In journalism on February 4, 2016 at 4:15 pm
This week, The New York Times Insider featured reporter Conor Dougherty and his hunt for Larry Page. Dougherty is the NYT reporter assigned to cover Google, and people like company CEO Page.
The headline sort of says it all: “Try to interview Google’s cofounder. It’s emasculating.”
Today’s tech giants, companies like Google and Apple, are dedicated to sharing information, often information about you and I for which these companies pay nothing. Yet, they are some of the most closed ecosystems on the planet. Tech execs are famous for making maids sign non-disclosure agreements. They have state-of-the-art security and reporters rarely if ever really get a glimpse of what truly goes on behind the website. The New York Times asked to interview Page more than 18 months ago and is still waiting for an answer.
Being in Google’s figurative backyard, we run into this a bit at the Half Moon Bay Review. Recently, we wanted to interview Liv Wu. She is the director of something called the Google Teaching Kitchen. I’d like to ask her what that is, but she is sworn to secrecy. Even though she is a “local” who lives near the Review, was once a newspaper reporter like me and we were specifically guided to her with her email and phone number by a publicist. We wanted to ask her about her completely non-Google work as a member of a committee putting on a local festival.
Such requests had to go through Google, we were told. So we chose someone else to feature.
I mention all this because today’s business titans are more inaccessible than ever before. They rarely consent to interviews with journalists, preferring to issue their own unchallenged statements via social media. It’s so much easier that way. None of those pesky questions. … Read the rest of this entry »
In Writing techniques on September 4, 2014 at 1:47 pm
In the Half Moon Bay Review magazine, I usually write up a question and answer piece on someone I find interesting, or perhaps someone involved in a field that is related to our monthly theme. (We usually have an advertising theme such as “fall home” in September, and we try to have some related editorial stuff.) If I’m being totally honest, I do it myself because it’s easy and it’s fun.
I like Q&As because they are unfiltered and it gives your subject a chance to explain who she is in her own words. I also like that Q&As can appear more graphically interesting than regular reporting. You can bold the questions, run big portraits of the guy you are interviewing, experiment with italics … I just like ’em.
I strive for a relaxed, playful tone. I want readers to put themselves in my shoes and imagine talking to the smokehouse owner or the brewmaster or the guy at the hardware store themselves. I want them to imagine how that conversation would go.
I’ve always been a fan of Esquire writer Scott Raab. I really like his Q&As in the magazine. He’s as much a focus of the conversation as whatever star he is interviewing — and that is a dangerous direction to travel. (Here’s an example, though you are free to skip it if course language bothers you.) It’s a real conversation with the recorder on and not an everyday magazine interview. … Read the rest of this entry »
In Writing techniques on April 17, 2014 at 3:07 pm
In a recent piece on the blogging site Medium, freelancer Rob Boffard gives advice on how to be interviewed. He makes a good point about something we should all remember: Many of the people we approach from day to day have never faced the business end of a journalist before. It can be intimidating to respond to barked questions while a stranger scribbles your answers in a notebook.
While Boffard’s advice to the interviewed is well taken, we might also consider our approach to interviewing folks. Here are some observations based on years of experience:
In person is always better than the phone and the phone is better than email. This is a distinction that can be lost on interviewer and interviewee alike. The reason you want to interview someone in person is that you notice stuff you can’t possibly notice on the phone. Is your subject tense, jovial, pained? Does he have the answers readily at hand or does he lean on a PR woman to his side? We are human beings; even in this age of digital communication, we respond best to a warm greeting and smiling face. You will simply learn more by speaking face to face.
Go to your source’s lair. Whenever possible, conduct interviews at your subject’s workplace or home or the place that is most relevant to your story. The reason is obvious. You are going to get tidbits that color your story if you interview the volleyball coach as she picks up the balls after practice rather than calling her at home three hours later. … Read the rest of this entry »
In Ideas on May 30, 2013 at 4:45 pm
Someone once said imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. It is in that spirit that I intend to flatter WSJ magazine and use the concept above in our own magazine.
