should I get a journalism degree?
December 23, 2003 4:55 PM   Subscribe

Any journalists in the audience? I have managed to land myself a position where a journalism degree would be helpful...and yet, I don't have one! (more inside)

I managed somehow to land myself a job as the editor of a small, local trade magazine. My background is in the trade--I worked in the industry for about 10 years before working for the magazine--but I have no journalism experience. The hardest part for me at present--at least the most pressing hard part because there's a lot of hard stuff--are interviews. I can shoot the shit with anyone, but when it comes to knowing how to ask actual "questions" I am at a loss. I do as much research as I can, but when it comes to forumalting "questions" I just sort of...I dunno...can't think of any. Or at least the ones I think up are sort of stunted and sad. Any recommendations for interview tactics/books/online resources/what-have-you? I don't know any journalists (we're a small magazine, so it's pretty much me & the interns,) and man, I gotta tell you, I'm starting to panic. All help appreciated, and happy holidays.
posted by macadamiaranch to Education (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
there should be something of use here -- and I would suggest using whatever trends or methods are new or hot in your field as a easy starting point. And of course, whatever you're really interested in knowing about that person or company.
posted by amberglow at 5:20 PM on December 23, 2003

As someone with a journalism degree from (what was at the time at least) one of the better regarded J Schools, let's just say the degree wouldn't be much help. Actually, in all the writing classes I had to take, I cannot remember one assignment where we had to interview anybody.

At a more practical level, you could look at them like informational job interviews. What would you want to know about the person, the company, the products from that perspective? Bottom of the bin, look over the last half dozen or so press releases issued by her company and ask questions that will allow restatement of them for a starting point, then see where the conversation flows.
posted by billsaysthis at 5:25 PM on December 23, 2003

The best plan is to go into the interview with a strong idea of what the resulting story has to say. I'm not advocating the sort of leading questions a dishonest policeman would ask a witness -- "could the guy have been wearing a distinctive blue top?" -- but they're in the same region.

Because you know your territory, you'll know what will be interesting about a particular person, or what would be interesting if that person explained it. You then need to make them tell you that. So lead them there. But be flexible. If it turns out that you were wrong, and the the answers are pointing in an entirely different direction, start playing on that -- "so, that's surprising to me, because a lot of people have the idea that X. Why do you think that is? Mmm. And yet you say Y. Are you sure that's the case? Have you personal experience of Y?" and so on.

Always follow the flow of the interview. The worst interviews - and resulting stories - are the ones where the interviewer goes in with a preset list of Questions To Be Asked, and then won't riff with what the person's saying. In short, take your "shooting the shit" and direct it toward your idea of what the story should be. But crucially: know your story.

And make sure your recorder works, heh.
posted by bonaldi at 6:19 PM on December 23, 2003

Sweet, do I get to self-link?

Well, amberglow beat me to it, but here's a collection of articles on interviewing from Poynter Online. Here's another one I don't think David Shedden included.

Some of the questions journalists have recommended as the best to ask in any interview are "Could you tell me more about that?" and "Who else can I talk to?"

Also, what's the trade of your trade magazine? Check here to see if there's an organization for journalists in that trade.
posted by grrarrgh00 at 6:25 PM on December 23, 2003

I graduated from the University of Oregon's J-school in June, and now work at a paper in Klamath Falls Oregon. I find my degree useful - that is, the classes I took through the J-school really honed my skills. (However, I did learn just as much through working at the college newspaper.)

My favorite class was called Journalistic Interview, taught by this hard-as-nails prof who wanted us to succeed in interviewing, at any cost. She introduced us to the Sawatsky method (which doctor Ink mentions in one of poynter links up there.)

Here's a good article on the Sawatsky method: Basically, the system is from this canuck who got tired of reporters asking idiot questions and decided to come up with some guidelines. I don't agree with everything he says (He wants you to ONLY ask open ended questions, which is really hard and stretches your mind.) But it does help out, especially on those tough interviews. Above all else, keep it in mind when someone is LYING to you. You'll be glad you did.

