How do i make contacts for an interview ?
April 18, 2006 12:41 AM   Subscribe

How do journalists make contacts to conduct interviews ? I am trying to write freelance but i need to interview the subjects of my story but many do not respond to my inquiry through email.
posted by Yiba to Writing & Language (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Well, first they cultivate a relationship with their source. That requires networking skills, investigative skills, and credibility (hard to come by if you're a newbie freelancer).

Then they exploit the vanity that is, to varying degrees, within all of us to get the source to talk. And, deep down, everybody wants to talk.
posted by randomstriker at 12:52 AM on April 18, 2006

I second randomstriker's advice. Though it might sound an imposing task, it's not really that difficult.

If at all possible, call them on the phone rather than e-mail. Depending on who the people are, they might get deluged with e-mails and may have simply forgotten yours (happened to me when I was doing my dissertation last year). And besides, calling is more personal, it shows you're more determined to cultivate a relationship. You might feel a bit awkward cold-calling someone who's a stranger to you like that, but if you want to be a journalist it's something you'll have to do -- it's all part of the job.

It's best, of course, if you have a completely clear idea of what your article will be about, and what contribution your prospective interviewee could make to it. Make sure to inform them that whatever they can tell you will be of value to what you're writing -- they should be much more willing to give you the time of day if they think you actually care about what they have to say.
posted by macdara at 1:39 AM on April 18, 2006

E-mail is easy to ignore. You'll have to meet them or phone them (multiple times if you need) and be very convincing. Better work on your sales techniques.

Start with people who are easy to access and willing to talk. Get the fundamentals of the story there. Be curious and enthusiastic about what they tell you. Use the info you have to talk to other people - people love to gossip, so you can trade your info for theirs. Then aim for the people closer to the centre of the story, who will probably only take any notice of you if you really have the story.

Tell them you're writing this story anyway, "and I think it would be a pity if you didn't get a chance to react (to what other people involved are saying about you)". Use with caution, because that strategy may backfire.
posted by NekulturnY at 1:44 AM on April 18, 2006

The answer is to phone them. If you haven't talked to them before, mentioning the name of whichever publication you're writing for will probably do the trick quite quickly.
posted by reklaw at 2:24 AM on April 18, 2006

IANAJournalist, but I know a couple, and I have been required to use my wit over the phone in the past.

As NekulturnY suggests, the sales technique is a big part of it. It will be of great help to be charming, relaxed, friendly and confident, and at the same time just a little bit pushy, forward and leading. The amount of bullshit you lay on is down to your preference, but it's often a deciding factor. Watch some journalism movies to get the idea. Also Glengarry Glen Ross springs to mind as an example of how sales bullshit works (though of course in this case you are essentially selling yourself and your potential work, rather than a product).

You will need to practice this part, and you will improve. At this stage, it is a numbers game - make a lot of calls, and some will agree. Don't worry about those who don't agree, think of it as practice, and don't worry if the people who do agree aren't ideal, those contacts too will be good practice.
posted by MetaMonkey at 4:02 AM on April 18, 2006

No-one has mentioned doorstepping, which I have done many times. This means you literally knock on someone's door and ask them for the interview there and then. It doesn't work particularly well on celebrities but on regular folks it works incredibly well.
posted by unSane at 5:14 AM on April 18, 2006

By the way, flattery is also essential.
posted by unSane at 5:14 AM on April 18, 2006

and I think it would be a pity if you didn't get a chance to react

I would alter that a little. Too many journalists say to sources, "I'm writing a story about yadda yadda and I wanted to get a quotation from you." Or, "do you have any comment on that." With an opening like that it's too easy for the source to say no, or to spin things their way.

Make the source want to educate you. Make it clear that you know something about the subject, but then ask them specific questions, even if you're pretty sure already what the answers are. If you're looking for opinions, give them something to react to, like "Some people believe such-and- such, but do you feel that's a good idea given thus-and-so?" Posit a good argument in these questions and avoid softballs.
posted by beagle at 5:16 AM on April 18, 2006 [1 favorite]

The advice above is good. Also, if the person you want to interview is a part of a larger institution, you can usually put pressure on the person by contacting the relevant PR person. For instance, if you want to interview a university professor, contact the school's media relations department.
posted by ph00dz at 6:05 AM on April 18, 2006

Are you working as a freelancer for a particular publication that has you under contract for an assignment, or at the very least has OKed a story idea you submitted? Or is this a story you're researching on your own, hoping to sell? The former is easier to do than the latter. Publications I've worked for accepted unsolicited manuscripts but rarely‚ if ever, actually used them. Anyway, it might be more worth your time to sell yourself to your interview contacts as a writer for X publication rather than as a freelancer trying to break into the business. Even if that publication hasn't heard of you, I bet you have a publication in mind where you'd like to send your story. Tell your interview contact you work for that publication. Can't hurt.

