Last week’s “talk about” dust-up got me thinking.
It’s easy for anybody — especially those of us in and around sports journalism — to cast aspersions on someone when they mess up. To call out journalistic sins, be they venial or mortal. But when we collectively do this, there’s always a voice in the back of my head saying “well, what would you do better?”
Glad you asked, voice in my head.
Interview advice depends on what kind of interview you’re doing, which depends on what kind of story you’re doing and what medium you are working in. What a TV reporter needs in a locker room immediately after a night game is very different than what Tyler Dunne needs for one of his features on Bleacher Report. A one-on-one interview is very different than a press conference. To treat them as all the same is to ignore that reality.
Look, sometimes, you are a reporter covering a baseball game at the end of bad season, and you have a 12-inch story to file by deadline, and the game runs late and you only have time for a quick chat in the manager’s office before you have to run back up to the press box to get your story in to hit the print deadline. In those cases, you are looking for quotes as quickly as possible. Speed matters more than anything. It’s not ideal, but to pretend this situation does not exist is ignoring reality.
Nevertheless, we can strive to be better than the worst-case scenario. In that spirit, here’s some of the interviewing advice I give my sports writing class.
It starts with the reader
Everything else comes from here. You aren’t writing for yourself, and you’re not writing for your sources. You’re writing for your readers. You’re trying to help them see what happened in a game, understand a complicated issue, know more about a person. This is the starting point for all good journalism.
Know what kind of story you are doing.
Like I said earlier, the type of story you are creating will dictate a lot about the interview. A 10-inch game story requires a very different interview than an investigative piece than a feature story. Fully understanding this is the first step to a good interview.
As much as you can, prepare. This can be as easy as reading a bio, looking up some stats, or paying attention to the game you’re writing about. You don’t need to know everything going in, but it is always good to know something. It will inform your questions and give you credibility in your interviewee’s eyes. You’ll have a better interviewer because you will be more informed about your subject.
Keep it simple
The best questions are “Why?” “Why’s that?” “How?” “Huh?” They are simple and straightforward. The worst questions are the ones you hear in the White House press office, or at a lot of sports press conferences, because they are long and convoluted (more on that below). This is the essence of John Sawatsky’s famous interview advice. Keep your questions lean. Don’t guide your subject with a closed question (how frustrated did you feel?), let them guide you with an open one (what was that like for you?).
It’s not about you
An interview is not a chance for you to show off. It’s not a chance to show your sources how smart you are. It’s not a chance to show off how funny or clever you can be (on The Other 51, the few times I’ve tried too hard to get clever, it’s come back to bite me). It’s rarely your chance to be a tough guy and stand up to a player or coach you think is being too obstinate. Those long, convoluted questions I mentioned a little earlier? They’re suboptimal for a lot of reasons, but one of them is that those questions are often more about the reporter showing off all that they know rather than working to get information for their reader.
Don’t try to get a quote
The canonical interview advice you hear is that a good interview should be much more of a conversation. Which is absolutely true. But hearing that is like hearing that a pop song is supposed to sound like “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” How do you get there?
You don’t try to get a quote.
Yes, that probably sounds antithetical to the whole reason for interviewing sources. We do it to get quotes. And yes, sometime, you’re writing on deadline to fill the space. But if you are looking to have a good interview, you want it to be a conversation. And to make it a conversation, forget about getting A Quote. You do this by talking to the person. By asking them things you’re interested in knowing. By being curious. By looking them in the eye, by following up.
If you go into an interview trying to get A Quote, the power dynamic is all out of whack. You are looking for a specific thing, and demanding your source gives it to you. This is what leads to cliches and boring Jeter speak. This is what leads to Talk About questions - you’re not interested in the answer, you’re looking for A Quote.
Your reader doesn’t want a quote. Your reader wants answers.
Remember, it all goes back to the reader.