As far as general interviewing stuff: what Bonaldi said. Basically, you want to structure in advance how you want the interview to go. For the first few times, you might try mapping out "I want to ask her how she got her job, what she does now and what she plans to do in the future." Then you have a plan that you can change depending on how the interview is going. This doesn't mean you know what the person is going to say (Though oftentimes you do. Ever written a story about a parade? Yeah, I could fabricate those in my sleep by now.) But it does give you structure.

Biggest thing: Be yourself. See what interests the other person and draw them out. Avoid the temptation to butt in and say "yeah I've done that too." Be a dummy and make people explain it to you, even if you probably know it with your 10 years in the trade. It's much better to be thought of as the idiot and get the information right than come across as a genius who screws up the article when you write it. Oh, and have at least five questions on hand if you start to flounder.

Finally (phew) the tape recorder is often thought of as your enemy, because it takes about 3x longer to transcribe stuff than just to jot it down in the first place. But use the tape recorder for at least a month. Tape record your interviews, then when you transcribe them later you'll learn what worked and what didn't. Taping interviews has been the biggest learning experience for me.
posted by Happydaz at 6:57 PM on December 23, 2003

When I conduct interviews for my column, I always try to take the approach of asking questions that elicit answers that will spark my readers' interest, making the subject intriguing for them. I have interviewed ranchers, sheep dog owners, cheesemakers, organic dairy producers, business owners, fishermen, surfers, musicians, poets, authors, preschool teachers, bereaved persons and others in the course of my work, and find that everyone has a story to tell and it's my job to make those stories as compelling as possible.
posted by Lynsey at 11:13 PM on December 23, 2003

I used to be a writer and editor (while still in the U.S.), and have done lots and lots of interviews, and had a lot of compliments on my work (and even gifts!) from interviewees, so I'll just throw out a few points... It will be very helpful if you are the sort of person that people feel like talking to, which means you are interested, relaxed, receptive, and really listening. This can be a little difficult when you are sitting there with a recorder, taking notes and lobbing questions at someone you've never met before - but work on this, and after a while you can shift into the "zen" of interviewing, which is important because if the person closes up and just throws out rote answers, you are going to have very little material to work with. I was always looking for the surprises, the unexpected avenue to follow, the personal anecdote, etc. You have to really listen and observe to find the breadcrumb path sometimes. Other times the interviewee gives you a gorgeous story on a silver platter.

I always used the recorder so that I could get my quotes down exactly and I always took notes in case the recorder failed, but I would alter this a bit depending on the person; if it seemed they were a little freaked by the recorder, I would put it away, and if it seemed like they needed more constant and direct eye contact/face-focus, I would take fewer notes and rely more on the recorder. I always walked into an interview with about five questions, preferably memorized, so that I wouldn't need to "read" them a questions from a piece of paper. But the number of questions that I actually asked could be 10-30, depending on their feedback. In terms of writing up the story, I tried to do this as quickly as possible after the interview when all my impressions were fresh. I didn't transcribe from the recorder, but used it to get down exact wording for direct quotes. If there is something that isn't clear or that you need a bit more background on, call or email to get those spots filled in - the interviewee will only feel that you are being thorough. You will find that you usually only end up using a fraction of the material covered, which is normal. Sometimes, however, the person being interviewed may be expecting you to use everything (these people are often the ones who will make certain asides such "be sure to put this in the article", or "no, no; don't put that down", etc.). If you suspect this may be the case, you might want to say something like "Wow, you've given me enough great information for three articles; I hope I have enough space for everything". (Most people can relate to the restrictions of physical space.)

