EDITOR’S NOTE: AS I GO THROUGH THE PROCESS OF MOVING, A COUPLE OF MY EXPERT (RE: SMARTY PANTS) FRIENDS — EXPERTS IN WRITING, MARKETING, PUBLISHING, AND SOCIAL MEDIA — ARE PITCHING IN UNTIL I GET BACK. ENJOY THEIR WISDOM AND VISIT THEIR SITES, WHICH ARE LISTED AT THE BOTTOM OF THEIR POST.
Whether it’s the whiskey or the wine, some chill Bob Marley on the jukebox or the smoky air… I love a good bar. But probably not for the same reasons as most.
I see that tall stool and mahogany stretching before me as a sign of productivity. My editors would probably kill me if they know just how many of my stories and social media posts were written with a Gentleman Jack sitting in front of me, Marlboro dangling from my lips…
But no, that’s not it either. It’s my favorite place for source building and getting story ideas.
So why bars are the best? Here’s why.
1. Bars are a neutral-ground/happy place. This is the place these people want to be. They are not bound by obligation, nor are they there to discuss those obligations. But the conversation will inevitably turn to those obligations.
2. Bars can be discreet. Sources will meet you at a place they know their colleagues would never patronize. And in plain-clothes, you both fit right in.
2. You can tell a lot about a person by what they drink. Every attorney I have ever sat at a bar with goes for a good whiskey. Cops love beers and random shots. Businessmen go for a good vodka. (Avoid the guys drinking frat boy beer and wearing baseball hats with college logos – unless you’re working on a story about mud riding or guns.)
3. Bar conversations. Even if you’re not there with an actual source, the locals are there and they’re talking. Eavesdrop and don’t be afraid to butt in and ask a few questions. Pretend to be clueless if you need to. These people probably don’t know you and will be more likely to tell you their true opinions – which can be a great tip or lead to a big, juicy and sometimes just fun story. The most fun, though, is when you can correct them when they’re wrong because you have more than just second-hand knowledge from that guy who works with her roommate’s best friend.
4. It works for every beat – you just have to take the time to find out where. I spent a few evenings hanging out at the city council meeting late to find out where the “after party” was being held. All you need is that one to tell you when and where to be.
But there are some ground rules.
1. Bar chat is off the record. Always, period, the end. This is the place to build trust. I’m not advocating becoming BFF with anyone, but if you can build a source’s trust, they will tip you off on big stories and you will always be able to reach them when you need a second source on other stories. And having that “real person” relationship can also soften the blow when you do have to do the “ugly” story.
In one instance, my (separate) bar chats with a high-ranking city official and councilman ensured we had still had a good working relationship when a very ugly story about city finances came out.
2. Never bring paper, pen, recorder, etc. See rule #1. You are allowed to have your phone out, but only pick it up in dire emergency or to program said source’s personal cell number.
3. Do NOT bring up work – yours or theirs. This is “fun” time. They will bring it up eventually, I promise.
4. Paying the bill gets a little gray area. On one hand, there are those ethics rules. On the other hand, I am a woman, and here in the south, men get offended if they do not pay the bill. Use your discretion. I always offer to pay, but if he insists, okay then. I have yet to have someone threaten me over a few Jack and Diet Cokes.
Good luck and if you see and hear a crazy redhead sitting a bar, chatting up people and looking devious, feel free to butt in and say hi. You’ll probably learn something.