Interviewing for newspaper articles


Let me talk about newspaper interviewing here, and I’ll talk about interviewing for magazines and books in the next blog which should be out, here, in a couple of days.

When I was a new writer I mostly wrote articles for newspapers, and I ultimately had about 1700 of them published. The editors wanted many interviews in each article, usually two, three, or four people talked to and quoted (sometimes paraphrased, “____ thought that ____”). Features often used twice as many quotes, unless it was specifically about one person, when sometimes (rarely) that was enough.

Where do you find people to interview: on the scene, call them up (interview in person or on the phone), ask the person interviewed who else they suggest is knowledgeable about the topic, if it’s a controversy find out who is on both sides, ask the police or firemen who is doing the press on this, ask the coach…

So for newspapers there was no technique other than to look interested and keep eye contact with the person you were speaking to—that also made it easier to tell when they were lying, which was often. (You were expected to filter out the lies.) You approached the person, told them who you were and which newspaper you worked (or were writing for), smiled, and just asked questions. If they looked dubious or hostile, you handed them a card the newspaper gave you (if you were a staffer) that confirmed your lowly status and for whom. Charm helped, and I’m sure beauty made it easier for lasses, but mostly just getting to it and being clean and reasonably neat was enough–strike fast, keep going, thank them, and flee fast. Also have a notepad and a pen or pencil poised. Later it was a wee tape recorder (digital was best). But the further you went into the woods the less useful tape recorders were. The recorders so captured the person’s fancy in rural South America (how did you get a person inside it to make it turn?) that I stopped using one there to interview.

Mostly, you had to stay focused. Figure out what the story or piece was about and don’t stray very far in the questions you asked.

In fact, the best questions were starter questions that got the interviewee going, like, “Would you tell me what you saw when___ or what did so-and-so say when ___”? Then you just stood back and captured the heart of what they shared. If something didn’t make sense, you’d ask, “What you are saying is ___” and they would say yes and keep on going, or no, then give you another version. Usually I put the question I most needed answered second, so I could segue into it. After I got that answer the rest was gravy.

The biggest problem was getting people to talk at all. The second biggest problem was to get away before they fell over from talking!

If my presence (a real live reporter!) struck them mute. I’d just get out the card and show it like it was a detective’s shield and I’d remind them that we wanted to get the truth about ____ and I was hoping that they could help me out. It’ll just take five minutes, which was about right. Then I would ask a question, and not say anything more. The silence got so oppressive that they’d slowly start talking. I’d thank them regularly, and after I had written down about as much as they knew, I’d tell them to look in the paper tomorrow and they should be there!

If they talked too much, my job was to keep them on the topic, stay interested, and when I had what they knew, get going…

It’s true in newspaper work that the devil (other than you) was in the details. Any time they mentioned a person or place, I’d repeat it, and later double check the spelling of names and places (if they knew). I didn’t need their help with “Chicago” but if something like “Inhambupe” came up, I’d ask. The one thing you always had to get right, the correct spelling of the person’s name you were interviewing! I also got a phone number where I could contact them later if I had any follow-up questions.

The very first job I had for a newspaper was for the Des Plaines (Illinois) Suburban Times and Park Ridge Herald. The editor, Floyd Fulle, said when he hired me that the lad before me (writing high school sports) hand wrote everything and he seldom spelled a person’s name the same way twice. Fulle said he suspected that the high school, Maine Township, had 250 football players on the team because each had three or four different names. He told me, “one name per person, and get the list from the coach to see how it’s spelled.” (I have a funny article about that job in the Chicken Soup for Writers book, edited by Bud Gardner.)

Courage! If you do it wrong, the editor will promptly tell you. Ask how you can correct that, do it, and remember the next time. But you can reduce the trial and error by (1) first getting the facts right, (2) get the correct spellings, (3) let the person talk–new writers at first think it’s a conversation in which the person interviewed wants to hear about them, (4) turn it in on time, and (5) keep at it. (I go into the whole article-writing and -selling process in great detail in the Travel Writer’s Guide.)

Articles are made up of facts, quotes, and anecdotes. The first two are critical for newspapers. No interviews, usually no article, and no pay.

Best wishes,

Gordon Burgett

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