As we continue to think about changes to our magazine, I’ve been paying more attention of late to the good things I see in other publications. I’m paying particular attention to magazines like the WSJ product that cater to a market that we covet – upwardly mobile, aspirational, ambitious people.
WSJ asks several hip trendsetters for their 200-word takes on some concept (in the case above, “Intuition.”) I’ll seek out interesting local people and ask them to riff on something that is topical or perhaps in keeping with a magazine theme. To differentiate this from the common man-in-the-street quote thing we do, I plan on allowing folks to email their answers. That will allow them to think it through a bit more than they would if I just showed up with pen and paper.
I even have a plan for producing something like those cool Wall Street Journal stipple drawings. I’m going to run common headshots through an app called ToonPaint. If you want to see what that looks like, check out my own likeness on my Pinterest account. (And don’t forget to see some of the magazine ideas there.)
I’m sure you are always on the lookout for good ideas you can make your own. Consider this a reminder that imitation is sincere flattery.
In Writing techniques on February 21, 2013 at 4:02 pm
Here’s an idea I got from Jim Pumarlo. He is an author and consultant to community newspapers like ours.
Get out, say, your last five newspapers and a Highlighter. Now highlight every name in your paper. Some names will undoubtedly appear only once, the focus of some feature perhaps. But dollars to donuts several names will stick out. I bet you have quoted the mayor, the school superintendent, the high school basketball coach, the planning commissioner or several other dignitaries several times over the period.
That’s not entirely a bad thing. After all, these folks are leaders in your community. You can’t very well ignore the mayor. … But you can overexpose him.
Pumarlo asks to envision your readership as a pyramid. Consider the “usual suspects” as the top of the pyramid and your regular folk as filling the wide base. Now: Does it make sense that you disproportionately quote those lofty individuals at the very top of society while ignoring the views of the many people who form the bedrock of the community?
You might say that your everyday citizen needs to hear from the decision makers. That is true. However, it’s equally true that the decision makers need to hear from your everyday readers, and that’s your job, too. … Read the rest of this entry »
In journalism on February 7, 2013 at 4:08 pm
I think this is a fascinating discussion. The editor of a college newspaper in Florida is all but forbidding her charges from conducting interviews with sources via email.
Let her explain, via the story on the Poynter site:
As a newspaper, is it our job to provide readers with the truth, directly from the source — not from the strategically coordinated voices of public relations staff or prescreened e-mail answers.
We don’t think these responses provide our readers with the unvarnished truth, and we will no longer include them in our articles at the expense of compromising the integrity of the information we provide. University departments do not have one, centralized voice, but rather are made up of a multitude of diverse perspectives.
My first reaction is to shout hallelujah from the rooftop. My second reaction is a bit more nuanced.
First of all, she is absolutely right. Email interviews aren’t really interviews at all. They are a writing exercise, often between the interviewer and a collection of unseen PR types who massage the message until it’s nice and round and palatable.
Often the request that questions be emailed comes from someone who feels he or she has been “burned” in the past. Sometimes this is true. Sometimes we screw up quotes. That is why the words you put in someone’s mouth are so sacrosanct. If word gets out that you can’t be trusted with quotes, requests for emailed questions are the least of your problems. Other times, it’s completely untrue. Sometimes your source said something off the top of her head that made her look like an ignoramus and now she wants to blame you and attempt to control the message going forward. … Read the rest of this entry »
In Writing techniques on May 31, 2012 at 8:47 pm
Have you heard of the Poynter Review Project? It’s a joint venture of sorts between the sports television behemoth ESPN and The Poynter Institute, a journalism think-tank in Florida. It’s an 18-month effort to review the practices at ESPN in hopes of making for a better, more enjoyable, more ethical broadcast. How can you argue with that?
