Four ways to get magazine or newspaper interviews

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Over the past 30-years, in my “Writing Travel Articles That Sell” seminar, I’d talk for about 20 minutes about interviewing. The entire process has almost completely changed during that time.

First, though, why bother to interview at all? Who really cares?

The editors who will hopefully buy your article (even book) care a lot. It’s one of the magic four components of printed writing: facts, quotes, anecdotes, and artwork, usually photos. The last two add a lot to the writing; the first two are far more important.

What editors want are first-hand observation, words from a direct participant, definitive facts from an authority or expert, or a related utterance from a celebrity. If there’s a pro-con debate you are covering, they want “live words” from at least one person on each side. In fact, if the person being interviewed is famous enough, the subject of the piece hardly matters, i.e. capture every word that President Obama says to you.

There are four kinds of interviewing:

In person. Often these are the most fun because you get to meet and converse with interesting people. Sometimes, rarely, you just encounter the person and you set up an interview on the spot. But usually you must call (or email) them first to sell yourself “I’m Bobby Blue and I’m writing an article about pig wrestling for The Piggers Journal” and tell them what you want, “I wonder if I could interview you for a couple of minutes about your expertise, with tips for the beginner, either right now or when it’s more convenient for you?”

They might say “let’s do it right now.” That happened to me once when I called Governor Adlai Stevenson. Or they’ll say “What about tomorrow morning at 10? How long will it last?” Figure 15 minutes max, five is better. Or they will ask you more questions, and they may just say no. (One very common question: “Is this an assignment?” If you’ve queried and have a go-ahead, just say yes.) If you get a yes, then it’s face to face unless they suggest one of the next three.

By telephone. We’ve already seen what you say on the phone first, above. If the interviewee prefers a telephone interview, all that remains is you figuring out what you want to know from him or her, and perhaps writing down three or four questions if the exchange doesn’t suggest something even more relevant or exciting. You must be well informed about the person you are interviewing: how to spell and pronounce their name; who they work for and the position they currently hold; why they are important to your topic, and if the topic is controversial, what position they pursue or defend. If they have been in print recently, build on what they said there.

Of the two, telephone interviews are easier to get, you can dress however you want, and the other person can’t double over in disgust because you look like their monster ex or cousin. Cheaper too: no place to travel to, no parking, just the phone call.

By email or snail mail. Email may be the most common kind of interview now. The trick here is to be direct and brief, and limit yourself to about three questions. As you imagine, the email might go like this: I’m Betty Blue and I’m in the middle of writing an article for YYY. I wonder if I could interview you by email (or mail) because …? Of course I’ll send you a copy of the article when it’s in print. With your permission, here’s what I’d like to know: (1) (2) (3) … (If you’d prefer to do this by phone, please email me your number and the best time for you.)

There may be several email exchanges before they answer the questions, and if you still need more clarification even then, email back. But try to get it done in one shot, cordially.

Through a press release. Sometimes the person has interview-related points in print to provide to the aggravatee. (That’s you.) They will send you to a website or a link where you can download what is relevant. That’s rare but it can work better than you imagine, particularly for academics or scientists. At that, you may still want to contact the person to ask for clarification or more recent thoughts about one of the points in the release. Then use one of the other approaches.

Sometimes (often) nothing works. You get a thank you but no thank you. You can’t force them to talk so you must find somebody else.

Incidentally, you usually need three or four interviewees per article. Just read earlier articles in that publication to see the editor’s preference.

Last, I’m usually asked if you need the interviewee’s permission to use what they said. Tell them what you are doing first, then whatever they say is fair game. (In fact, you don’t have to tell them first. I once asked a key question to the new U.S. Ambassador to Brazil in the men’s room at a reception in Salvador [Bahia], Brazil. He answered, my research was complete, and I could frolic away the night!)

I hope this helps.

Gordon Burgett

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