Apart from that, I would echo what everyone else has said about being a little more direct—phone instead of e-mail.
posted by emelenjr at 6:05 AM on April 18, 2006

There are different kinds of contacts for stories. There are your regular sources of information, people you know in the field you are covering that you call periodically to chat with. Then there are experts and individuals involved in one particular thing that you are writing about that you call for only one story. It sounds like you are talking about the latter.

Email: make clear in the subject line you want to talk about a story you are working on. If you don't make this clear, you'll likely be deleted without being read. Inside the email, keep it to a short clear paragraph that says what the story is about and why you want to talk to them about it. Ideally, say what the publication is, but don't lie if you haven't sold the thing yet. If they are an expert in the field, flatter away.

Call: most everyone is reachable with a little digging. Call PR departments, switchboards, publishers, other people in the same organization, other people who might know the guy.

Doorstepping is only for urgent breaking stories and hostile people who adamantly don't want to talk but must be gotten. (Murder suspects, pols about to be exposed, etc...) You don't doorstep a guy who might have a quote about coming trends in sushi, or whatever.
posted by CunningLinguist at 6:26 AM on April 18, 2006

Best answer: I'll chip in, though much of the above advice is good. I'll reiterate the most important advice: use the phone. Email is worse than useless for arranging and (especially) conducting interviews. As said above, it's easy to ignore, and more importantly, it takes vastly more time to complete the back-and-forth of confirmation and questioning via email than even a 5 minute phone call could accomplish. Email is useful for taking receipt of background material or press releases, but it takes a distant second to good old-fashioned phonecalls to actually communicate, especially on deadline.

I'd take the advice to act like a salesman with a pretty large grain of salt. People hate salesmen. For good reason. They try to convince people to do things they don't want to do. And they do it dishonestly. That's a recipe for a very, very bad source. A better bet is to find a person who is interested in being a source for the article. If you need to talk to that specific person, then honestly explaining the thrust of your article, and why you think it would be beneficial to the person to be in the article. Avoid the hard-sell, unless its absolutely neccesarry. Of course, that doesn't mean don't be persistent. If your calls aren't getting returned, don't give up; keep calling until you find someone who can talk to you, or someone who will speak to you long enough to decline comment.

Depending on what organization the person is a part of, the advice to go through a PR or Media Relations department may not just be useful, it may be absolutely essential. Many larger universities, hospitals, and local governments have strict rules about who may talk to the media, and in those cases, an interview requires the blessing of the Flack-in-Chief. So your emails/phonecalls may not be being ignored, the person may not be allowed to speak to you until the PR manager has given the OK.

So: make phonecalls. A lot of them. Stop trying to make first contact with a source via email. Do research into the most available sources and the manner in which they can be contacted. Be persistent, but polite. Never lie or use deception. And don't be a salesman. Be someone that the source wants to share information with; that is to say, a journalist.
posted by Eldritch at 7:36 AM on April 18, 2006

Former journalist here.

* Always interview in-person or over the phone. Besides being more likely to get the interview in the first place, in-person conversations are spontaneous and lead to better quotes and information. Good journalists burn up the phones and drive around the city a lot.

* Try to flatter your interviewees in terms of things you've (truthfully) already done or people you've already spoken to. "I was talking to so-and-so, and he said you'd be a good guy to talk to about this."
posted by frogan at 8:51 AM on April 18, 2006

I'd take the advice to act like a salesman with a pretty large grain of salt. People hate salesmen. For good reason. They try to convince people to do things they don't want to do. And they do it dishonestly.

I'd just like to clarify what I said above about the sales aspect. The example I provided (Glengarry Glen Ross) is one end of the wide spectrum of bullshit. I would certainly not advocate or recommend these practices, but recognise that there is a large element of playing the game - flattery, a bold personality, charm and so forth. These habits seem to apply equally to journalists and other work which involves regular making contact with previously unknown persons.

To reiterate, and perhaps reframe; people skills/networking skills (sometimes known as bullshit) are vital when asking people for their time. My experience in this matter is having done a couple of jobs (mercifully now in the distant past) where I would have to call up existing (but often practically 'cold') contacts and interview them about conferences/satisfaction with product/random data collection and so on. I found that a relaxed manner, a little friendliness and humour, coupled with a polite focus on moving things forward gave the best results (and indeed made the day pass more pleasently than approaching the task in a work-man like fashion - using the stupid script they gave us). Again, certainly no need to be dishonest, but do focus on establishing a connection and rapport with the contact.

Marginally Related Footnote: Many moons ago I did part-time telephone-sales for all of 2 weeks, and I tried to pride myself on not being the typical pushy asshole. As I soon realised, this is not the principle these companies work under. Young and naive, I was quite shocked at (1) what a complete bastard the manager was and (2) how successful his forceful sales-wanker technqiue was.
posted by MetaMonkey at 9:33 AM on April 18, 2006

Name dropping works wonders and rapidly expands your circle of contacts. "John Smith said that you are familiar with this issue, what are your thoughts? [More questions] Thanks, John Smith was right. Is there anyone you can think of who might provide another [viewpoint, observation, etc]?"