It looks like the project is active on several fronts. I happened on this review of ESPN anchor and reporter interview techniques and thought it was pretty interesting. ESPN gives a lot of thought to the art of the interview, leaning on the teachings of a Canadian investigative reporter named John Sawatsky.
So what does that have to do with us?
One truth of working in a newsroom is that you are bound to hear your colleagues conduct interviews, both in the field and over the phone. And they hear yours in return. You probably all wonder about the techniques and questions you hear.
I thought some of the criticisms of the ESPN reporters could be transferred to a print newsroom. I’ve adapted some of those criticisms and principles and added my own spin on a couple:
- Make your source comfortable. Don’t approach her with your pen poised over your note pad. Ask the softball stuff first; save the hardest question for the end. Find common ground. Be humble and gracious. … Read the rest of this entry »
In Writing techniques on January 13, 2012 at 9:42 am
What are the most memorable questions you have posed as a journalist? Two questions I asked in my now long ago sports-writing career come to mind.
The first was snarky and posed precisely to get a rise out of my source. I admit from this remove that this is a dubious way for a journalist to do business, but there you go. I was at a sporting goods trade show in about 1990. My charge was to write a story about the price of athletic shoes and the attendant wave of violence by inner-city kids willing to kill for those Air Jordans. My recollection is that, at the time, NFL quarterback Joe Montana had just inked the richest shoe endorsement deal in the country. My question, when I found him at the trade show: “So, Joe, how does it feel to be the highest paid shoe salesman in the world?”
The second was much different, and I don’t remember my exact words or the exact answer. I think it was 1993 when I sidled up to then-Philadelphia Phillies first baseman John Kruk and asked him about his testicular cancer. Suffice to say, nothing they teach you in journalism school prepares you to talk to a partially clad sports icon about a portion of his body not normally discussed in polite company. I remember him being very gracious and behaving like a man who felt some responsibility to encourage his fans to seek preventative care.
It’s interesting to look back on memorable questions in your past reporting, isn’t it? I think I would have handled both of those situations differently today.
Here are five things to consider when conducting an interview: … Read the rest of this entry »
In Writing techniques on December 9, 2011 at 9:37 am
This week, I was fascinated by Megan Garber’s retelling of an Errol Morris appearance before an audience of the Harvard Graduate School of Design. The subject was “the interview” and the documentarian, whose credits include The Fog of War, noted some intriguing ideas about what makes a good interview.
Morris told the audience that he was interested in finding out why people behaved the way they did. “What were they thinking?”
He suggested that many of us go wrong by asking questions that we already know the answers to. Instead, he says, we would be better served by an innate curiosity. Of course, if we did as he says, that would mess up many a tidy story angle. Who among us hasn’t gone out to cover a story knowing full well what we were going to write before we ever got to the scene?
I think it’s true to say that Morris considers a personal connection integral to a meaningful interview. That is a bit of a luxury. We may not be able to do that with every call to the highway patrol seeking comment on the wreck on the interstate. But it’s a noble goal and would undoubtedly enrich our work as well. … Read the rest of this entry »
In journalism on September 22, 2011 at 4:06 pm
OK, I admit this is a bit of a stretch, but I’ll bring it around to newspapering in a minute. Do you know that guy in the picture? I used to watch him all the time on the Food Network. I appreciate that he isn’t simply a cook. He teaches you something about the food you eat. His is a different kind of food programming, erudite and learned. He also seems to have a sense of humor on television.
So I was surprised by this. Never seen anything quite like it.
I know where he’s coming from. Those who follow celebrity television can be exhausting, I’m sure. I have no doubt that annoying fans bug him everywhere he goes. I’m sure they interrupt family functions, stop him at inopportune times and just generally pester him all hours of the day. That said, Alton Brown’s “Fanifesto” is perhaps the most self-absorbed, snarky, anti-fan rant I’ve ever read from a celebrity who owes his considerable compensation to the people he finds so annoying.
It is more than 1,200 words, for crying out loud. It includes these gems: