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May 12, 2011 2:34 AM   Subscribe

How do journalists/authors go about finding their interview subjects?

Hi. I'm finally starting to get pretty decent at interviewing people. But I'm having trouble finding how to find people to interview. For example, I'm working on a project where I want to interview students and their families about applying to university in the UK. I think I would be good at the actual interviews -- but I'm having trouble finding subjects.

How do journalists go about finding people to interview for any piece they are writing? Do they put up ads? Or just ask around with friends? I've tried that, but none of my friends even know people in the target group. I read all these awesome articles where interviewers get really in depth with ordinary people and their lives -- I want to do this, but how do I find the ordinary people? For the school project, do I just write the school, for example? Maybe I just need to be bolder? I want to do more projects like this, so I think this is going to be a recurring problem for me.

Any advice would be greatly appreciated!
posted by caoimhe to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Yup, that's one of the hardest parts of journalism! You ask people, friends of friends, co-workers. You keep a comprehensive and detailed contact list of everyone you've ever dealt with and as much about them as you know. You hit the streets. You knock on doors. You post online. Record and keep the names and details of everyone you meet; you never know when they will come in handy.

I've found simply hitting the streets the most effective, and making sure I keep my contact list up to date. So for example, I might do a story with Bob Jones from the cricket club about his latest win. During the course of the interview, he mentions he took up cricket after his third heart attack, which he got cos he used to be a 3-pack a day smoker. Now he's much happier cos he can run around after his grandkids and walk his dog.

So in my contact list, I write: Bob Jones, phone, street address. Plays cricket, had a heart attack, ex-smoker, has grand kids, owns dogs, likes exercise and fitness.

Then a few months later, I might want to do a story on heart attack survivors. So I search my contact list (ctrl+f) and type in "heart". Then I find Bob, and call him up. "Hey Bob, remember me?"...

This method has helped me immeasurably in my job at a daily paper. When we get new cadets coming through, it is the first thing I teach them and the one thing I absolutely insist they do. (Well, that, spell-checking and fact-checking.)

But if you're just starting out, the best way to get these contacts is to hit the street (assuming relevant interest groups have failed you). Do a vox pop/survey and smile, be confident. It might seem like you get knock-back after knock-back but eventually you might find a friendly shop keeper (hair dressers, baristas, realtors and news agents are GOLD) and they will just happen to know someone.

Good luck!
posted by indienial at 3:05 AM on May 12, 2011 [5 favorites]

Journalists find subjects by asking everyone they know and anyone relevant. You won't work in a newsroom long before reading a company-wide email asking if anyone knows someone who X for a case study.

In this case, you need to get leads. So start with the institutions that deal with lots of students. Call the universities near you; speak to their admissions and student accommodation people, ask them if they can think of any students with interesting stories. Call nearby schools and ask to speak to the guidance teacher for the just-departed year, ask if they had any interesting students that went on to uni.

(This isn't b2b, by the way. You're not phoning to make a formal application for a request with interview or anything like that; don't get diverted into the press office unless you really can't help it. You're just calling to quickly turn the person you talk to into a friend, then asking them for tip-offs or leads.)

This principle works for just about anything, from students to war zones. Find the organisation, institution or body that deals with large numbers of the type of people you want to cover, and get in touch with them.
posted by bonaldi at 3:05 AM on May 12, 2011

Oh, and re: confidence... NO-ONE likes approaching strangers and asking what essentially is a favour. But just remember, a lot of people would LOVE to be in the paper. It's total flattery that you asked them, of all people! So if you're not confident, just fake it til you make it.

(and pls excuse some hideous grammatical errors. I would fire myself if I sent this copy through at work!)
posted by indienial at 3:08 AM on May 12, 2011

By any means necessary.

In your case, I would do some or all of the following: Post on online forums where people who are applying to schools chat. Read the forum for a while and directly message people who have something interesting to say. Call the school, ask them if they can help you get in touch with people or - can they direct you to an organization that somehow works with or supports your subjects? Contact your local high schools. Do the students do extra-curricular activities? Contact those organizations.

Ask everybody if they can contact you with somebody else. Make sure everybody knows what you're looking for and give them a way to contact you.
posted by jedrek at 3:09 AM on May 12, 2011

Your contact book is your bread and butter. It's just as important as your ability to craft a good narrative for a story. Start with publishers (easy), then go to blogs (recommend a long pre-interview), and then finally go to other journalists. The most dangerous contacts are actually friends and family, because if they think an interview didn't go well it can destroy a friendship.
posted by parmanparman at 3:15 AM on May 12, 2011

Twitter. Seriously, all the journalists I know use it to put call-outs for subjects. I recently did an interview with someone who tweeted that she needed a subject who was going through chemo. Build up a strong Twitter following if you don't have one already, and you'll be able to get people to retweet you, maximizing your chances of finding the subjects you need. I've done research for people who've requested it on Twitter (I'm a fact checker and editor), and other people have helped me out when I've needed to track down info.

