Six Degrees of Separation

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

As writers we frequently find ourselves searching for expert sources or simply everyday people who can tell us about their experiences as related to a topic we're writing an article about. I frequently find myself turning to ProfNet, Amazon searches for authors of books on the topic, or universities for professors who are experts in the field.

But no matter how impressive the sources you ferret out with the help of the Internet there is one group of publications that isn't interested in them. Regional Publications. It doesn't matter if you've found a biologist who is a Nobel Prize winner, an extreme couponer who bought her house using rebate money, or a retiree who coached an afterschool chess team that ultimately became grand masters...if they aren't from the area regional markets aren't interested. In regional markets the "local slant" rules and editors expect you to find it.

So where do you turn to when editors are clamoring for local experts? I've found great success with a 1990's parlor game. Do you remember "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon"--the game where you try to connect Kevin Bacon to any other person in the Hollywood community? For a refresher check out The Oracle which will help you connect your favorite actor to Kevin Bacon. Turns out Hollywood isn't the only small community. No matter what its actual size, your community is small too--at least to the people who live there. So when I need a local expert and don't have any luck finding one I send out the call to my "Six Degree of Separation" experts. And before you know it I have an expert.

One example begins with a charitable foundation that works with second graders in a local school district. I thought it would be a great article but needed some people to talk to and this charitable foundation was very low-key: no website, no contact info, they worked strictly with the school.

So I called my cousin, whose son happened to be in second grade at that school. My cousin got me in touch with her son's teacher who got me in touch with the retired teacher who oversaw the foundation. The retired teacher got me in touch with the widower of the woman (who had been a teacher before her death) who was being memorialized through the foundation. He wasn't comfortable being interviewed but got me in touch with his wife's parents. Not only were they happy to be interviewed but they also got me in touch with some of their daughter's first students (now college students).

If I hadn't played "Six Degrees of Separation" I might not have gotten any further than a basic press release from the school principal. I definitely wouldn't have uncovered students from this women's first class!

Not only does "Six Degrees" help uncover people you might not have found it also convinces people who might have been reluctant to participate in the interviews. After all, their cousin's neighbor attends yoga classes with you. You're practically family! A feeling of familiarity goes a long way toward convincing people to take the time to share their story.

So, how to start the "Six Degrees" chain next time you're looking for a local source? I've always had great success with my mother and other older relatives. They seem to have a uncanny recall of who knows who and what they're up to. I also turn to friends, fellow parents, fellow members/volunteers in various organizations, even my hair dresser has led me to a source on occasion.

Just make sure you frame your question effectively. Don't say "I'm writing an article about custody battles and need to talk to someone who had a disastrous custody hearing." Who would subject their friends and family to that kind of interview? Instead say "I'm writing about custody and need to talk to a family lawyer/someone who works in the courthouse/divorced parents." Remember, the purpose is not to find the perfect source the first time out but to find someone related to the subject who can lead you to someone else related to the subject who can lead you...and eventually you find yourself on the phone with the perfect local source.

Jodi Webb has written hundreds of articles about local people for magazines such as Pennsylvania Magazine, American Profile, and Central Penn Parent. She's teaching Breaking Into Magazine Writing with Regional Markets starting this Jan. 10 at the WOW Classrooms. You can also visit her blog Words by Webb at


Robyn Chausse said...

Great reminder! I don't have many family members to resource but there are grocery store check-out clerks, the office manager at the chiropractic office, and the local rep I go through for my auto/homeowners insurance. (I'll bet one of them knows a person who knows Kevin Bacon-LOL!)

Margo Dill said...

And it also goes to show how picking up the phone and calling (or emailing works too) people whom you might normally not feel comfortable calling gets you the story. When you're a freelancer, you have to step out of your comfort zone and hone up on your interview skills. Great ideas, Jodi!

Tess said...

While sitting in any lobby there are several different kinds of magazines to read and look through for articles & ideas. On the contents page will give you all the information you need on; what, where, when & time to contact, which editor and their complete address. I take full advantage of this opportunity before & after any appoitment and besides, it is fun and interesting to read from anothers writer's perspective - inn't it?

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