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Newspaper Writing - The Interview

( Originally Published 1911 )

They (teaching and accompanying reading) can suggest the proper relation between subject and style—the man whose style is too big or too small for his subject is the born prey of the parodist; they can call attention to the balance proper to be observed between narrative and dialogue, and show by reference to the masters (to Sterne and Congreve, for example), how vividness and dramatic suspense may be imparted to dialogue without loss of naturalness ; they may incite the hearer to learn from Steele that writing may be very simple yet very distinguished, from Stevenson that subtlety is one thing and obscurity quite another. The professor can, and should, preach with parrot-like persistency.

"Lucidity—lucidity—lucidity!"— Said by Anthony Hope on the writing of novels, but applicable also to the news story; from the University Magazine, Toronto.

An interview in the newspaper sense, the dictionary says, is " a conversation held for the purpose of obtaining the opinions of a person for publication." The term may be applied both to the process of questioning by a reporter to elicit information, and to the published statement. An inter-view may be informal or formal — that is, it may be incidental to the end of making a story complete or it may be the end in itself.


The city editor's fourth dimension would make it possible for him to have a reporter present at every happening which the newspaper chronicles. Every story would thus be obtained at first hand. Such a condition being manifestly impossible, the reporter usually is compelled to rely on the information furnished him by others.

Sometimes, of course, a reporter's assignment is such that he can see the story unfolding before him, as at a fire or a court trial, and he is enabled to write more vividly than if his facts had come to him second-hand. Every reporter dreams of the day when he will have the chance to write a big story that he has seen in the making. It is related that a group of New York newspaper men were discussing the biggest possible story that could "break." The ideas of all were summed up by the oldest of the group : Suppose Brooklyn Bridge, at the height of the evening rush home-ward, should fall, and I should be there, just at the edge, the only reporter who saw it — that would be the biggest story that could happen ! "

On most of his assignments the reporter must trust to others for many, if not all, of his facts.

Covering the story of an automobile accident, for example, he must see the story through the eyes of those who were present. These persons he interviews informally. From the information obtained in this way, supplemented by his own observation of the visible results of the accident, the reporter culls the salient facts and writes the story in his own words. What he is sure of he makes his own; other facts he may put in the form of indirect quotation, while occasionally he may quote a person directly.

Interviewing in its broad sense is thus at the basis of nearly all newspaper reporting, because nearly all stories deal with persons — their doings and opinions. Even in covering the story which the reporter is fortunate enough to observe, a certain amount of interviewing may still be necessary to make the story complete. If it is a fire story, he probably questions the owner about the loss and the insurance and plans for rebuilding; he interviews various persons to find out the cause of the fire; he talks, perhaps, to persons who have been rescued and their rescuers. These and other facts can be obtained only by asking questions.

Except when a story is dependent on what a person has said, in a speech or a formal interview, it is nearly always desirable that the reporter, as far as possible, should make the story his own. He should hitch his wagon to the star of absolute certainty and then tell the story, at least the salient facts, in his own words. It is poor policy in news writing, as a rule, to put trivial bits of information in the form of direct quotation. The reporter will find that owing to the common failure to observe accurately the accounts given by witnesses of a given occurrence will vary widely. It is the reporter's business to learn all that he can of the story ; to see, in the limited time at his command, as many as possible of the persons concerned in it, and then to present to the reader an intelligible, lucid account in the third person — the kernel of the story without the husks of inconsistency. It is impossible to do this ,if the writer slavishly quotes, in the direct form, everybody to whom he talked in getting the story.

Some reporters are inclined to overwork the direct-quotation method because it is usually the easiest way of telling the story, often relieving the writer of the necessity of thinking for himself. Quotation marks may enclose a multitude of rhetorical sins. Rather than go to the trouble of coordinating his facts, such a writer will lazily string

The Interview together the statements of several persons and let it go at that. This plan is obviously bad. It violates the fundamental rules of news writing, which demand that a story be clear, concise and forceful, and gives the reader a confused image rather than the definite, clear-cut impression left by the story rightly told.

It is absurd to lug into a story the views of persons who have no vital connection with it, simply for the sake of filling space. And yet that is the error committed by some news writers, as in a fire story, for example, where the janitor is quoted as saying, " Yes, I saw the fire; it was a great sight," or something else equally trivial. When the janitor sees that he immediately gets an exaggerated idea of his own importance. It is conceivable that the next time a reporter asks him for a bit of information, the janitor will throw out his chest with the air of a personage and reply, " I refuse to make a statement for publication," hoping that the newspaper will quote him to that effect.

The news writer who is prodigal with his direct quotation is encouraging an attitude of mind that will cause trouble for him and other newspaper men in the future. If a person is asked to give information about a story and refuses, it is seldom good policy to state that fact, unless he bears such a close relation to the story that his silence is of interest. If there is no particular reason ,why the opinion of Smith, the janitor, should be sought, don't commit the folly of telling several thousand readers — and Smith -- that he " refused to talk for publication."

Another absurdity is illustrated in the sentence : " Smith refused to make a statement, but said " This paradoxical introduction may be followed by a long interview with Smith. What the writer probably means is that Smith, when first asked for a statement, said that he wouldn't talk, but later changed his mind. The reader is not likely to be interested in all this, so the copy reader cuts it down to " Smith said."