Also, do something to eliminate keyboard noise. The clack, clack, clack of keyboards sometimes scares sources ("What did I just say that he is writing down?").
posted by GarageWine at 10:28 AM on April 18, 2006

Tell your interview contact you work for that publication. Can't hurt.

Terrible advice. Don't, whatever you do, lie about the publication you're writing for - if your source phones the publication you mentioned to check on you, a) they'll never speak to you again and b) the publication will probably never hire you.

Also, do something to eliminate keyboard noise. The clack, clack, clack of keyboards sometimes scares sources.

Very true - that does spook people, or at least distracts them, and I only interview artists, musicians, etc. not criminal masterminds or what have you. If you don't know shorthand, the best way to do this is to record all conversations and transcribe them later (though this could be illegal without the express consent of the person you're speaking to, depending on where you are.)

I am trying to write freelance

If this does mean that you're just contacting people with no publication behind, you, er, good luck - I know I wouldn't speak to someone calling out of the blue with no credentials, in fact, I wouldn't believe that they were really a journalist and would either assume it was a waste of time speaking to you (if I had something to promote) or get very suspicious (if I had something to hide). Pitch the story to a relevant publication before you go any further (and be prepared for the possibility of them just handing your story over to someone on staff - shady, but it happens.)
posted by jack_mo at 11:08 AM on April 18, 2006

Tell your interview contact you work for that publication. Can't hurt.

Wow, can't believe I missed this one. As jack_mo says above, never, ever, ever, ever do this. Not only is it slimy and dishonest, it's liable to get back to whatever publication you're pretending to work for, and you will be immediately black-balled from ever working for that publication. And it'll ruin your reputation. As a freelancer especially, but more generally as a journalist, the only thing you have is your reputation and credibility.

And beyond professional concerns, you open yourself up to potential legal liability by lying to your source. You can lose the libel protections normally conferred on news gatherers acting in good faith if it can be proved you intentionally deceived the source.

So don't do it.
posted by Eldritch at 11:40 AM on April 18, 2006

In my years of experience dealing with freelance writers, I never received calls from story sources asking about writers' credentials. I don't know if that says more about their credentials or the publications I've worked for, but I only offered that as a suggestion because Yiba seemed to be asking the question from the perspective of someone who doesn't have any credentials to speak of.
posted by emelenjr at 3:13 PM on April 18, 2006

I'm a reporter and have been one for 20 years. In my current job, I do 100 percent of my interviews over the phone. But I don't like to use the phone to set up interviews; I prefer to do that via email and it often works for me.

The articles I write are fairly technical stories about mortgages and real estate, and the readership is consumers. When contacting, say, an executive at Countrywide, it's easier to explain in an email exactly what I'm looking for, rather than explaining it over the phone. The more technical and hard-to-explain the subject, the more suitable email is, because I'm more eloquent in email.

Here are some tips:
*If you're trying to get hold of someone in a large organization, such as a corporation with more than 50 employees, or a university, find the PR department and explain what you're writing about, what angle you want to take, where and when it will be published, when your deadline is, and how long you expect the interview to be. It's usually a good idea to let the PR people decide who the appropriate source will be. If you say, "I need to interview Dr. Smith for 20 minutes," you might forego an interview with Dr. Jones, who knows the subject matter better.

*If it's a small organization, contact the person directly.

*If you make the first contact by phone, rehearse the call before you make it. What would you say if you got hold of your source, your source's assistant, or your source's voicemail? I've been doing this since 1986 and I still rehearse cold-calls before I make them.

*I repeat: Describe the story subject, the angle, the publication, when it will run, and above all, how long you want to interview the person.

*Suggest a date and time for the interview. If you're flexible, say so -- but still suggest a date and time, so they can accept it or make a counter-suggestion. Don't forget to tell them your deadline. Just tell them -- don't be pushy about it.

I don't know any reporters who think of themselves as salesmen. We think of ourselves as reporters.
posted by Holden at 3:16 PM on April 18, 2006

Here's a few basic tricks I learned to find sources and land interviews while as an assistant to an investigative journalist:

1. While doing research on your subjects, ask whatever sources you find if they can suggest anyone else to talk to regarding different aspects of your subject. Unless you want your reporting to be kept quiet, the more you dig around your subject the more apt they might be to actually cooperate.

2. A prior writing record helps. If you're unpublished, even a decently maintained blog might give you some legitimacy and thus gain the trust of your subject. While this isn't something you can whip together, not a bad idea to get started on now.

3. Contact any writers who may have previously written about the subject - you may get a big blow off, but if you're honest about where you're coming from, they may give you advice or make a call on your behalf. Sometimes other writers might even share additional sources or bits of info on the subject.
posted by Unsomnambulist at 1:36 AM on April 19, 2006

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