Posts Tagged ‘interviews’

I led three workshops Thursday for the staff of the Penny Hoarder in St. Petersburg, Fla.

First I led a workshop on coming up with original story ideas. I used many of the tips in my blog post on story ideas. Here are the slides:

My next workshop dealt with interviews. I used some of the tips in these posts:

Shut up and listen

Getting personal

Interviewing advice from veteran journalists

When it’s good (and bad) to be ‘stupid’ in interviews

Tips for persuading reluctant news sources to talk

Eric Nalder’s advice on interviewing reluctant sources

‘Uh-huh’: Does it ruin audio or keep a source talking (maybe both)

Here are my slides for the interviewing workshop:

I didn’t have any slides for the third workshop, on using data to find and support stories, but I showed the data available at these sites (thanks to Tom Meagher and Maryjo Webster for steering me to some of them):

Census Reporter

American Fact Finder

Census Bureau


Bureau of Labor Statistics

Bureau of Transportation Statistics

Pew Research Center

Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research

The workshop used some of the tips in my post on mining the data on your beat.





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In a couple of different contexts recently, I’ve had interesting discussions with journalists about the differences between dealing with confidential sources who are feeding you tips and using confidentiality to even start a conversation with a source who doesn’t want to talk to you.

However you handle confidential sources (as a reporter, an editor or a news organization), this is a fundamental difference that changes nearly everything about the situation and how you address it.

One simple example: My friend Dan Gillmor argues that journalists should reveal the identities of unnamed sources who lie to them. He makes some excellent points, and I think that could and perhaps should be part of the agreement with an eager source who contacts a reporter and wants to leak information to you. But I think the consequence of breaking your promise of confidentiality gives you no chance to persuade a reluctant source to tell you anything. Beyond the issue of intentional lying, part of the source’s reluctance might be that he or she has incomplete knowledge, or only second-hand information. If errors on the source’s part will be treated as lies to be publicly rebuked, you’re not getting that interview. The source doesn’t want to talk to you anyway; confidentiality is the only way to start a conversation.

The dynamics are entirely different depending on the source’s willingness to talk. The reporter’s position shifts from demanding to pleading. (more…)

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Headline from a 2002 story for the Omaha World-Herald

Headline from a 2002 story for the Omaha World-Herald

I can’t imagine how uncomfortable it would be for survivors of sexual abuse by priests to watch “Spotlight.” It was plenty uncomfortable for me as a reporter who merely had the unpleasant job of interviewing survivors and telling their stories.

I saw “Spotlight” last weekend and comment on the movie in a separate post. My point here will be to share lessons I learned in my own experience covering sexual abuse by priests and other religious leaders both before and after the 2002 Boston Globe stories that inspired “Spotlight.”

I don’t mean by any of this to compare my work to the heroic work of the Globe’s Spotlight team. While I was writing about sexual abuse by an abusive priest, and an archdiocese moving a pedophile from church to church, more than three years before the Globe’s story, I didn’t nail the story of institutional cover-up that they did. Much of my later reporting was prompted by the national public response to the Globe’s reporting.

I hope that “Spotlight” doesn’t generate a similar outpouring of stories of abuse. I hope that they’ve all been told and that the Catholic church has rid itself of the sin and crime that it was hiding.

Lasting trauma inflicted by priestFirst an overview of my experience in covering religious sexual abuse: Starting in the 1990s, I investigated sexual abuse by at least nine Catholic priests that I can recall, plus at least one Protestant minister, a leader of a Christian cult and a group-home counselor at a Catholic youth services organization. In most cases, I interviewed multiple survivors of abuse by the powerful men I investigated. I’m sure I talked to at least 20 survivors of sexual abuse by clergy and the counselor, usually in person but a few times by phone. Other survivors that I learned about would not talk to me. I interviewed two accused molesters.

I almost certainly am forgetting other clergy that I investigated. The stories run together in my memory, and I don’t have time or interest to dig through my old stories to refresh and clarify some of the most disgusting memories of my career. Watching the movie and writing this blog post were disturbing enough.

I am not going to name priests, victims or specific organizations here. To do so would require research to update their status, and I don’t want to do that, both because of the time it would take and because all the stories are more than a decade old. I don’t want to track down and bother the courageous survivors who were my sources then. My interviews disturbed many of them at the time, and I have no interest in inflicting new pain by publishing their names again or updating their current situations.

