Finding the Story: Advice From a New York Times Reporter

By Molly Collins on September 30, 2012
Photo courtesy of NS Newsflash via

Photo courtesy of NS Newsflash via

When approached by my editor at Media Relations to interview Daniel Rodriguez for a story on his status as an Army veteran turned Clemson Football Player, needless to say, I was nervous. I had conducted some interviews here and there for a couple of press releases, but none of this length and caliber. And little did I know how high the stakes would be raised until I walked into the offices of Clemson’s West End Zone and was greeted by Robert Weintraub, reporter for The New York Times, who would also be interviewing Rodriguez for a story. My first words: “Hi, I’ve never done an interview like this before—what do I do? Give me some advice!” Sure, I had questions prepared for the interview, and I understand how to transition from topic to topic throughout a conversation, but seeing an opportunity for sound advice from a successful writer, I sought to be inquisitive.

His first response: “What kind of writing do you do? What do you want to do?” I gave my usual spill, feeling slightly incoherent as I rambled about my versatility as a writer given that I had dabbled in a little bit of everything, from journalism to critical writing and some creative writing here and there—and that one fiction class and two short stories later I was in the process of applying to MFA Creative Writing Programs. I was a doozy. However, he wasn’t deterred, as he responded with assurance, saying that variety is important in this business. His take on the matter was that as long as you are a good writer you’ll always have a job. This sure did give me some relief after looking into my empty wallet again.

Relieved that I hadn’t gone off the deep in, pen in hand, we talked conducting interviews. I started by asking how much you should write down versus how much you should rely on a recording device during an interview, and he offered a few tips:

-When conducting an interview with a person one-on-one, don’t write much down at all. Use a recorder and hope that it works. You want to be engaged with the person you are talking to and they feel more comfortable and assured that you are listening when you aren’t frantically scribbling on paper.

- If you are in a locker room or somewhere else chaotic where you need a quote or quick information, writing things down is key. You have to get what you need and get out.

Next came the big interview with Rodriguez, and to help me get some experience, Robert suggested that we collaborate on the interview. He would conduct the interview, and I could chime in with any additional questions that I had, giving me the information I needed for my story along with the awe of getting to see a professional at work. I was quick to agree.

It became clear listening to him conduct the interview, while as simple as it may sound, in order to write the story, you have to get the story. He didn’t have any fancy questions or clever statements, but he did know the facts. He had studied the story of Rodriquez as told in other news coverage, and he sought to fill in the gaps by hearing the story again, this time from Rodriguez himself. He asked simple questions and made key statements that helped Rodriguez transition from point to point, but the most that this reporter did was listen.

At the conclusion of the interview, what I had gathered most was that while there are always tips and tricks when it comes to journalism, and interviews can be transformed into print using a variety of formats, there is one thing doesn’t change, and that is the degree to which you listen for the story. Also, it’s probably a good idea to record. Otherwise severe carpel tunnel is bound to occur while you end up publishing a prose version of a subject’s driver’s license.



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