Gaga cold-calling a source (YouTube)

Warming Up To Cold-Calling

On the perils of reaching out to potential sources.

by | March 24, 2023

Two months ago, when I was tasked with writing an obituary of a couple and had to reach out to a sister of the deceased, I put off calling for as long as I could. I had scoured the internet for an email address and even sent her a Facebook direct message and request. Cold-calling was the last resort—but a necessary one. She would be a key person in piecing together their life story and crucial for me to corroborate the details of their death––they had died within hours of each other.   

I dialed the number I’d found on, and waited as the phone rang. When she picked up, I tried to push through my anxiety and see if she’d feel comfortable talking on record about her late sister. Although originally hesitant, she soon began gushing about her sister and brother-in-law. About an hour later when we hung up, I had a much better idea of the couple’s lives, and who else to reach out to for comment.

I love to talk on the phone with friends about our post-grad lives or TV show drama, but when it comes to cold-calling in my day-to-day journalism life, I hate it. Even though I’ve been doing it for years, I still get super anxious The idea of just calling someone up without warning is terrifying to me—and it also doesn’t always yield positive results. For the same story, I cold-called a friend of the deceased who ended up hitting on me consistently. (He was in his 70s and lived in Louisiana, so it was mostly harmless, but still uncomfortable when he asked if I was single.)

But cold-calling is part and parcel to newsgathering and media work, oftentimes providing writers with scoops or information they can’t find online. To get a better sense of how other media workers approach the task, I chatted—via pre-planned, warm calls—with a number of journalists about their introductions to cold-calling, how they balance power dynamics between journalists and sources, and best practices to keep in mind.

Learning the skill

According to journalists who spoke to Study Hall for this story, some of whom studied the craft in school, cold-calling isn’t taught in the classroom. Like many other important skills of the craft, it’s either self-taught or learned in the throes of the hustle and bustle of an actual newsroom. 

Meira Gebel, a freelance journalist since 2016, said she learned the skill in her personal life. “My mom started me really young on cold-calling,” she recalled. “When I was 11 or 12, my mom would make me schedule all my doctors appointments, make me call the school to tell them I was sick.” 

Some sources had more formal introductions to the practice. Sam Pfeifle, a freelance journalist who has been working in media since 1989, described cold-calling as a crucial aspect of his early work. At one of his first journalism jobs, reporters were required to make five cold calls a week. 

“It was especially good for me at the time because it takes you a little while to learn the lingo and marketplace and institutional history and cold-calling is amazing for that,” he explained.

While the other journalists I spoke to weren’t forced into a quota of cold calls per week, some also highlighted that it was an expectation when entering newsrooms, especially breaking newsrooms. 

“If I didn’t make cold calls, I didn’t get a story, which means there was nothing to file,” Jayme Fraser, an investigative reporter at USA Today, said. 

How to explain yourself, succinctly

Journalists have their own scripts when they’re talking to a source. Even if it’s a premeditated call, I always give a little spiel that includes who I am, what the article is about, and ask whether the source has any lingering questions and if it’s ok to record. This is not only a way to communicate to the source what I’m doing, but to ease my anxiety—after all, if it’s somewhat rehearsed, it’s easier to start.    

But with cold-calling, communicating journalism ethics succinctly is even more important, as the person you’re calling may not have interacted with a journalist before. You never know what this person believes about the media, and they may not know what it means to be on or off the record (and that their exact words could be used in the article, rather than a paraphrase). Whenever Gebel cold calls someone, she tries to be as positive, respectful, and courteous as possible. She always makes sure to explain where she got the contact information from. 

“A lot of people don’t know that their information is widely available on the internet,” she said. “You always want to tell that person how you found them, because I think some people will be bothered if they get a call out of nowhere from a journalist and they’ve never intended to speak to a journalist before.”

Many of the reporters I spoke to highlighted that cold-calling is employed for a lot of different types of stories, and measures should vary depending on the kind of source you’re interacting with.

“The hard and fast rules you might hold an elected official to are not going to be the same as someone that’s been the victim of a tragedy or a man on the street type interview and isn’t in a position of authority,” Fraser said. 

Pfeifle also spoke to being mindful of who you’re talking to. You have to remember these people are just going about their business and you called them,” he said. “ You need to be gracious with people and express a lot of gratitude and remember your job isn’t to catch them with their pants down.” 

The art of convincing people to talk to you

One of my biggest anxieties about cold-calling is the idea that the person on the other end of the line may not want to talk to me. But it’s an important part of reporting—as Gebel put it, “Journalism is like public service. We have to talk to people sometimes who may not want to talk to us, because we have to be able to get information for our audiences.”

Matt Berg, a reporter at POLITICO, also spoke about making sources feel as comfortable as possible.

“I personally prefer to be really calm and take my time and try to make them feel relaxed and let them know if they don’t want to talk to journalists about this topic, they don’t have to,” he said. 

Perhaps, a journalist is akin to a therapist. 

“Part of our job is to understand how people are feeling and read into their emotions, so really putting yourself in their shoes and explaining why it makes sense to talk to you is really important,” he said. “There’s a subtle art to getting people to talk to you if they don’t want to, but it’s very possible if you can get in their head to understand them.”

And while you can try and understand another person as best you can, you will never know fully what they’re thinking. When I reach out to sources that I think may not want to comment, I often wonder what’s the point of reaching out. But as Fraser reminded me, people are fickle and unpredictable. 

“I always remind myself I’m not a mind reader and I don’t want to make presumptions. Just because if I was in their situation, I might not want to talk to someone, doesn’t mean that it’s true for them,” Fraser said. And as a reporter, it’s important to do your due diligence and reach out to all potentially involved parties, even if they choose not to comment.

Embracing the discomfort

I’d always thought the perceived awkwardness of cold-calling was something I had to get over, and it would go away with time. But Fraser pointed out how stress is actually a good thing. 

“I’m frustrated by suggestions that journalists should be automatons that are completely comfortable and confident,” she said. “The reality is we’re covering really difficult stories and it’s totally fine and very healthy to feel uncomfortable.”

As I was wrapping up my call with Gebel, she turned the interview back on me, asking why I found cold-calling so unbearable. As she pointed out, like her, I do plenty of calls in my personal life. What makes these ones different? 

I had come up with questions for this interview, and was ready to answer questions about the article, but was not prepared to have a source flip the script on me.  

I improvised, but what I’ve determined through reflection is this: To me, there are different stakes. When I call a friend or a doctor, I find there’s less pressure—it’s not like my job is on the line. But with cold-calling, I get worried about a call going south and putting an article (or my job) in jeopardy. Still, as Gebel pointed out, thinking of cold-calling as part of your  job can make things easier — for you and your sources.

Journalism has certain rules to follow. There are guidelines about fact-checking, story structure, even word count.

But the uncertainty of a cold call makes the job more dynamic and improvisational, and interesting—even if it can be uncomfortable.