Conducting Interviews that Matter

“The real interview is in the conversation.”

Hey, ya’ll! It’s been a busy past two weeks, but I’m happy to report that I was able to make time for two events. The first event will be the focus of this blog. Last week, I watched a great free live webinar from Poynter, called “Conducting Interviews That Matter” with NPR host Joshua Johnson.

(Quick side note: I loved the interface of the webinar, which attendees accessed via Adobe Connect. I liked that we could leave comments, use emoticons to react to the webinar, and flag the host about any technical difficulties or audio issues.)

Now, to the good stuff: This webinar was led by Alanna Dvorak, an interactive learning producer at NewsU. For those familiar with NPR’s show “1A.” host Joshua Johnson was the guest speaker. On 1A, he’ll invite guests on his show to have a conversation and debate about “a changing America.”

Remember: If you love these notes, #PayItForward and share them with a friend (or two).

Thursday, April 25, 2019 — Online

“Conducting Interviews That Matter”


Alanna Dvorak, Interactive Learning Producer at Poynter’s News University (@adReportsSports)

Guest Speaker:

Joshua Johnson, 1A Host from WAMU 88.5 and NPR (@jejohnson322)


Background on “1A” — The show launched on January 2, 2017 after the 2016 election. The goal was to be a “national mirror.”

Q: How do you prepare for discussions outside of your expertise?

  • Do your homework.

    • Screen your guests

    • Gather pre-interview notes from producers

    • Ask interview subjects to recommend sections of their book to read that might be helpful for the conversation

    • Read and watch any material your guest appears in

  • Have your storytelling elements together

  • Tell the story within the interview. This will help guide your listeners

  • “The most artful and important part is to prepare for the conversation itself.”

Q: How do you elicit deeper responses from your guests?

  • Do your homework (!!!)

    • During the screening and pre-interview, try to see the scope of the guest’s knowledge to see if they’d be a good fit in the first place

  • Don’t talk.

    • “The best way to elicit a deep response is to not talk.”

    • Mike Wallace wouldn’t talk during his interviews, because silence is uncomfortable and often times the silence alone will get people to talk and say things you’d never expect.

  • Ask.

    • Figure out how to ask your question in a way that will get the response you’re looking for.

    • “You have not, because you ask not.” (Bible Verse / James 4:3)

    • Ask your guest to tell you a story. This technique is especially helpful when interviewing a child. Try to guide them.

      • Say things like “And then what happened?” and “Paint me a picture” and “Talk about the moment you…”

      • Use open-ended questions

      • Set up the story for your guest

Q: How do you get a guest to wrap up their response?

  • Interrupt.

    • “The opposite of talking is not listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.”—Fran Lebowitz

Q: How do you deal with challenging, combative or tight-lipped guests?

  • Shut it down.

    • If a guest is rude, Johnson says he puts a stop to it immediately

    • It’s the host’s job to play referee

  • Keep it going.

    • If a debate is positive, consider not stopping it, because the flow of the debate is the story

  • Intense vs. Challenging: Know the difference!

    • Intensity is good. Sometimes it’s vital

    • A challenging person might go off on a tangent about talking points or might be hard to wrangle

  • Ask very short questions.

    • Johnson says his general rule is: short questions = long answers

    • “The more words you give them, the more they have to hide behind.”

    • “Your question is a path and the more clauses you give, the more paths you give.”

Q: How do you push a guest to talk about a topic they don’t want to talk about?

  • Don’t be pushy.

    • Try NOT to push them, if you can help it

    • Johnson says he might couch the question if it is uncomfortable

    • Using a sweet tone when asking a difficult question can go a long way

  • Be convincing.

    • Convince your guest to tell you

    • Walk them through the difficult topic and make it feel safe for them to tell you.

  • Sometimes you have to push.

