One perk you get as a ‘lancer is that when you are researching a subject, not only can you pick up the phone and call people, many will talk to you. I’ve learned the hard way not to bother leaving a message. By the time I hear back, for the most part, I’ve already turned in my work and can no longer benefit from the conversation.
Why would they talk to me? Most are curious to know what I’m working on, with an eye toward how it will portray their museum/city/project/company. I have to be fairly vague for contractual reasons, but I can at least explain why I’m bothering them. If a real person answers, most are helpful, especially historical society/museum curators. They like this. Someone wants to know the things they know! (I can relate, having a mind full of information people rarely want to know.)
Of course, if the matter you’re researching is controversial, expect a full spin cycle and attempt to rinse away anything sordid. I had that with a major toy company, back when I was trying to learn more about the debate over who invented a very popular toy. They handed me over to their PR flacks, who did their job: try to kill me with helpful kindness, sending me numerous PDFs relating the official history–which is good to know, but is by no means the last word. I give them credit, though, because their job is to get me to write the party line, and if they make my life difficult, they know it will perk up my nostrils. They hope to make it easy for me so that I’ll just use their source material.
Unfortunately for some, I’m not the sort of ‘lancer who takes the easy path. A major MLM company got a taste of that. The firm (one I loathe enough that I had to discipline myself to careful objectivity) claims two prominent founders, but reports all over the place refer to a third and very obscure co-founder. Even allowing for the Internet copycat factor, it was suspicious enough to wonder: was there really a third co-founder, and if so, what became of this person? Dispute? Bought out? Dead? I called the company, whose flacks asked some older fellow who has evidently been around since the reign of Tiberius. They flatly denied this third founder. Then I asked (by e-mail, now) the question that ticked them off: “Sir, if that’s accurate, then people are spreading false information far and wide about the company’s origin. You haven’t even asked me where I heard about it. Aren’t you at least concerned about rooting out such possible misinformation?” I never heard from them again. I interpreted that to mean that I’d lit up their ‘hostile’ display indicator and would get nothing further from them on the subject.
That set me to shoveling twice as hard. Unfortunately, I didn’t turn up anything useful, so the most I could do with the third individual was to mention the name and stress that it was an unsubstantiated rumor. What that meant, of course, was that it went into print. Did I learn the reality behind the rumor (if any)? No. Is it possible someone with more time on his or hands than me might see this in the book, and dig long and hard enough to penetrate the wall of corporate sanitization surrounding the subject? It wouldn’t break my heart…
I do know this. As an editor, people ask me often about copyright matters, legal liabilities, and so on. I tell them the same thing every time: I do not know. I’m not a lawyer. Ask one. Pay them. That, or do what I did above, which is not to mention their name.