Necessary pre-interview fact gathering

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Articles (and books) are made of facts, quotes, anecdotes, and maybe artwork. Those are the basic elements of buyable text.

Interviews are almost always the life blood of articles. Read the first article you see in a magazine and newspaper and you’ll almost always find three or four people quoted, with one (the most authoritative or closest to the action or event) quoted several times.

The minimum information you need about each person quoted is their name; often their address or employer (and what they do); if they are to be a reliable information source, where that authority (or audacity) to speak comes from, and how they can be contacted. Nothing irks an editor quicker than misspelling any name. Just ask the interviewee, “ It is Brown, B-R-O-W-N?” If you don’t, it will be Browne and Braun.

Examples: …” said Elmer Ilk, marketing manager at Benny’s Pet Shop in Old River, Idaho, or …” according to witness Andi Mulk, a 23-year-old junior at Lincoln State. Editors won’t accept “unidentified source,” though they may hide the name and info if it puts anybody in danger.

The contact link is particularly important for information that needs vetting or second-checking. A phone or email address is the minimum you need and the editor may request. The more you know factually about the person, the more likely the editor will keep their words in the copy.

The best deal is knowing in advance who you will interview—and why.

If there’s a brouhaha about, say, cigar smoking during Chamber meetings, find out who the pro and con leaders are, plus the indignant, gasping citizen who is leading the objection. Here, you don’t need hours of pre-asking prep. Get the info above, and ask “Why do you object to…” or “Why is cigar smoking in the Chamber meetings a good idea?” And ask the citizen his/her complaint. If you don’t know who champions the pro position, ask the con leader–and vice versa.

But if the to-be interviewed are higher profile, try the Google search first to see what it reveals: check the protagonists, the topic, and other publications that have addressed it. If the folks work for a larger firm, an university, the military, or any other group that has a p.r. or personnel branch, they will often email you background sheets. Read anything else written about the controversy; your reference librarian can help there, sometimes plucking the less obvious copy from Nexus-Lexis or other files to which they have access. Also read anything else about the people you wish to interview.

It’s fair game, at the end of the interview, to ask who else also feels strongly about the same position, and how you might contact them. (That gives you another strong source, if needed to strengthen the article.) But get the interview first before you ask for this information or any of the earlier bio or contact material. That’s when I ask for their phone or email address should the editor wish to recheck or expand on anything said.

A final suggestion. Most new interviewers have two misconceptions: (1) that the person interviewed wants to know anything about them, other than what rag they work for, and (2) a good interview takes a lot of time.

For (1), figure out what you need, and pretty much just ask the most important question first, a follow-up question second, and maybe #3 third. That takes (2) usually far less than 15 minutes, and far more likely about five. (Several of my best interviews were one question, a succinct answer, and a follow-up “why…?” Two or three minutes, a sincere thank you, and adios.) No time to talk about me, as enchanting or illuminating as that might be. If it comes to that, I’ll just have to wait (probably a very long time) for some other interviewer to find me and ask!

Best wishes,

Gordon Burgett

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