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Interviewing advice: Roles sources can play
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Third in a series for writers and journalists.

This third installment on interviewing comes at the job differently than the previous two. I suggest you only skim the list, and glean from it the following: 

  • You're hunting for a whole lot of things from sources, and most can only provide some of those well. (e.g., some great sources just don't give good quote.) Don't beat yourself up trying to squeeze out something that's not there. (Worse, don't leave them feeling beat up.) 
  • Size each source up quickly. Figure out which of the following they can offer, and focus the interview on gaining more of that.
  • Realize that you need to conduct enough interviews to cover each of these bases with multiple people. Are you interviewing enough?
  • Quickies are OK. If your story is only short on #2, you might knock out five more quickies in ten to fifteen minutes if you establish why you're calling, stay focused and get in/out fast. (Tell the source in the first 30 seconds that you're story is basically done, but you're on deadline and could use a few quotes.
  • Keep searching for that magic #8. 

Interviewing: Roles sources can play

  1. Information/understanding
    • May not be articulate or colorful or pithy enough to be quoted in the piece, but helps you understand the story better.
  2. Color quotes.
    • Delivers the juicy sound bites. Expresses key ideas really well and/or colorfully, and succinctly. Right away you can spot someone who “gives good quote.”
    • Just avoid over-using the same people close to the event/issue who can be counted on for the provocative or bombastic quote. It’s a pathetic way to juice up a lame story. If you need them, you haven’t done your job well. Yet.
  3. Authority figure / scholar
  4. Confirmation
    • Early on, it’s crucial to let sources lead you to the story, not vice versa. Going to sources with your agenda before you start is the worst journalism. But …
    • At some point, you have to write. An interim step: talk to a few more people to confirm (eg, that those are widely-held opinions). Your goal is now volume: as many people as possible to confirm that you’re on target. (Unless they say you’re not. Then retrench.) Get in/out fast. If you get bogged down writing down hot quotes, you cut the volume and defeat the purpose.   
  5. Official spokesperson
    • Can be professional BSers, but sometimes very useful and provides key quotes.
  6. Media liaison for interest groups. Eg, to get the Latina perspective, homeless perspective, transgendered, rape victims, amputees, children of alcoholics, breast cancer survivors, etc. Be wary of one person speaking for whole demographic—but they usually do so pretty well. (Check.) They know their subject and can articulate it well, and fast. Also great for bringing you up to speed, and can provide needed response quote.
  7. The lame source.
    • This person may be close the event/candidate/crime/whatever, and basking in the spotlight, with little to offer. Some exaggerate their involvement and keep luring you in, but they mainly want your attention. Get out quickly.
  8. The mentor/guide
    • The ultimate source. The rare being with most or all of the other qualities in one person. They are bright, articulate, really understands the issue and can see multiple sides of it. They can be the key to really digging in and learning, and also point you to key people to talk to, the best written material to get up to speed fast, etc. Since they have spoken about it for years, they probably have some core ideas crystallized as quotes.
    • These folks are relatively rare finds, but if you dig hard and learn how to root them out, you can find one on each big story.

I will keep adding these to my Advice for Writers page on my main site.

Previously in this series:  

Next: 
That's it for interviewing. Next, I'll address query letters for books. I will point you to some great advice, examples and critiques from agents.