How I track down hard-to-find characters for features | B-Roll series

This is the third instalment of Cod Philosophy's B-Roll series, a behind-the-scenes peek into my reporting process.

The most interesting stories are always about people. Compelling narratives about real people doing something extraordinary, or just plain quirky. From a reporting point of view, however, these are inevitably the hardest characters to find.

I like to think I've stumbled across a few over the years, like a woman who hoarded bunnies in a vacant lot in Brooklyn and a reformed sex-offender turned activist.  

How I happened upon these people is a story for another time. Actually, it’s not even much of a story, I just found them by chance. What’s much more difficult is when an editor calls you up and asks you to find a very specific character. And quickly.

As was the case when I was tasked with finding a Eurovision superfan for a feature for the New York Times.

My reporting experience has taught me that the fastest place to find people who have a niche hobby or interest is Facebook. There are groups for absolutely everything. It’s funny how Facebook is going to be the death knell for publishing, all the while being a fantastic reporting tool.  

For the NYT piece, the first place I turned to was Eurovision Facebook fan groups. I joined and posted a message with my request; I also looked through the list of members and messaged a few of them. Yes, I know it sounds a bit creepy but that's how journalism works.

In the end, I didn’t end up finding my character through the group (although I did use Facebook to contact him). No one even vaguely fit the bill and the only person to reply to my post told me they didn’t think I’d be able to find the sort of person I was describing.

The original brief was for someone who had a specific worldview, but as I looked for that person, they didn’t exist. A tenet of good journalism is to let the reporting lead you rather than the other way around. What that means is, you should explore a hunch but have the humility to change course if it turns out to be wrong.

In the end, I found my character by trawling local papers online. I found an article in the Ipswich Star about a local man who ran community events and happened to be mad about Eurovision. I found him on Facebook and messaged him. The rest of James' story is here.