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February 25, 2012 3:21 PM   Subscribe

What are your tips for conducting freelance journalistic-type interviews for articles/non-fiction essays/books?

For a while now I have been working on a non-fiction piece that I now need to "flesh out" with quotes. This is not a piece that I have been hired to write or have pitched to anyone. It's just a pet project that I want to do to accomplish it. I don't know if I would ever even try to get it published or how that would even work. That's another question for another day.

What is the protocol for getting interviews with "non-famous" people. I just need to talk to professionals in the particular field, which concerns religion, so preachers, professors, that kind of thing. Do people expect to be paid for this sort of thing? I feel I will be at a disadvantage because there is a 99% chance this thing will never be published and so why would they waste there time? What are some books/articles you can point me to to help me out.

Any advice will be appreciated. BTW, I became inspired to finish this thing after reading The Lifespan of a Fact which I recommend to anyone interested in this sort of thing.
posted by holdkris99 to Education (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Nah, you just email 'em. Or call 'em. Interview subjects aren't compensated (except on TV).

You can be up front with them; I've done it like: "You should know I don't at this time have a home to publish this piece, but I would really love your input to help me understand the issues here as fully as possible."
posted by RJ Reynolds at 3:35 PM on February 25, 2012 [4 favorites]

(Besides, PRIESTS LOVE TO TALK. I had to talk to a priest once, who was at a big church, and he was like COME RIGHT OVER!)
posted by RJ Reynolds at 3:36 PM on February 25, 2012

Do people expect to be paid for this sort of thing?

No, you should not pay for this privilege, and it would be weird if anyone asked you to.

I feel I will be at a disadvantage because there is a 99% chance this thing will never be published and so why would they waste there time?

Just say you are a freelance journalist, which you are, working on a piece about religious expression that has to do with X, Y, and Z, which you are, and could you speak with them for a few minutes. People tend to like to talk about cool stuff they do.

The only thing I would be careful about is that if you don't have many details, they might worry that you are doing a "gotcha" type piece, so just try to sound as measured, polite, and straightforward as possible. Don't say, "Well, it's just a piece about, you know, religion and stuff." That would make some people think, "Great, I'm going to be nice to this guy and this piece is going to appear in UNITED ATHEISTS MONTHLY with the headline LOCAL PASTOR IS A DUM." You want to say, "I hope to explore the way faith interacts with the economy and the ways individual congregations are handling the spiritual and material needs of their members." Or whatever.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 3:40 PM on February 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

(Snarl makes a REALLY good point! Disclosing as much as possible about what you're doing and what the piece is about is incredibly fair, and results in better interview results.)
posted by RJ Reynolds at 3:45 PM on February 25, 2012

General interview tips:

-Make notes beforehand so you don't forget what to ask or sit there looking flustered.

-Bring a little recorder so you don't have to hold up the conversation taking notes, although you should take some general notes as you talk (to help organize your train of thought and to save you if the recorder bites the dust.)

-Yes/no questions bad; open-ended questions good. BAD QUESTION: "Are more congregants requesting financial assistance right now?" GOOD QUESTION: "What kind of requests for assistance do you get from congregants? What kind of assistance were congregants asking for five years ago?" I always like the lead-in "How important is X?" instead of "Is X important?" The latter gets you "Yeah, it's important," the former gets you, "This is very important to us because..."

-Open-ended statements are okay, too, once stuff gets relaxed enough. Eg: "Many churches are feeling overwhelmed or overextended between a soup kitchen, a food pantry, and job training." That usually keys people to say either "Yeah, that's been our experience and we've found..." or "No, we really view that stuff as our core mission because..."

-Remember to say please and thank you, and don't sell anyone out.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 4:02 PM on February 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

People don't expect to get paid, but someone with a full schedule might not actually want to chat with you just because. You might try going to a church service or a lecture or volunteer at a place that suits your needs and then talking to someone involved. Calling up a professor for an "interview" for your own edification doesn't seem professional to me at all. Perhaps you could ask your circle of friends etc., if they know someone who'd be willing to talk to you on the record. Journalists do this all the time.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:49 PM on February 25, 2012

Snarl is right on the money. Be polite, upfront and ask straight out: people love talking.

I put my own interview tips from my time freelancing on the blue once.
posted by smoke at 6:19 PM on February 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

HARO sounds like it would be right up your alley! It stands for "Help a Reporter Out." You submit your query and deadline, as well as who you're looking in interview and then work from there. You can even mark things "urgent" and they'll put it out on their Twitter feed for quicker responses.
posted by Ostara at 6:35 PM on February 25, 2012 [4 favorites]

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