Guide for Journalists: How to Interview Someone for a Story

Updated on January 3, 2019
Layne Holmes profile image

Layne has been freelance writing for 10 years and has been published in numerous works. She specializes in creative non-fiction.

How to Conduct an Interview
How to Conduct an Interview | Source

How to Conduct a Journalism Interview

Maybe you are just starting out in the field or you are looking to refine your interviewing skills. As someone who has done several interview pieces, here's how I prepare. I hope these tips will help you as well. We will go over:

  • General Housekeeping
  • Researching Your Topic
  • Creating a List of People to Interview
  • Communication
  • Shaping Your Interview
  • Hiring a photographer

Scope Out the Publication Style

There are many styles of journalism, and the most important thing to do before starting a piece is to scope out the style of the publication. Most writers develop their own voice and style over the years, but a skilled writer is able to maintain their voice and tailor the tone of the piece to suit the style of the publication or media.

Whether you are writing for a magazine, journal, or online, take time to read some of the most refined pieces in that "publication" to get an idea of what the editor is looking for. This is especially true if you will be working with or hiring a freelance photographer.

Items to Confirm With the Editor

Before you start a piece (after you've pitched your idea to the editor or you've had it accepted), you will want to know the following:

  • Piece length: Word count
  • Due date: Submission date to the editor (includes photos)
  • Topic: What is the focus and theme of the piece?
  • People to be featured: Who does the editor want featured (sometimes this is left open)? Check if there are any special persons that the editor expects you to mention in your piece.
  • Photographs: Are they provided or will you hire a photographer?

1. Researching Your Topic

I recommend honing down your topic and doing some much-needed research. Let's pick a topic right now: the Housing Crisis in the Bay Area (Silicon Valley, California). This is a current topic that requires well-researched data and fact-checking. I will type in a query into google: "bay area housing crisis." Here are my results:

I will take my time to go through all 5 of these results (and more). As I read through these articles, I will write down:

  • key terms and phrases
  • current, verifiable stats
  • prominent names
  • applicable dates
  • regulations

This data will help me shape my interview.

2. Creating a List of People to Interview

Compile a list of people to interview. You will want to check out their credentials and their reputation ahead of time. Make sure the individual's reputation is sound (for the sake of representing the magazine) OR if your story requires it, perhaps you will want to interview someone with a controversial reputation. It's a case-by-case scenario.

Let's say we compiled the following list:

  • Miriam Zuk, UC Berkeley’s Urban Displacement Project director
  • Jon Dishotsky CEO and founder of Starcity in San Francisco (communal living startup)
  • Maureen Sedonaen, CEO at Habitat for Humanity Greater San Francisco
  • John Smith 1*, Bay Area native, displaced or homeless
  • John Smith 2*, Bay Area native, displaced or homeless

*It is always a good idea to keep a story local. Dig around for stories that get to the heart of the matter. If you can find content on individuals who are affected by or make the story, take the time to track them down and interview them.

Neutralize Your Energy

People are more likely to open up if you are relatable. By keeping your energy neutral, you open up the floor for your subject to share even more than you had originally anticipated. Make them want to talk.

Be relatable and don't push (unless your deadline is approaching).
Be relatable and don't push (unless your deadline is approaching). | Source

3. Contact and Communication

The more direct you can be, the better, but I recommend creating a "paper trail" of contact just to confirm agreements. For example, asking someone if they'd like to be featured in your story can be traced in email, but not so much by verbal confirmation.

I like to email my contacts first (and then call them) for the following reasons:

  1. Email creates a paper trail
  2. Email offers a nice introduction
  3. Email is non-invasive
  4. Email gives people time to think (you can also gauge their workload)

If you are pressed for a deadline, you are better off calling them, but I like to begin with an initial email. I usually state the following:

  • A brief background (who am I, what I do)
  • Who I am representing (the publication)
  • The theme of the story I am covering
  • Why I'm interested in them
  • The timeframe and requirements (phone interview for 20 minutes)
  • The question: Would you be interested in being featured?
  • What time is good for them

Hopefully, you will get the green light. Work with their schedule (they are giving you their time). I always arrange for a phone interview. I make sure I block that time out. Sometimes people can't be on the dot, so allow them 30 minutes +/- to call you back the day of.

Transcribe Your Conversation

Unless you need photos for an interview, most interviews can be done by phone, Skype, Google Chat, etc. There are many options these days. I like to do traditional phone interviews and wear a headset. I write out my interview questions in a word doc and transcribe the conversation as we speak.

If you are interviewing in person, you may want a notebook and a tape recorder (ask permission). You can also use your phone (voice memo). I always recommend checking the audio settings and emailing yourself multiple copies of an interview as not to lose them after it's concluded.

Respect Privacy

If it's off the record, it's off the record!

4. Shape Your Interview

You need to research your people of interest in the same way that you did your topic. Nothing is more of a bummer than calling an individual and not knowing anything about their M.O. or purpose. Plus, if you research your individual ahead of time, you create efficiency, you come across as knowledgeable, and you open up the floor for more depth and information. Generally, I include the following questions:

  • Are you okay with being featured in the story (yes, ask again)?
  • How would you like to be introduced (titles)?
  • Filler question (sequential order)
  • Filler question (sequential order)
  • Filler question (sequential order)
  • Filler question (sequential order)
  • Do you have any additional comments?
  • Confirmation: "I will pass this language by you before the story runs." (I offer this because I like to make sure people have confidence in me. They can cross-check anything I've included on them. This saves everyone's reputation).

Note: Make sure to have the editor send a copy of the publication to all individuals you interviewed as a thank you for their time.

Draft a contract and even have your photographer review it ahead of time.
Draft a contract and even have your photographer review it ahead of time. | Source

5. Hiring a Photographer

If you need photos for your project and you are not a photographer yourself (photos make or break a story), consider hiring a freelance photographer. With modern technology, it is very easy to find a good photographer at a reasonable rate. The one way that I have had luck is actually surprising. I usually go with people I know (friends or acquaintances that have shown me that I can rely on them). One time, however, my regular photographer had to have surgery, and I knew they couldn't do the event.

I created a Craigslist add, described the job duties and payment, and asked people to email me with their social media and resume (so I could cross-check their content). I found an excellent photographer who absolutely nailed the story.

Make Sure You Create a Contract

Make sure that when you hire a photographer you have a second backup. When you meet for the project, have them sign a contract. Drafting a contract is another topic, but you need to get everything in writing (including payment, delivery, and expectations). This step is essential.

Make Sure You Get the Releases Signed

Whenever you are photographer individuals, you need to have them sign a release (unless the person is not identifiable—such as the side of a face or a hand). Most publishers will provide you with this document, but you may want to draft one just in case. The language here is fairly basic. Always ask permission if you are photographing someone.

Tips for Writing Your Story

When writing your story, really immerse yourself. I like to take it as far as to use propaganda on myself. If I am writing about earth-related projects, I'll play waves in the background. If I am focusing on the housing shortage, I'll watch documentaries that reveal aspects of this issue.

When you are telling someone's story, focus on how they would want to be represented. If you are interviewing a local who has been displaced by the housing shortage, do them justice and tell their story. The beauty of storytelling comes from immersion. We want to hear a voice, not just regurgitation. There's a heartbeat to every story, so find it.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Layne Holmes

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