Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Interviewing, Again

Yesterday I finished my annual presentations to the eighth grade about how to conduct an interview. I've been doing this each of the last several years, drawing on my experience as a journalist, to prepare them for a class reporting and writing project. It's funny, because I always feel like a fraud when I present myself as an expert.

I never felt like interviewing was my strong suit as a reporter. I much preferred writing. In fact, my dream job was to be a magazine "rewrite man," in which the reporters fed me the information and I put it all together in article form. That way, I wouldn't have to interview people at all, and I could just write for a living!

Sadly, the "rewrite man," at least as I envisioned the job, was more or less an extinct position by the time I was working as a journalist. I did work as a desk editor, a job in which rewriting was a major component. I remember late one night a reporter handed in a front-page story that was absolutely unreadable -- something about a local football coach. My coworkers and I all looked at it, and they considered it a lost cause -- they began devising a Plan B for the front page. But I got on the phone with the reporter and together we began rewriting the story, and turned it around in time for deadline. It was one of my favorite career moments. (Made all the more remarkable by the fact that I know nothing about football!)

Unfortunately, there are also a lot of negatives that go with being an editor, like working nights and weekends, and helping to write headlines and cutlines, and managing freelancers and making assignments and coordinating projects. It's not just wordplay.

As an interviewer, I probably had a tendency to let people off too easily. I'm not confrontational by nature. Some people, and many reporters, actually thrive on conflict -- they enjoy making their sources squirm, particularly when there's a sense that the source did something wrong or inappropriate. It's the "afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted" mentality. Remember Mike Wallace on "60 Minutes"?

I once heard second-hand that one of my coworkers, on the phone with a stonewalling secretary, snarled, "Don't make me come down there and rip your head off and drink your blood." I just couldn't talk to people that way!

I didn't like afflicting anybody. I certainly did my share of it, but deep down I just wanted us all to get along.

Fortunately, in talking to the eighth-graders, the subject of hostile sources isn't really germane. They're talking to friendly people about happy subjects, so it's more just a matter of teaching them to ask open-ended questions and make eye contact and that sort of thing. The basics. Which I suppose I can handle!

(Photo: Shoreditch, East London.)


e said...

I hated interviewing unless it was a subject which interested me, and I can snarl with the best but prefer writing. My favorite trick was taking to young kids about the process of writing a book, what that involved, the research and how one does that and what I had to know to get that done and past an editor. That was a fun experience. It sounds like you handled this well.

Yorkshire Pudding said...

I suspect that your gentle non-confrontational approach to interviewing probably encouraged your interviewees to be more open and more forthcoming so you will have often drawn comments from them that more aggressive interviewers would have been denied.

37paddington said...

What YP said. I bet people opened up to you. I always found as a reporter that I got far more from a source with honey rather than vinegar. And I guarantee that the author of that new book on the trump (fire and fury) was so congenial and affirming that people didn’t even realize how much they were sharing. I’ve never understood snarling reporters. I always felt they were making their jobs harder. I think the way you get the goods is to dare to ask the really hard intrusive questions after you’ve put your subject at ease. I always thought if you’re going to interview someone, you have to try for a moment to stand in their shoes. I guess what this means is I really preferred interviewing people I could care about in some way because it would feel awful to win their trust then write a hostile piece. Again like that book fire and fury. I think it’s great that you coach the eight graders on interviewing techniques. They have a real live New York Times writer and editor in their midst!

Steve Reed said...

YP and 37P: Yeah, I think that's probably true. I do believe in the more-bees-with-honey approach. But still, I admire people who have that hard-charging ability!

Ms. Moon said...

I really know nothing about this subject. We had to learn some interviewing skills in nursing school and that is IT! The older I get, the more I realize that people mostly really do want to talk about things and if you show interest and allow them to do so, they will. But...that's just every day listening.

Marty said...

Stop feeling like a fraud. Your background is perfect for this. And there is a maxim I read long ago - and which I've seen proven time and again:
Those that know what they don't know actually have more knowledge of the subject than those that think they know it all.

Our current President comes to mind.

Linda d said...

The problem is I know if the person decided to turn the tables on me I would run like the wind. So honey would be the best option for me.

I agree though, I respect the person that has the tenacity to do it.

ellen abbott said...

no experience here in the subject though I'm sure you did a fine job with the 8th graders.

Vivian said...

I think 37Paddington is absolutely right about that Wold guy who wrote Firs and Fury (my copy is on order). He probably did ingratiate himself to his subjects, who are like everybody else in the world and loved to talk about themselves. They forgot that he was a reporter -- just shows what rubes they are. But good on Mr. Wold: he knew how to get his story.

And for heaven's sake, yes, you are expert at what you know. Give yourself credit for what you accomplished, and for succeeding in a highly competitive field.

I used to do magazine writing, feature stuff. When I started doing profiles on people, and had to sit and interview, or talk, with creative or eccentric folk (I have never interviewed a politician), I kept one rule: If you let a person talk for five minutes, they will show you how crazy they are.

I wasn't necessarily looking for "crazy", I was always looking for that "pull quote", that one moment when someone said, in ten words or less, exactly what it is that makes them tick. Sometime you have to wait longer than five minutes, but sooner of later, if you're a good listener, they WILL give you something golden.

Sharon said...

I was thinking along the same lines as Marty above. The smartest people in the world are those who question everything.

Red said...

I'm sure the interviewing knowledge will help the kids much later in life. The trouble with reporters pushing in an interview is that they might not get the real story but something they wanted to write. This happens when I'm interviewed on birds. The reporters have the idea that they want to tell people that birds are disappearing when I have been asked to talk bout something else.

Anonymous said...

Before I retired I advised students who published the student newspapers and poetry journals at UC Santa Cruz. Each student had their own way of being in the world. Some worked with the vinegar/snarl approach, others worked with honey/smile approach. Each brought to their articles a unique perspective. I think reporting is some of the most important work being done today. I will always be grateful that the Freedom of the Press was so highly regarded it made it into the First Amendment. I love that you are talking to 8th graders about interviews.

Catalyst said...

When I worked in television news there was a joke that said the seven most feared words in America were: Mike Wallace is here to see you!

jenny_o said...

Being an interviewer of any kind is my idea of a job to avoid :)

But maybe that's because I don't know how to do it, and could really use the tips you're giving the students!