Why do all this before the interview rather than in the interview itself? Years ago, The New York Times Learning Network published a resource for student journalists called Campus Weblines. That advice still holds:
Do your homework. There is very little more embarrassing than arriving for an interview and not knowing what has already been written about your subject. A question on the order of, “Well, Mr. Jones, have you been teaching here long?” almost guarantees a poor interview. Mr. Jones almost immediately begins to look at his watch to try to figure out a way to get out of this. A far better question, in the same area, may be, “Can we talk about the changes that have occurred during your eight years here at Central?” Or: “You were at East High for a number of years before coming here. Why did you move? Are glad you did?” Or, “What are the major differences between East High, where you taught before coming here, and our school?”
But avoiding seeming amateurish or rude isn’t the only reason to do your research — it also makes for a much richer interview. A Columbia Journalism Review article called “The Art of the Interview” quotes the Times journalist Jodi Kantor, who has written a book on the Obamas; helped ignite the #MeToo movement with reporting on Harvey Weinstein; and also interviews noncelebrities, like janitors working during the pandemic. “To ask a really high-yielding question, you need to have done your homework,” she says.
The article gives an example:
This is especially true when you’re talking to people who are used to being interviewed. Kantor described an interview she did with the President and First Lady: “I had come to understand that equality was a serious issue in the Obama marriage, and that in the White House, the president and first lady are not treated in the same way at all. So I summoned up my nerve and asked them, ‘How do you have an equal marriage when one person is president?’” Their replies were much more illuminating than if Kantor had asked something more generic like, “What are your thoughts on gender equality?”
Activity 3: Think about your angle.
A profile isn’t a biography — it focuses on one aspect of its subject’s personal or professional life. Though you should know enough about the person’s life to include biographical details, the focus, or angle, you choose will dictate what background information you’ll use.
You might go into your interview already knowing what you think the angle will be. After all, you probably had a focus in mind when you chose your subject. But the interview is a process of discovery, and new themes may emerge as you talk.
For example, say you want to interview your local barber because he’s had a shop in your neighborhood for 30 years and you imagine he’ll have a lot to say about neighborhood history. But as you talk to him, you may learn that he is an accomplished artist on the side, or that he had a particularly harrowing pandemic experience, or that he has a long history of triumphing in spite of steep odds. The focus of your final piece may shift to one of those themes instead.
But to move on to Activity 4, select an angle so that you can write related questions. Later in this guide you’ll find advice about shifting your focus if you want to.
Activity 4: Write out your questions.
You should come to your interview with a basic list of good, open-ended questions you’d like to ask, but you should also remember that those questions are just a starting point. Your real job will be to listen and to follow up in as natural a way as possible.
In our webinar, Corey Kilgannon explained it this way:
It’s good to have a list, whether on an index card or on your phone or in a notebook, in case you either get nervous or you forget. But don’t get too scripted. It’s always a conversation. Anything they say can fuel your next question. Like, “Really, you did that?” Or, “How did you pull that off?” Build off what they say and formulate new questions based upon what they’re telling you.
In the Q. and A. profile he annotated for us, Chris Colin gives some additional advice on asking questions:
I try to avoid Big Questions, by and large.
When I was starting out as a journalist, I thought Big Questions are the way you get to Big Answers. Not so, at least in my experience. Overly ambitious and reaching questions often shut people down — it’s just too much pressure to come up with the meaning of life or whatever. Far more effective, I think, is when you ask them about smaller details. What did your room look like when you were a kid? What kind of stuff was on your wall? Did you like being in there or not really? Non-small information invariably bubbles up between the cracks.
Feel free to borrow and adapt good questions from the various profiles we have linked here and in other resources. Or, exchange your initial list of questions with a classmate and borrow anything useful you find there as well.