This blog post is illustrated with headlines from the stories I wrote about these cases more than a decade ago. In a couple of instances, I have cut off the last word or two of a headline to leave out the priest’s name.

Here are my lessons about covering abuse by clergy and others with power over children and adolescents (shared in the hope this topic never again needs to be as big a story as it was back then):

Find other victims of the same predator

Priest Sexual abuse was reported years ago

A key to proving patterns of abuse is finding multiple victims of one abuser. A pedophile invariably has a pattern of abuse: techniques for “grooming” a potential victim before the abuse starts; introducing sex to the relationship by use of pornography or sex talk or nudity in a seemingly non-sexual way, such as showering on campouts or in locker rooms; similar ways of starting and accelerating the molestation; favorite sexual activities; silencing the victim with rewards, conspiratorial secrecy, shaming and/or intimidation. (more…)

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A reporter’s email asked for advice on “steeling oneself to ask the tough questions? I ask as someone who tends toward introversion when the going gets tougher.”

Effective tough questions (and good answers to them) result from a combination of:

  • Outlook.
  • Preparation.
  • Control.
  • Setting.
  • Recording and photography.
  • Setup.
  • Delivery.
  • Listening.
  • Follow-up.
  • Advance review.

That combination doesn’t necessarily make tough questions easy. They’re tough and introverts need to learn how to ask them if they want to succeed as reporters. But I’ll provide some tips in each area.

Another aspect of tough questions deals with confidentiality. I address that topic extensively in a separate post: Anonymous sources: Factors to consider in using them (and don’t call them anonymous).

Tough questions seem to fall into two categories (unless I’m overlooking one):

  1. Accountability questions. These are the potentially confrontational or contentious questions about possible failure or wrongdoing by the person you’re interviewing, often a public official, but maybe a criminal suspect, business executive or other target of investigative journalism.
  2. Emotional questions. These are questions about emotional personal issues, where you fear that the person might break into tears when answering or become angry and refuse to answer. Often the interview subject here is not used to dealing with the media — perhaps a disaster, crime or accident victim (or a family member of the victim). Or you may be talking about an experience such as war or fleeing a dangerous situation.

For those emotional interviews, I recommend that you browse the resources of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma and attend a Dart Center seminar (or invite them to train in your newsroom) if you can. My tips here will repeat some that I offered in connection with a Dart Center program that Digital First Media offered last year. (more…)

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I’m pleased that my recent posts about interviews have spurred some discussion.

This comment and the responses seemed worthy of another post:

Others weighed in:

Those are all good points, but I’ll conclude with some thoughts beyond Twitter’s 140-character limit:

  • Humility is always good in an interview. When you are interviewing experts, acknowledging that they know more than you and inviting them to educate you is usually effective.
  • Arrogance in an interview can be bad for many reasons, but arrogance combined with stupidity may be the worst interview combination possible.
  • I oversimplify in tweets, so I’m not faulting anyone’s use of the word “stupid” above, but I want to make clear: Stupidity is not the same as ignorance. If a source truly thinks you’re stupid, she might not have confidence that you’ll be able to understand and explain the complicated issues we sometimes cover. The ideal perception you want a source to have is that you’re smart enough to understand the issue, but you’re not an expert, so you’re going to need her help.
  • You need to learn, if you haven’t yet, when to show your knowledge and when to confess your ignorance. Sometimes a display of your knowledge will build confidence in a source. Other times, a confession of ignorance will prompt someone to try to school you on a topic. I covered agriculture back in the 1990s and sometimes got great interviews by asking a farmer or agriculture official to explain something to me like I was a 6-year-old (like Denzel Washington’s “Joe Miller” character in “Philadelphia“). Lots of farmers love to educate people about ag, and confessing my ignorance frequently helped. Other times, if I understood an issue, asking knowledgeable questions showed that I had done my homework and built confidence that people could trust me to understand and explain more complicated matters.
  • Fit your approach to your knowledge. Faking stupidity or ignorance is not a good approach, but faking knowledge is worse. The best approach is to do some research so you can ask smart questions. But sometimes you just don’t know, and this interview is part of how you learn so you can ask smart questions later. That’s the time to confess your ignorance and ask someone to educate you.
  • One of the tweets above repeats what many of our mothers and teachers told us about the only stupid question being the one you don’t ask. I do agree that it’s better to ask a stupid question than fail to get it answered. But I have annoyed sources with stupid questions, so I want to avoid oversimplifying here just because our moms gave us simple advice. If you know you’re asking a stupid question, keep it as direct as possible, with a confession, such as, “Here’s what I need help figuring out …” Sometimes the premise might be stupid, rather than the question itself, so keep your stupid question simple and direct, rather than loading it up with premises, explanations and conditions.