    • Example: Johnson’s interview with Wesley Snipes. In this scenario, Johnson had to keep pushing Snipes to ask about the time he did in jail and when Snipes kept trying to talk about his book he was promoting, Johnson finally approached it from a fan perspective, saying: “I was a huge fan and you have tons of fans who deserve an explanation, because we missed you after we left.” (not a direct quote)

    • Give them a compelling reason

    • If you do force them, hold them to it

    • Remember: No comment is still a comment. It is a valid answer and sometimes you just have to let it go

    • Johnson says he’s not worried about losing a guest because he pushed: “Good. Maybe they should be scared.”

Q: When is it appropriate to interject during a conversation?


Q: When is it ok to use comedy in a segment?

  • Johnson is not in favor of comedy. Humor is fine in a news project. An off-handed remark is fine, but it should feel conversational.

  • Example: “Infinity War had the most important snap since West Side Story.” (Johnson said this during his show.

  • You’re a journalist, not a comedian. You can write news, opinion, etc., but don’t try to be funny. Humor that occurs naturally is fine.

Q: How much of yourself as a person do you bring to your work as a journalist?

  • “All of me,” Johnson says. “I can’t do anything else.”

  • You are always present 100%. You choose to acknowledge whats germane to the conversation.

  • Try not to do it unless it’s journalistically helpful.

  • Do it sparingly.

  • Johnson says he also brings his politics and views in too: “There are some things you can’t be impartial on.” (i.e. sexism, racism, transphobia, etc.)

  • Johnson says instead of being impartial he is clinical.

    • You can have a clinical question to better understand a person. It still gives you the freedom to be yourself.

Q: When do you deviate from prepared questions?

  • Happens every day!

  • If you’re really in the flow of a conversation, you have to be ready to deviate.

  • It’s easy to not know when to deviate.

  • Be prepared, well-read, and know where the arc of the show will go.

Q: Any mistakes?

  • Overly combative

  • Not in control of the discussion enough

  • Ask long and wordy-winded questions

  • Rushed the interview/didn’t watch the clock

  • Got facts wrong

  • “You make every mistake, but that’s how you grow.”


  • “The real interview is the conversation.”

  • “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.”

  • “If you fall into patterns, you’ll make interviews boring for yourself. It’s the high wire that makes it fun.”

  • “If we are truly to be a people who embraces equality, at the end of the day, you have to be you.”

  • “Find where you fit and work the hell out of it.”


Writing Compelling Stories Under Deadline

“The line between success and failure is a thin one. Sometimes all it takes is well-chosen words to turn your failure into a success.”

This week, I was thrilled to join a free NABJ webinar called, “Writing Compelling Stories Under Deadline.” Major shout-out to the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) and NABJ VP of Broadcast Dorothy Tucker for putting together such an awesome opportunity to learn from one of the best storytellers in the game.

The webinar, moderated by Dorothy Tucker, was in conversation with KARE 11 news reporter and storytelling extraordinaire Boyd Huppert. I can’t remember where I was when I first learned of Boyd Huppert, but what I’ll never forget is how his story about an unlikely friendship between a WWII veteran and preschooler made me feel. I admire his writing style and couldn’t wait to soak up every bit of advice and gems that I hope you’ll love too!

If you do love them, I hope you’ll #PayItForward and share with a friend.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019 — Online

“Writing Compelling Stories Under Deadline”


Dorothy Tucker, Vice President of Broadcast, NABJ, WBBM-TV Investigative Reporter, WVON Radio Host (@dorothyTV2)

Guest Speaker:

Boyd Huppert, KARE 11 Reporter (@BoydHuppert)


  • Expectation vs. Reality

    • Yogi’s Back (Example A):

      • Boyd Huppert uses the 1984 “Yogi’s Back” Sport’s Illustrated cover as an example of a perceived failure that turned out to be a success in the end. The photographer wasn’t able to get a single front-facing shot of MLB catcher Yogi Berra. To his surprise, the photo of Berra turned around ended up being the one SI chose for their cover story that year.

    • Moses Video (Example B):

      • Huppert also shared a clip from a story he’d done on a young boy named Moses who was readying to get eye surgery. The takeaway from this example is that Huppert and his cameraman noticed Moses (main character) using the photographer’s gear. So, they started filming Moses as he walked around with the gear, and while it wasn’t a part of the story they had expected going into the interview, they were able to use this organic moment in the story, which lended itself to how Huppert was able to craft his end line: “Eventually we had to take back that microphone, but the eyes, Moses gets to keep.”