Finally, I never misrepresented anyone by quote selection or partial quoting. As we know, interviews are like statistics and can be manipulated to convey just about anything. I always set it as a high personal goal to remain as scrupulously honest as possible within the framework of the interview, and there were many times that I had sort of worked out the direction of a story but abandoned the plan because the actual interview material just didn't support that approach. Even just straight, direct quoting can make someone appear to be something they aren't (indecisive, rambling, etc.) since speaking is so different than writing and because interview conditions are not very easy on the subject. Here is where paraphrasing instead of direct quoting helps. Also, of course, the rule of thumb should be that you use direct quotes for a specific reason, and don't just fill in the article with them willy-nilly. Ideally, each quote should have some sort of impact.
posted by taz at 11:25 PM on December 23, 2003

Ah, one last thing: occasionally I would meet an interview subject who was obviously very, very media savvy and comfortable/experienced with the whole process. In a case like this, while writing the story I wouldn't hesitate to call them and say something like, "look, I'm writing this up now and I have this paragraph addressing XYZ which I would love to punch up with a strong direct quote from you at the end - is there something you can give me on that?"

And speaking of the "meta" of the interview: one other last thing - sometimes people demanded to read the article before it was printed. I never did that, because agreeing to this is like agreeing that they could "edit" it. I would tell them everything the story covered, I would read to them sections that included quotes from them, but I would never give them the story to "okay".
posted by taz at 11:42 PM on December 23, 2003

When you go to interview someone, I would imagine you have a specific subject that you are thinking of writing about. Just chat. I've always found that works well. If you were meeting this person at a party and they knew/did/had seen something interesting that you wanted to find out about, you would ask the basic who/what/why/where/when questions, right?

But keep some key points you need to find out in mind. It sucks to have to call back when you realize you forgot to ask a bunch of basics. Then again, we all do that sometimes.

Of course, there's a difference between an informational interview - "tell me about your strategy to increase revenues/win the election/beat the rap" - and the hostile interview - "you denied this last week, and that was a lie was it not?"

Re tape recorders: everyone is different but I take real notes and only use the tape for backup. Often you get the first part of a great quote but lose the second half while scribbling.

Oh and one crucial thing they never tell you in j-skul: if you interview someone in the rain, make sure you have a ballpoint pen.

PS many of us never went to j-skul and don't regret it for a minute. I wouldn't stress about it.
posted by CunningLinguist at 6:49 AM on December 24, 2003

Although it's a bit dated, I've used this book to help teach interviewing in my classes for years. That, and lots of practice.
posted by bradlands at 8:22 AM on December 24, 2003

Another journalist here who never went to J-school. My experience is that experience is the best teacher (but then, that would be the case, I guess, since I didn't have any other). Both in terms of writing and interviewing, I've learned the most through doing and doing and doing. I'm frankly embarrassed at some of the initial stuff of mine that appeared in print, but somehow every time, reading it in the paper, as though I were a regular reader, revealed little things to me that reading over my copy before publication didn't. Over the years that's added up and now I would say I can actually write.

As to interviewing, a lot has already been said, but one caution I would give is that while you should have a notion of where you want to go and what you want covered, you should also be a good listener. If it's someone who gives a lot of interviews, be ready for the moment they're saying something fresh, because 80% of their quotes are already going to be in print elsewhere. Listen for those moments where the interviewee is indecisive or groping for the right term, and see if there's something more behind that.

I wish I'd been able to give myself this advice (or, duh, learned it in J-school, I guess) for my first real celebrity interview a little over a decade ago, with Laurie Anderson. The last time I listened to the tape of that I could hardly bear it: There's me, asking the questions I had decided on, and Laurie answers, straying off topic into something that I (the current me) would love to hear more about, but newbie-me waits till the end of the sentence, says, "uh-huh," as though mentally checking that one off, and moves on to the next question. So be well-prepared, but be flexible in the moment, because you never know what's going to turn out to be the best part, or the best quote, of the interview until it's over.
posted by soyjoy at 9:00 AM on December 24, 2003

[Agrees with soyjoy] - and when someone is grappling for the right thing to say, on no account should you HELP them. Wait it out, they'll say something. And the something they say (that they think is a bad quote) is usually the gem of the interview.
posted by Happydaz at 9:49 AM on December 24, 2003

Response by poster: Wow! Thank you everyone! All of this is really helpful!!
posted by macadamiaranch at 5:46 AM on December 25, 2003

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