Seek out story sources using these free online tools

Finding quality sources is half the battle for reporters. That’s why free tools are helping independent journalists find and connect with expert sources easier than ever before.

Freelance journalist Lola Méndez started using platforms such as Help a Reporter Out (HARO) while working as a fashion publicist in New York City. Now she uses these sites to gain relevant contacts for her freelance assignments.

Essentially, journalists such as Méndez can submit requests for expert sources, including a deadline, in hopes that someone can help. On a number of these platforms, you can also message sources and their representatives directly.

“I use these tools to streamline my process of finding sources,” Méndez says, “especially for stories that are outside of my personal knowledge, such as when I want to quote a doctor, or a scientist or researcher.”

Méndez built a public Twitter list of the various free sourcing platforms she uses alongside hashtags like #journorequest and #prrequest where similar resources are also shared. Many of the free tools are similar to HARO and Qwoted — a site where I regularly submit source requests — by providing a comprehensive, searchable database of expert sources.

Qwoted co-founder Matt Kneller says the company, founded in 2018, aims to increase transparency and connection between public relations staffers and media while leveling the playing field for independent journalists. It’s all an effort to help support editorial operations, he says, knowing such support can help diversify voices and increase news stories about rarely reported subjects. While reporters may appreciate the free resource, he says it’s news audiences who benefit most. 

“We feel that, firstly, media in general is severely under-resourced and underpaid,” Kneller says. “They do a lot of great work in pointing to stories that need to be told, and most of the folks that reap the benefits sit on the other side of that transaction.”

Qwoted, as well as HARO and the UK’s Find Your Expert, vet users before they can post or submit requests. Kneller says that it’s important to the company to keep the resource free for journalists because of what he and his team see as a fundamental imbalance. That is why PR professionals are asked to pay for certain aspects of the service — though the base page remains free — while access costs nothing for reporters.

“We felt that on that side of the network is where ultimately you should pay,” Kneller says.

Abby Lee Hood, the creator of Southern & Appalachian Co-Op Press, also uses these free sourcing services to grow their network. But they caution journalists to discern whether each source brings the proper credentials and experience. Hood seeks out potential red flags when using these platforms to connect with sources and reminds other reporters to be mindful of source “agendas.” So always consider why someone is willing to speak on record and review their profile for credibility. 

“Usually when sources say something wild or make a bold claim, I ask for some kind of proof,” Hood says. “For a story about a building owner putting a new rule into effect, I asked the resident source to provide a utility bill.”

While these tools come with their own cautionary tales, Méndez says they can also lead to many unexpected stories. The platforms can also support reporters who need sources in communities where they lack connections. For example, Méndez once needed quotes from attendees of a notable polo festival in Pakistan. 

“I thought I was in deep trouble, I did not have connections to Pakistan,” Méndez says. “In using these platforms and my own social media network, I was able to find excellent sources who [not] only attended the event, but I also spoke to former athletes who competed in the event.”

What is your favorite tool to find sources and make your journalistic life easier? Let us know, and we might share your tool with the Indie Publisher newsletter audience next week!

“TLDR” Link List

  1. Help A Reporter Out (HARO): Connects journalists seeking expertise to include in their content
  2. Qwoted: Find ideas, experts, speakers, and guests instantly, all in one place
  3. Find Your Expert: Search the directory for a diverse range of leading experts
  4. InformedOpinions: Amplifies the voices of women and gender-diverse people for a more equitable society

Marfa cafe and retail shop helps sustain established West Texas newspaper

The pandemic had an oversized impact on print newspapers and brick-and-mortar businesses, and The Big Bend Sentinel is essentially both. 

Fortunately, the Marfa, Texas-based legacy newspaper whose revenue is primarily from print advertising, is still on pace to hit its 100-year anniversary in 2026. That’s because the operation is sustained, in part, by The Sentinel, a 4,500-square-foot cafe and retail concept.  The Sentinel opened in 2019, the same year Maisie Crow and Max Kabat took over the weekly print operation from the previous local ownership.

“It wasn’t an overnight process, it really started six months prior to buying the paper,” Kabat said. “We knew from the beginning we needed to evolve the business model to allow us to hire more people.”

So Crow and Kabat purchased an empty 100-year-old adobe building and converted it into a newsroom and cafe duel concept. Two and a half years later, The Sentinel has proven successful with approximately 35,000 customer transactions, enough that Crow and Kabat were able to pay off their owner-financed investment into the newspaper. And The Big Bend Sentinel now employs three full-time journalists — more than when the couple took over — serving the region of 18,000 permanent residents.

Courtesy The Big Bend Sentinel

What lessons can other indie news publishers learn from The Sentinel operation? Indiegraf asked The Big Bend Sentinel to share takeaways.

Should every news outlet start a brick-and-mortar business?

Kabat: No, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution for all indie publishers. Maisie and I learned through the school of hard knocks how to do this. But we went into this with our eyes wide open. We were always very practical about the Marfa and Big Bend area economy being driven by tourism and visitors, so we looked for ways to participate in that economy while doing a better job of serving locals. 

So what can indie news operations take away from The Sentinel’s success?

Kabat: Publishers have done a really poor job at evolving their business model. Tell me another business that’s been around for a century that hasn’t changed. The world has changed so drastically over the past 20 years, and we still have local publishers who think they control the conversation in the way they always have. Everyone’s constantly evolving, but journalism never changed. We’re just one example of trying something new and different. We’re not the first people to come up with this idea. Coffee and cocktails are pretty standard fare for folks in a newsroom. I just think we were naive or distant enough to try something different.

Courtesy The Big Big Sentinel

How has the brick-and-mortar business evolved since launching in 2019?