What are your tips and experiences on handling your stupidity (or ignorance) in interviews?

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This continues a series on advice for new top editors in Digital First Media newsrooms.

Interviewing job candidates will be a familiar task in many ways for new editors who are former reporters.

You approach hiring staff members similarly to reporting a story. You interview to learn the stories of the various candidates and you want to learn all the stories well enough that you know who is the best person for the job you’re filling.

Interviewing job candidates is different from interviewing sources, though. And editors without reporting experience may benefit from interviewing advice. So I’ll share some tips for job interviews (and a little crowdsourcing exercise):

Prep for the interview. Review the candidate’s résumé thoroughly before the interview and take a close look at her work – both the clips she sent you and others you found in your own research. As questions occur to you in researching the candidate, take notes and ask those questions during the interview.

Use multiple settings. Don’t interview a candidate just in your office. Go to lunch or dinner. Sit down in a conference room. Drive him around town (you want to show external candidates the community; even if you’re new to the community, they will be, too, and your perspective as a newcomer will be helpful to them). Give a tour of your offices (especially if you still have a sprawling newspaper plant or former plant). Go for a walk. Changing the setting changes the dynamic of an interview as well as giving the candidate a flavor of your community and workplace.

Give the candidate a chance to ask questions. This is more than a courtesy, though it is courteous. The questions may tell you as much about the candidate as the answers to your questions. This is especially important if you’re hiring a reporter. You’ll get a chance to see her in action, interviewing you about this job, you and your newsroom. Don’t take offense if she asks you a few tough questions, especially if he elicits candid answers that maybe you didn’t want to give. That’s what a good reporter does (and, even if you’re not interviewing someone for a reporting position, the journalistic sense of a good reporter is valuable).

Ask some ethical questions. Ask some what-if questions based on current issues in the news in journalism. (Right now, you might ask what he would have done if Edward Snowden had come to him with the story on NSA surveillance.) You want a good sense of the candidate’s decision-making process on ethical issues. The decision-making process here might be more important than whether the journalist would make the same decision you would (though discuss that if you disagree).

Start the interview in writing. When I was hiring community engagement staff for TBD and when we were hiring curators for Digital First Media, I asked candidates to tell me in their applications how they would do the job. If you’re hiring for a new job, the candidate’s vision for the job is one of the most important factors that you’re evaluating. While in-person questions help in evaluating that, you also want to see the thought and writing and creativity in expressing the vision.

Consider video interviews. In-person interviews are best, but you can choose the best candidates to interview in person by conducting initial interviews by Skype or Hangout, which, even with an occasional hitch in your connection, are far better than phone interviews.

Ask some of the same questions. One useful way to measure candidates against each other is to ask them each the same questions. Choose a few key questions relating to the job itself and ask them the same way to each candidate.

Don’t stick to a script. Other than those few questions that you will ask all the candidates, you want to react to the interview, asking follow-up questions, repeating a question the candidate doesn’t answer, etc.

Ask about challenges and failures. The candidate will come to your interview prepared to boast about achievements. That’s fine and you need to hear about those, but tough times tell us more about a journalist than the boasts. I often ask a candidate to tell me about her worst mistake ever. No one is prepared for that question (though people who do their homework will be prepared now), so you get a spontaneous answer, in contrast with the rehearsed answers you might have heard to questions they anticipated. You also get to see whether the candidate learns from mistakes, which is really important to me, or makes excuses or doesn’t accept responsibility for mistakes, which can be a red flag.

Take notes. Record some of your impressions and some things the candidate says during the interview. If you’ve done a good job screening candidates, you’ll have multiple strong contenders and the hire will be a tough decision. Notes will help identify topics for further research and will refresh your memory as you’re weighing two close candidates.

Ask for clips. If the candidate mentions a story (or video, photo or other journalism work) during the interview that you haven’t seen yet, ask her to send you a copy or a link. You’ll want to see if you think it’s as good as the journalist described.

Check facts. If something doesn’t sound right to you, do your own reporting and make sure the candidate is being truthful. Even if you don’t have suspicions, some random fact-checking may be a good idea, mostly to reinforce the positive impressions you had, but occasionally fact-checking will help you identify a BSer whose dishonesty could be troubling if he joins your staff.