  • Listen.

    • Listen out for key words from your character. What they say might help you find your focus/story.

      • (ie. During an interview with a family impacted by hurricane Harvey, Huppert noticed the father said “curveball” in conversation as he described the looming hurricane that would arrive just before his pregnant wife was set to deliver twins: another curve ball.

      • This one word helped shape the focus of Huppert’s story, which you can watch here.

    • Often we as journalists go out on stories with a preconceived notion of what the story should be. Or worse: have no idea what the story should be.

    • Allow your character to tell you their story.

    • Stand back, listen, and learn (even under deadline pressure).

    • Let the silence be your storytelling tool… your characters/interview subjects might surprise you with what they say and do, which could add context/color to your story.

  • Focus.

    • Let it happen organically.

    • Immerse yourself in the focus of the story.

    • This helps when you are under a tight deadline.

    • Challenge yourself to find the story, not the assignment.

    • This will also help you craft your opening line and ending line.

    • Tip: Practice this every day while you’re reporting in the field!

  • Ask yourself: “What’s driving my story…”

    • Character?

    • Emotion?

    • Concept?

      • Note: It doesn’t have to be one or the other. it can be whichever combination you think fits best. Once you figure it out, this will help tie your story together.

  • Find your roots.

    • Often times reporters get caught up in moving from one market to the next, but it’s good to put your roots down in a community.

    • Once you do that and people get to know you, you get stories sent to you.

    • Boyd says he gets half a dozen story tips every day for his Sunday segment, “Land of 10,000 stories.”

  • Be observant.

    • Good observation will help you find your focus and your story.

    • At times you’ll stumble on things while working on a different story, such as getting a day-turn story idea while working on a long-form assignment and vice versa.

  • Social media.

    • Check it regularly!

    • Dorothy Tucker says she was fired from her first job for not being engaged in her community. Tucker suggests you “talk to people when you get your hair done, while you grocery shop, etc.”

  • Talk to your friends and family.

    • Ask your friends and relatives about their occupations, especially those that are different from your own/outside of journalism. You can get story ideas this way!

    • We are not trained to not ask questions.

    • Challenge yourself to see what happens during your interviews during the silence.

  • Film trick.

    • If you can, try turning your light to the side of the person you are interviewing. When that bright light is directly on their face, it might make it hard for people to open up to you and be comfortable speaking in general.

  • Open/Closing line.

    • Tip: Boyd likes to have this written by the time he gets back to the station. This helps him to flesh out his story.

  • Tag.

    • Leave this for everything you may have noted or learned that isn’t necessarily visual (i.e. fact, numbers, dates, timeline, etc.)

  • Mentors.

    • It’s important to have mentors!

    • You can learn from them just by watching their stories and studying their writing style.

    • Journalists Boyd Huppert admires:

      • Chris Vanderveen (KUSA-TV)

      • Laura Larencheck (spelling?)

      • Charles Kuralt (CBS)

      • John Larson (PBS)


  • “Let the story find you.”

  • “Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn once in awhile.” (old expression)

  • “The line between success and failure is a thin one. Sometimes all it takes is well-chosen words to turn your failure into a success.”


2019 NABJ Region I Conference

“If your story can’t be told by how you’ve helped other people, you’ve got some work to do.”

I had the pleasure of attending the 2019 NABJ Regional Conference in Hampton, Virginia this weekend! It was an exceptional kick-off to the national convention going down in Miami this summer, and I can’t wait to share all of what I learned during this weekend’s conference with you all in this very first Reporter Notebook post.

Below you will find notes I gathered from various panels — that I break down below — while at the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications on the Hampton University campus. Although I was not able to sit in on every panel, these notes form the panels I could make are what stood out to me personally.

If they help you, I hope you’ll #PayItForward and pass them along.