Kabat: It’s changed 16 ways to Sunday, like everybody has. We leaned heavily into being a bar, but we’re not right now because we don’t have the right people. We had a full restaurant that was serving 24/7, but we don’t do that anymore, just breakfast and lunch. Maisie also fought tooth and nail to have a retail experience when we launched. It was the smallest part of our revenue when we launched, but at the beginning of the pandemic — when people were coming from major Texas cities because they couldn’t go shopping anywhere else — it quickly grew into one of our largest. 

Has the reporting staff benefited from having a cafe next to the newsroom?

Kabat: Being a community gathering space has helped the newsroom pick up scoops. We’re more accessible to the community in a way that breeds a different kind of conversation, and that totally works for us.

From 0 to 2,000 subscribers in 4 months

I never anticipated having this many newsletter subscribers four months into launching The Flatlander. At best, I would have guessed 100 subscribers by now — maybe 150 if I was lucky. I pride myself on being a realist.

Turns out, I was way off. Much to my surprise, The Flatlander now exceeds 2,000 newsletter subscribers since its November debut. How did this happen?

Listen, don’t assume
Before founding the publication, I had an idea to start a regional newsletter covering Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Maybe I would write quirky stories from the Prairies. Maybe I could create some highbrow publication, like The New Yorker, for my area. But what did my potential audience actually want?

I lurked around local Reddit groups to see what they were saying about the region’s media. It wasn’t good. They wanted and deserved better. I also asked Redditors to refer me to any independent news publications in our shared region. There wasn’t much.

From there, I created a formal survey. It wasn’t easy getting people to take a survey on a hypothetical product that doesn’t yet exist. After a week of arm-twisting and begging, I received over 30 responses.

It turned out my potential readers, at least the ones who took the survey, don’t want quirky stories or The Prairies’ version of The New Yorker. They wanted in-depth reporting of the issues affecting our region, and a better understanding of arguments on all sides of any debate. Even city-based residents, believe it or not, wanted to better understand what was happening in the rural areas.

Connect to your audience
Now that survey respondents had mentioned it, I realized I was interested in these same issues. That’s when the realization hit: Perhaps I could go on a journey with readers to better understand the issues facing The Prairies. So I launched The Flatlander last November to do just that. 

As I advance in this journey, I continue to listen to readers and write about the issues they flag. People even respond to my newsletters. If someone pokes holes in my coverage, I address it in a subsequent newsletter. If they have a viewpoint about a topic recently reported, I share it with my audience. My newsletter has turned into a conversation with the community it serves.

Invest in your growth
Partnering with Indiegraf — first through the Indie News Challenge and then as part of the Indie Growth Program — also afforded me the opportunity to conduct two successful email growth campaigns. My first lead ads during the Indie News Challenge saw a cost per lead of only $1.07, and lead costs never exceeded $2. 

These lead generation campaigns were successful, in part, because of the front-loaded work I did to learn what my target audience wanted from local media. And once they signed on, if the newsletter wasn’t for them, they hit the unsubscribe button.

Fortunately, most early adopters remain engaged subscribers. The Flatlander has maintained a 50 percent open rate amid the growth, and readers continue to click on links tucked away at the bottom of my emails.

Growing a relatively large and engaged audience so quickly has been about listening to my audience, caring about what they say, and being willing to go on a journey of discovery with them.

The Kyiv Independent raises nearly $1M amid invasion

A scroll through The Kyiv Independent’s website eerily documents the sudden turn in fate for the people of Ukraine. A culture section featuring national opera, contemporary art and film events is now eclipsed by regular updates about “Russia’s war on Ukraine: Where fighting is on now” and social media infographics listing Ukraine’s casualties.

The independent news outlet launched less than four months ago after 30 journalists and editors found themselves abruptly locked out and fired from the Kyiv Post — the longest-standing English language newspaper in Ukraine. Now the publication is covering the front lines of a war while raising nearly $1 million (USD) in reader support. 

The backstory

Shortly after editors published critical coverage of the Ukrainian government, as they’d been known to produce, the owner’s media manager announced she would head new Ukrainian and Russian versions of the publication and hire entirely new editorial staff. The newsroom saw it as an attempt to undermine editorial independence, writes ​journalist Illia Ponomarenko for the New Statesman. After demanding transparency — the Kyiv Post was temporarily shut down.

The group of journalists swiftly jumped to action with a Patreon campaign for the launch of a new outlet, The Kyiv Independent. A local agency developed the website pro bono and a newsletter and podcast soon followed. “In a time of ongoing Russian aggression and political turmoil in Ukraine, we can’t allow our country to end up without an independent English-language publication that can speak to the world,” they wrote in November.

Importantly, this new outlet would be funded by readers, not a wealthy businessman like the Kyiv Post. “We are not backed by a rich owner or an oligarch,” they wrote. “We want to be closer with our readers and champions than we were at the Kyiv Post.”

The latest

Today, they are among a handful of outlets scrambling to report accurate information on Russia’s war in face of physical and cyber attacks and rampant mis/disinformation. To keep up with the need, they launched a GoFundMe campaign, which has surpassed 14,000 donations and raised nearly USD $1 million from the original goal of USD $75,000.

As The Kyiv Independent staff point out on Facebook, they are not alone. “While we are extremely grateful for the support we’ve been getting, we understand that other media outlets in Ukraine have been less lucky. That’s why our partners launched a new global fundraising campaign to help independent Ukrainian media get through this crisis.”

This consortium of European media outlets and NGOs is raising money in support of Ukrainian media like Ukrainska PravdaZaboronaDetector Media “aimed at helping media relocate, set-up back offices and continue their operations from neighboring countries.” 

How to help

Indiegraf contacted The Kyiv Independent to offer help and made a donation in the network’s name. We know many of you want to help as well. Here’s how you can support:

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