Follow up. You’ll think of questions (or answers) after the interview. Ask them with a follow-up email or phone call. This also gives the candidate a chance to make points she thought of after the interview and/or to ask further questions.

Now for the crowdsourcing exercise: What are your tips for job interviews? What are your favorite questions?


Jennifer Paluzzi of the Lowell Sun responded by email with this advice:

Before I joined The Sun, I founded and ran a chain of hyperlocal news sites, CentralMassNews.com, and hiring reporters was both my favorite and least favorite task.

One item you don’t mention about the interview: I always did a show and tell with the websites. I wanted to see if they had done their homework and actually studied them and I wanted to see them react to the realities of the job. Were they tentative about the technology in the content management system, or did they talk about how they used something similar in a previous job or while blogging? Did they ask questions about site metrics? Did they offer any critiques about layout, ask how we handled video, photo galleries and site promotion through social media?

On Facebook, Don Nelson gave this answer:

If you ask lame-ass questions like “what are your weaknesses,” “where do you expect to be in five years” and “tell me why I should hire you,” you are a lazy, unprepared interviewer and they will know it.

Links to help job candidates nail the interview

Some people reading this will not be new editors, but the journalists they might be considering for jobs. So here are some links that might help journalists seeking jobs to perform well in interviews:

Job-hunting advice for journalists selling skills in the digital market

Tips on landing your next job in digital journalism

Want to contribute a guest post?

If you’re another Digital First editor (or a leader or former leader in another organization) and would like to propose a guest post as part of the series, email me at sbuttry (at) digitalfirstmedia (dot) com and we’ll discuss. Sue Burzynski Bullard provided such a post on organizational tools. Nancy March wrote about balancing work and personal life. Dan Rowinski wrote about mobile opportunities.

I’m not interested in a post of general leadership tips. I’d rather have a post on a particular leadership topic. Feel free to suggest a post that might address a topic I’ve already covered, but from a different perspective. I welcome posts that disagree with my advice. I will invite a few editors I respect to write posts.

Earlier posts with advice for editors

Check a job candidate’s digital profile

Hiring is an opportunity to upgrade your newsroom

Your newsroom is watching

Time is precious; manage it carefully

The digital audience values quality photos

Rethink your mobile approach

Lead your newsroom in pursuing mobile opportunities

The balancing act

Blog about your newsroom’s transformation

You’re a role model; be a good one, like Dave Witke

Respect personal life

Communicate face to face

Respect authorship

Ask, don’t tell

Make training a priority

Do what you say you’ll do — by being organized

Lead Digital First meetings

Lead and stimulate discussions of ethics

Stand up for your staff

Stand for accuracy and accountability

Admit your mistakes

Deliver criticism with a challenge

Praise is free but priceless

Disrupt your newsroom culture

Be aware of your example


How do your daily budgets reflect multi-platform planning needs?

What new beats would help newsrooms cover local news better?

Why editors should be active on Twitter

The Buttry version of social media best practices for editors

How the crowd can save your career

Leading your staff into the Twitterverse

Mentors don’t always see their seeds blossom

Upcoming topics

Here are topics I am planning on covering in this series (the order is uncertain). I hope to post at least one more this week. What other topics should I cover?

  • Firing
  • Data
  • Diversity
  • Developing new leaders
  • Teamwork
  • Fun

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This is the handout for my workshop on personal interviews. I used to do this workshop quite often, but haven’t done it for a couple years. The handout was originally posted at No Train, No Gain. I am posting some of my NTNG handouts here, with some updating, because NTNG is no longer online.

Narrative writing grows from narrative reporting. The foundation of any narrative is the writer’s authoritative knowledge of what happened. Some of the most powerful narrative stories require special care in finding sources and arranging and conducting interviews. Narrative is a powerful way to tell stories in writing as well as in multimedia and especially in packages that use both effectively.

Some of the best narrative stories come from deeply personal stories that often are difficult to tell. Many people are especially reluctant to tell the compelling stories of such intimate or traumatic personal matters as rape, abortion, domestic violence, incest, faith, sexual orientation, bigotry, illness, betrayal, crime, divorce, corruption, family stress, war, disaster, immigration, substance abuse or the death of a loved one. These stories present obstacles, but they are not insurmountable. The challenges tend to fall in four areas: getting the interview, conducting a successful interview, collecting narrative material and telling the story. (more…)

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