Saturday, April 13, 2019 — Hampton, VA

“Holding Your Own Freelancing”


Benét Wilson, President, Baltimore Association of Black Journalists (@AvQueenBenet on Twitter)

-Wilson says she is 1 of 4 people of color in the world covering aviation and the only Black woman covering aviation.


Denise Clay, writer, The Philadelphia Sun (@denisethewriter on Twitter)

Vincent Thompson, Principal, Thompson Mediaman Communications (@mediamancomm on Twitter)


  • Have a specialty.

    • Find a specialty beat or sub-beat, especially within a popular beat (i.e. sports or entertainment) to set yourself apart and be marketable for writing opportunities, because of the unique perspective and skillset you bring to a broad news beat.

  • Get your finances in order.

    • Keep track of your money (keep every receipt!)

    • Get your invoice in ASAP

    • There is a lot you can do as a freelancer that you can write off when you file taxes (i.e. laptop, phone, cable, home office, etc.)

    • Get someone that knows taxes

    • Rihanna: “B**** better have my money”

  • Network.

    • Get your name out there

    • Don’t be afraid to diversify, meaning, understand how you can negotiate your contract to be able to do other work

    • Study entrepreneurial journalism (or MBA) if the opportunity presents itself

  • Freelance vs. Independent Journalist

    • Denise Clay identifies as an “Independent Journalist” versus using the term “freelancer,” because some companies will interpret freelance as working for free, which it is not!

    • “Independent",” because it offers a certain amount of freedom you have to do the stories you want to pursue

  • Getting paid.

    • Negotiate a fee BEFORE you start a project and get it in writing

    • Understand calendar days versus business days

    • Negotiate travel expenses and discuss travel expectations with every project

    • What to say when you’ve been waiting to get paid…

      • “Hey, it’s been (x amount of time). Do you know what the status of my check is?”

  • Why start an LLC?

    • Vincent Thompson: “I wanted to work for me.”


  • “Do something that you love.”

  • “What are you bringing to the table that is unique?”

  • “Don’t underestimate your worth.”



    • Free small business advice

    • Resource partner with the Small Business Association (SBA)

    • Retired consultants will help you for free and tell you how to get your money and invoices.

  • Who Pays Writers?

    • Anonymously crowd-sourced document that allegedly shows how much a publication pays its writers

  • Freelancers Union

“Boosting Your Broadcast Skills with NBC’s Rashida Jones”


Rashida Jones, Senior Vice President for NBC News and MSNBC (@RJonesNews on Twitter)


  • Focus: “Remaining Competitive In a Competitive Industry”

  • Fast-facts (source unknown):

    • 93% of the population has cellphones

    • Two-thirds of American adults get their news from social media

    • More than half of all Americans use an OTT service

  • Digital skillsets are a necessity

  • Skillsets.

    • Always look for opportunities to improve your skillsets

    • Expose yourself to resources and professional development opportunities to remain relevant in your field

    • Know what the user experience is wherever your audience consumes news

  • Brand.

  • Networking.

    • Store names of people you meet in your phone

      • Set a check-in reminder in your phone and be intentional about keeping connections going in general

    • Research to build on similarities

    • Connect in meaningful ways

    • Get out of your comfort zone (it’s easy at conferences and events to stay with your group and hangout with your friends. Challenge yourself to separate from your usual peeps to meet new people and make new connections).

  • Are you reaching back?

    • Mentoring opportunities?

    • Can your story be told through how you help others?

    • Are you being a good steward in the industry?

  • BHAG

    • Big

    • Hairy

    • Audacious

    • Goal

      • Ask yourself these questions to find your BHAG!

        • What are you deeply passionate about?

        • What can you be best in the world at?

        • What drives your actions and decisions?

  • Own your story.

    • Jones, a Hampton University alum, encouraged attendees to own their HBCU identity!


  • “Participating in these kind of networking events (NABJ) can be life changing and who you can help along the way.”

  • “If your story can’t be told by how you’ve helped other people, you’ve got some work to do.”

  • “If you’re not willing to bet on yourself, then why bother?”




  • Google tools you can use: (thanks, Benét Wilson!)