Tuesday, January 9, 2018
Yesterday I finished my annual presentations to the eighth grade about how to conduct an interview. I've been doing this each of the last several years, drawing on my experience as a journalist, to prepare them for a class reporting and writing project. It's funny, because I always feel like a fraud when I present myself as an expert.
I never felt like interviewing was my strong suit as a reporter. I much preferred writing. In fact, my dream job was to be a magazine "rewrite man," in which the reporters fed me the information and I put it all together in article form. That way, I wouldn't have to interview people at all, and I could just write for a living!
Sadly, the "rewrite man," at least as I envisioned the job, was more or less an extinct position by the time I was working as a journalist. I did work as a desk editor, a job in which rewriting was a major component. I remember late one night a reporter handed in a front-page story that was absolutely unreadable -- something about a local football coach. My coworkers and I all looked at it, and they considered it a lost cause -- they began devising a Plan B for the front page. But I got on the phone with the reporter and together we began rewriting the story, and turned it around in time for deadline. It was one of my favorite career moments. (Made all the more remarkable by the fact that I know nothing about football!)
Unfortunately, there are also a lot of negatives that go with being an editor, like working nights and weekends, and helping to write headlines and cutlines, and managing freelancers and making assignments and coordinating projects. It's not just wordplay.
As an interviewer, I probably had a tendency to let people off too easily. I'm not confrontational by nature. Some people, and many reporters, actually thrive on conflict -- they enjoy making their sources squirm, particularly when there's a sense that the source did something wrong or inappropriate. It's the "afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted" mentality. Remember Mike Wallace on "60 Minutes"?
I once heard second-hand that one of my coworkers, on the phone with a stonewalling secretary, snarled, "Don't make me come down there and rip your head off and drink your blood." I just couldn't talk to people that way!
I didn't like afflicting anybody. I certainly did my share of it, but deep down I just wanted us all to get along.
Fortunately, in talking to the eighth-graders, the subject of hostile sources isn't really germane. They're talking to friendly people about happy subjects, so it's more just a matter of teaching them to ask open-ended questions and make eye contact and that sort of thing. The basics. Which I suppose I can handle!
(Photo: Shoreditch, East London.)