In 2023, 13 news organizations were part of a cohort assembled by the American Press Institute to track the diversity of people quoted in their stories through Source Matters, API’s award-winning source diversity tracking and analysis tool. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel was one of those newsrooms and is sharing these tips about how they engaged newsroom staff to make the project a success.

It’s been a longstanding goal and desire for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to better represent all members of our community. But how do you get better if you don’t know how well you’re doing now? 

Our senior leadership decided to try source tracking to gain an understanding of who we are talking to now — and who we are not hearing from — and how that shapes our coverage. 

We formed a group including reporters from across the newsroom to build the program, outline the mission and goals, decide what to track and then introduce it to the full newsroom. 

We officially started tracking sources in June. Reporters are gathering information on the age, race and gender of the people they talk with, as well as whether they are an “official” or a “non-official.”

Our goals are to identify blind spots and opportunities, gather clear data that we act on individually and collectively, and build habits that foster diverse sourcing. We know that talking to more people will lead to more stories — stories that reflect the full picture of life in Milwaukee, help to solve problems and celebrate successes.

A few months in, three reporters who are consistently tracking their sources agreed to share their perspective of how the effort has gone — and provide tips for other reporters.

‘Without the why, it’s just one more thing you have to do’: Getting buy-in before launch

Alison Dirr, who covers Milwaukee city government, was a leader in the newsroom group that formed the plan for how source tracking would be carried out. She said it was helpful to have a diversity of viewpoints from reporters and editors around the newsroom in discussing what to track — and not to track — and how: It led to “good conversations” — and buy-in from a group of reporters before the program even launched.

The Journal Sentinel introduced source tracking in an all-staff meeting where Executive Editor Greg Borowski explained the program, and how it fits into our mission of serving all members of our community.

“I think without the why, it’s just one more thing you have to do,” Dirr said. “I think it was really important to have (newsroom leadership) stand up and have that conversation … This is something that we are doing collectively, period, hard stop, it’s important.

‘Are there other ways that we can tell this story?’: How source tracking has changed reporting approaches

Dirr said since starting the source-tracking effort, she’s thought more about how to include non-officials in her reporting and stories.

“Something that maybe isn’t as important to City Hall may still be really important to other people,” she said. Source tracking, she said, has raised “that consciousness of like, are there other ways that we can tell this story?”

Having hard data that shows whose voices are prominently used has also changed the way she thinks about who to quote, and how often.

“I don’t want to talk to the mayor anymore,” she joked. “I hit my quota.”

Tom Daykin also said tracking sources has made him think more about who is typically featured in the stories on his commercial development beat, and where it makes sense to incorporate the views of more people, particularly those who aren’t officials. 

He notes that finding those sources can take time. In a recent story about the possible closure of an apartment building that provides services for homeless people, for example, he asked the building’s manager and a county official to connect him with residents. That didn’t pan out. 

“Had I had time, I could have gone over there” and talked to people about their experiences living there, and their thoughts on its possible closure, he said.

“I just didn’t have the time to do it. But at least it kind of made me think in those terms to try,” Daykin said.

Kelly Meyerhofer, who covers higher education, said as a “big tracking-data person,” she has appreciated having concrete information about the sources in her stories. She’s also liked “having a reminder to be more thoughtful about the people you talk to” — particularly for stories where she wants to provide a full perspective of how people in Wisconsin feel about an issue.

Tip: Try following up with sources over text instead of email

Dirr often is interviewing elected officials and others in time-crunched situations where she doesn’t have the ability to pause to ask the demographic questions. 

She tried following up with emails, but at least one source thought it was spam. Others simply didn’t respond.

Dirr found that sending the questions in a “simply worded” text message was most effective for getting responses — even from sources who don’t typically respond to texts.

Her messages quickly explain the source-tracking effort, pose the demographic questions, and ask if sources are OK with answering. For the most part, Dirr said, people text right back. 

“I think people just trust it when it comes directly from you,” Dirr said. “There’s no link in there. You don’t have to click anything.”

Tip: Build habits from top to bottom

Meyerhofer says successful source tracking depends on the different elements becoming part of everyone’s routine.

When writing out the questions she plans to ask in interviews, particularly phone interviews, she leaves a reminder at the bottom to ask the demographic questions. 

Meyerhofer said that it can be more difficult to remember to ask the questions during in-person reporting, when there’s more going on. She’s trying to build the habit so that it’s easier and more natural to do so in the long run.

Editors, she said, also need to build the habit of monitoring how things are going, and following up with their reporters to ensure everyone is forming these routines so that the newsroom gets the results it’s looking for.

“It’s not like a huge amount of time, but it is some time, and all newsrooms have very limited time,” she said.

Tip: Take time every week to categorize sources

Even the busiest beats have slow moments.

Daykin typically produces six or seven stories a week. But he doesn’t let the (many) sources from those stories pile up uncategorized — he categorizes his sources whenever he finds a free hour or so. For Daykin, this typically happens on a Friday, when he’s done with daily stories and has worked ahead as much as possible on longer-term stories. 

He’d advise other reporters to make it part of their weekly routine.

“Commit to doing it like once a week and get the stuff in there,” he said. “That’s what works. Just get into a disciplined idea of, ‘OK, at the end of the week, I’m going to set aside an hour.”

By Rachel Piper 
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Deputy editor, news, projects and investigations

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