If in doubt, pull a Tomalin

The late British reporter Nicholas Tomalin once remarked that “the only qualities essential for real success in journalism are ratlike cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability.”

His remark became a stock quote for anyone writing about journalism, because it neatly expresses a simple but important truth: journalism is not just about the writing.

But with due respect to Tomalin, a hero and a martyr of war reporting, I’d argue that when you’re starting out, the other two weapons he mentions are only part of the armoury you need.

Cunning is about being able to read people, clearly analyse what they’re saying to you and identify bullshit when you see it. It’s essential to know when your sources are lying, and to have good ideas about how to find out the truth.

Plausibility – the quality of being able to win someone’s trust – is indispensible if your sources are going to give you useful information.

But neither of the two is any use if you have no sources. You can be a combination of Fantastic Mr Fox and the Archbishop Desmond Tutu, but if you don’t know anyone, you’re going to find it hard to find stories. Contacts are the raw material of journalism.

Basic networking equipment.

So how do you build up contacts in a foreign city? Perhaps if I had found a job with a paper back in London, I would have had a contacts database under my fingertips. Maybe an editor would have sent me out on specific assignments.

Also I have already mastered basic conversational English. My Turkish is not at that stage yet.

On the other hand, I go mad living under thick cloud for 270 days a year. So I choose to live in Istanbul, and face a different challenge: getting to know people.

Part of that challenge, of course, is loneliness. But an empty address book is a professional weakness. So how do you fill it up?

Here are some ideas, and I’m very open to more suggestions.

1 – Use social networks – all of them

I’m on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Academia.edu, Flikr, and Couchsurfing. They all have their uses.

“If in doubt, pull a Tom,” says a blogger I quoted in a previous post. I had to look this up. It’s the act of adding strangers as “friends” on social networking sites. It can be a useful technique, if it’s used well.

A search for Couchsurfers in Istanbul with the keyword “journalist” helped put me in contact with a local journo who has given me all kinds of useful leads.

LinkedIn and Academia.edu are particularly useful for sector-specific research. Want to contact someone involved in supplies to dental reconstruction clinics? There’s probably a group on LinkedIn somewhere. Join it, post a request on the wall for comment or a contact, and someone might just email you. It worked for me.

2 – Take those contacts offline

Social networks are a bridge, not a destination. Invite people for coffee, lunch, whiskey, whatever. An offline conversation is likely to bring up topics and aspects you hadn’t thought of. A meeting in person will make them remember you and perhaps think of you next time they have a story.

Often these meetings need a specific agenda – don’t just go to “hang out”, at least the first time you meet. Have some questions. Don’t make them think you’re a spy.

(Incidentally, I’ve heard this accusation so many times, here and in the Middle East, that it’s becoming tiring. I figure I may as well just go for it, providing it pays well. MI5, if you’re reading this, you can contact me via Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter…)

3 – Speak to everyone

The Golden Rule of Journalism. I was talking to the guy next to me on the ferry to Kadikoy today. He happened to work in a sector I’m researching. I took his card. We’ll be in touch.

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