The Best Reporting Interviews Happen

Getting the most out of your interviews

In yesterday’s member profile, Minal Bopaiah, editor of Subscription Site Insider, spoke of the importance that case studies play in their success. She conducts one every other week, speaking to a head of marketing or CEO for 1-1½ hours on the phone and then writing up the study. “Our subscribers like them because they are seeing exactly how another company—a successful one—operates; they’re pragmatic.”

In speaking with Minal last week, I could tell why she is successful. She spoke of the “prep work” that she does for each interview. Combine that with her easy-going yet professional manner and you can see the excellent rapport that I’m sure she establishes with her interviewees. Minal will deliver a session on content at SIPA 2012, May 20-22 in Washington, D.C. In that same editorial mode, Valerie Helmbeck, group publisher and senior editor at Progressive Publications, will lead a roundtable at SIPA 2012. Valerie wrote a “last words” column in the March Hotline newsletter about interviewing; previously in her career, she worked at USA Today.

Here are 10 tips for conducting a good interview—a skill that may go a long way to giving your subscribers the information they covet:

1. An early tip Helmbeck received: “I tell them something about myself that’s very personal, very intimate, first. They respond in kind. It always works.” She explains: “I tried it. It did. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because confidentiality once initiated, inspires trust and reciprocity. Maybe it’s because the subject tries to outdo me.”

2. Do your prep work. As MInal mentioned, it’s important that you spend time finding out who your subject is. With Google, there’s no excuse for not doing this. But try to stick to what’s pertinent. The Internet tells all.

3. Again, Helmbreck: “To interview well, both the interviewer and the subject need to like each other enough to have a conversation. And faking even a casual friendship, I’ve found, is nearly impossible. Ultimately, you need to find something to like about the person you’re interviewing.”

4. Listen. You’ll have a list of questions and that’s good. But be ready to get derailed. We’ve changed the Monday profiles from strict Q&A’s to more of a conversation precisely because it will give us the chance to follow up on what sounds most valuable to our members.

5. From “Maintain Control – Be open, yes, but don’t waste your time. If your source starts to ramble on about things that are clearly of no use to you, don’t be afraid to gently—but firmly—steer the conversation back to the topic at hand.”

6. Preparation, probing and persistence. Helmbeck cites these back from Journalism 101. The probing and persistence can be tricky—you don’t want to turn someone off. But asking a question in a different way may help.

7. Be personable. If an interview is in person, establish eye contact. (Either use a recorder or make sure to look up from your notes.) If it is on the phone, try to establish some rapport before launching into your questions. Hopefully something in that early conversation will lead you into the interview.

8. Don’t hesitate to go back to the person after to clear up a quote or ask a follow-up—maybe this can be done by email. Better to get things right and have a good contact going forward then risk alienating someone (and getting something wrong).

9. Be open-minded. It is not your job to judge or evaluate.

10. And if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. You learn and go on. Valerie wrote of her attempt to interview Tom Cruise, who “concocted answers in a logic that defied unraveling…the takeaway from this encounter (which I escaped early, mostly from boredom and frustration) was so slight that it barely filled the tiny hole in the USA Today layout that had been left for my recap of the meal.” If she could walk away from Cruise, you can walk away from someone who will do your subscribers no good.


The Roundtables at the SIPA Conference
always stand out among the highlights.

They are intimate, informational and allow you to
ask questions. Here are some Roundtable topics for
SIPA 2012, May 20-22 in Washington, D.C.:

Renewals (basics and advanced tactics);
Email Lists – Should you rent or build?;
Landing page testing;
How to get your App Live;
Do-It-yourself SEO;
Ask a Lawyer – legal advice for publishers;
LinkedIn – how to make $$;
Repurposing your content;
Managing/recruiting freelancers;
Creating a certification program;
Online ads 101;
Finance for the non-financial staffer;
Finding financing to grow on



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