 80,000 potential sources, is the easiest place to start. Send out a query that states who you’re looking for, and you’ll almost always get at least a few replies: Some sources’ responses may be largely off-topic, and some may be focused on publicizing their own businesses, but by and large, you’ll generally nab a few people who fit with what you need for your story.

2. Ask within your own network – While HARO reaches a broader network than you can target on your own, you’re likely to have friends or friends-of-friends who will be willing to discuss a personal experience for your article. Consider starting a private email list that you can use to ask friends, family members, and business contacts for help tracking down sources. Don’t overdo it, though: No one wants to receive emails every single day asking for help finding a hairdresser in The Bronx to talk about perms.

3. Use social media – Building strong networks on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter can do more than help you increase your own personal connections—these profiles can be valuable when you need to find “real person” sources. When you’re searching for a source, post a detailed message with the criteria of the person you’re hoping to find, and ask your connections to share the message with their own contacts. Chances are, even if one of your immediate connections isn’t a fit, someone you know like a fellow article writer will track down a willing source.

4. Post on forums – Looking for a classic car collector to quote for a story? There’s no better place to look than a classic car forum. Although you’ll probably need to register to use forums, you’ll be able to write a detailed post stating exactly who you’re looking for. If you’d rather not announce yourself and risk getting off-topic responses, you can browse the boards until you find a likely candidate, and then send that person a private message asking for an interview.

5. Ask professionals for referrals to their clients- Are you looking for a patient with a rare medical condition to speak on the record? Explain your article topic to a few doctors who work with such patients, and ask for their help. Any good doctor will refuse to give you his patients’ confidential information, but, if your article seems promising, he may be willing to pass your contact information along to his patients so that they can get in touch if they wish to be interviewed. Doctors aren’t the only professionals that might be helpful: “When looking for people to fit a certain demographic, real estate agents can be a great source,” says Joan Caplin, a freelance journalist and researcher from New York City. “Outside of accountants, no one knows more than real estate agents about a clients’ finances, marital status, taste and sanity.”

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