Another perk of Twitter: great for breaking news.
posted by Felicity Rilke at 3:30 AM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Don't be shy - every single successful journalist is pushy. So long as they haven't been burned by journalists before, people love talking about their experiences and opinions. Ask 10 suitable people and you'll get 8 saying yes and maybe 3 with something usable for your piece. This does require a bit of work though. You'd be amazed how low the standards are sometimes. I've met name columnists on major papers (cough, the Gruaniad) who literally ask the kid doing the photocopying about their attitude to this, that or the other and type it up before their three hour lunch as the latest hot youth trend/evil horror depending on what the editor's after to balance the page. A lot of quotes and anecdotes are just blatantly made up, and again this isn't the Daily Mail I'm talking about. So if you actually make a genuine effort to research stuff and record what they say and present it honestly you're doing better than some people earning a six figure salary.
posted by joannemullen at 3:34 AM on May 12, 2011

I've been interviewed several times by various reporters who just googled whatever it was they were writing about. They always ask me who else they can talk to about whatever it is as well. Come to think of it, seems like I always recommend Jessamyn when they ask.
posted by Blake at 3:34 AM on May 12, 2011

posted by jbickers at 4:00 AM on May 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow, you guys are AMAZING! This is exactly the kind of advice I've been looking for -- thanks so much!
posted by caoimhe at 4:15 AM on May 12, 2011

I'd just like to amplify what a couple people have said -- whoever you speak to, don't leave without asking, "Who else should I speak to? What is this person's phone number/email address?" At the end of your interview, don't forget to ask a version of this question: "What am I leaving out? Is there anything you expected I would ask you that I haven't mentioned? Do you have anything you'd like to add?"

If you're just trying to expand your contact list, ask, "Who is the most interesting person you know?" Also, go hunting for gadflies. Ask your source: "Who in your circle is the person who just seems to know everybody?" Write down the answer to this question and then offer to buy that person coffee. The next time you need someone, call that gadfly first. "Hey, do you know anyone who....?"

Good luck!
posted by Buffaload at 4:41 AM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

At the end of your interview, don't forget to ask a version of this question: "What am I leaving out? Is there anything you expected I would ask you that I haven't mentioned? Do you have anything you'd like to add?"

Yep—I've gotten more good answers just asking this...
posted by limeonaire at 5:11 AM on May 12, 2011

Craig's List.
posted by empath at 5:57 AM on May 12, 2011

A New York Times columnist found me on Twitter (probably by searching hash tags), found my website in my profile and emailed me. I'm pretty sure he found all of his subjects for the article in the same way.
posted by Bunglegirl at 8:07 AM on May 12, 2011

I'd disagree somewhat with a comment upthread about avoiding press offices - if you draw a blank elsewhere they can be your friend if you've got a really specific request, though university press offices are more likely to be geared towards helping you speak to staff rather than students. However, press offices are mostly pretty strict in that they'll only accept queries from journalists, and I'm not clear if your project is journalistic or not.

Charities are also good for this. They often have case studies they can put journalists (and perhaps other interviewers) in touch with to help raise awareness of their issue/cause. We usually go via press offices but with a small charity you could probably just phone them and ask.

For your particular topic, I'd just phone the nearest student union and ask them; or turn up there and hand out flyers/put up a notice with your phone number and some details of your project; or do what every poor hack has to do at some point - stand on the pavement outside and ask people as they walk past (if you're doing in depth interviews I guess this should be paired with a flyer with your details on so they can go away and think about it).

I read all these awesome articles where interviewers get really in depth with ordinary people and their lives -- I want to do this, but how do I find the ordinary people?

Bear in mind that most of these are probably with people who, while generally ordinary, do have something unusual to tell (and are probably also articulate, and have maybe clicked on a certain level with the interviewer and so are comfortable and trusting enough to open up). To find one of these when you're starting from scratch, you might have to try several interviewees and home in on the best.
posted by penguin pie at 3:20 PM on May 12, 2011

Oh, also - although it's true to an extent that people may be flattered to be asked to appear in the paper, you are basically asking them to give up their time for free to speak to a stranger. You don't really want to be offering them money to be interviewed, but you do want to make it as easy as you can for them to say yes: say you'll do the interview over coffee or beer somewhere really nice at your expense; or that you'll pay their travel expenses; or offer to do the interview over the phone if that's more convenient if you find someone you really want to speak to who can't spare the time for a face-to-face.
posted by penguin pie at 3:29 PM on May 12, 2011

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