" The Governor will be in town tonight. Get a statement from him on the police situation here."

Thus the city editor outlines what he expects the reporter to bring back to the office. His order is the first step toward getting an interview on a definite subject. The reporter sees the Governor, questions him along the line indicated and returns to the office with his story.

Now what the Governor said is not incidental to another story; it is the story in itself and is so writ-ten. There are no definite, fixed rules as to how it shall be written, except that it shall fairly express the Governor's sentiment. The form in which the facts shall be presented depends on the news writer's own judgment or the editor's instructions. He may begin his story in any one of several ways. If the Governor said something of grave importance in a striking manner, the re-porter may seize upon that for his lead, throwing it into the form of direct quotation. The story then might begin in this way :

" The police department of this city must clean house. There has been an alarming increase of crime here in the last six months, and I am going to find out the cause."

Governor Smith, who arrived in — last night, thus outlined the purpose of his visit. The Governor, etc. (After this explanatory paragraph the quotation is continued.)

Or the lead might be in indirect quotation, some-what after this manner :

Governor Smith declared, on his arrival in last night, that he had determined to learn the reason for the recent increase in crime in this city. He said the police department must " clean house."

"I am here to make a thorough investigation," the Governor said. " If the charges of grafting are proved, I will proceed . .

If the interview yielded nothing of importance, the writer might base his story on the fact of the Governor's visit :

Governor Smith, with his secretary and three members of his staff, arrived in — at io o'clock last night and went to the Hotel. The Governor is here to address the State Convention of Millers this morning.

In an interview last night he said . . .

An interview may take the form of a feature story. Suppose the Governor has a hobby that is worth writing about. Then an interview with him might begin in this way :

Governor Smith is going to saw all his own wood this winter. He believes that bending over the sawbuck and cutting cord wood into stove lengths will put him into prime condition for " sawing wood " officially. (Interview follows.)

It must not be understood that the foregoing examples are set forms for interviews. They are given merely to suggest the several ways in which the writer can begin his story.

The interview may be in itself either a plain news story or a feature story. It may take the form of a considered statement or it may be in-formal in character. Some men give out type- written statements of their views when asked for an interview, while others talk freely, putting the reporter on his honor to be fair and accurate in his quotation. The question of presenting the speaker's remarks most effectively from the news stand-point is then left entirely to the writer's discretion. He is not expected to quote slavishly. Indeed, few men would like to have their conversation appear in print verbatim, with the defects to which the best spoken language is liable. Unless the interview is printed for no other purpose than to poke fun at the speaker, as might be done with the remarks of an ignorant and disreputable politician, the writer should strive to convey the spirit of what is said rather than the exact words. Now and then a characteristic phrase or sentence may be quoted verbatim — and this is desirable in order to give a flavor of the speaker's individuality — but the faults of ordinary speech, verbosity, awkwardness and the like, should not be reproduced. True accuracy leaves a correct impression of the whole. An inter-view rightly written, telling the speaker's meaning in simple, clear English seasoned with phrases that give a hint of his personality, is more accurate in this sense than a phonographic record of the conversation.

It follows that the speaker's remarks need not be set down in the order in which they were made. Possibly the last thing he said may be put in the lead. Part of the interview may be in indirect quotation, summarizing statements of minor importance. The reporter may introduce explanatory sentences, especially if the interview is long and deals with more than one subject. He may break into the discourse to tell of the speaker's gesture at a certain point or to describe a facial expression — anything that will give the reader a vivid and true picture of the man interviewed.

Ordinarily the reporter's questions should not appear in the story, but sometimes they may be effectively given and the interview may consist of a series of categorical questions and answers, resembling the reports of testimony at a trial. This method may be used when the newspaper desires specific answers to certain pointed questions of great interest, or when it seems the most direct way of getting the meaning before the reader. No set rules can be laid down on this point ; every inter-view, like every other news story, presents its own problem.

The suggestions regarding the interview of formal character apply also to the reporting of speeches. It is the custom nowadays of many men who appear often in public to give out to the newspapers in advance typewritten copies of their speeches. The news writer sent to report an ad-dress, freed of the necessity of following closely the speaker's words, may devote his attention to the details of the meeting. In covering a formal lecture or address of which no advance copy is available the reporter naturally may use the speaker's exact words more freely than in writing the interview. Even in such a story, however, it is seldom desirable to give all the speech, and frequent summaries may be made in the writer's own words. This also is a matter for the reporter's judgment of news values. It is not demanded that the news-paper man be able to write shorthand. If a verbatim report of a speech is desired a stenographer is employed for that purpose.

A word as to the mechanics of the story: Be careful to enclose all quoted matter in quotation marks. Begin each paragraph with quotation marks and don't forget to use the marks at the end of the last paragraph. Remember that " he said " used too often in dialogue becomes monotonous. " Replied," " asserted," " laughed," " remarked," " exclaimed," " corrected," " inquired," "suggested," " urged " and many other words may often be substituted to good advantage.

A series of interviews from different persons on the same topic is a symposium. In this form of story the name of the speaker is given, then the interview. The lead states briefly the topic under discussion.


I. Feature interview beginning with a striking remark in direct quotation. From the New York World:

" It is impossible for a woman to live in comfort in New York on $3,000 a year."

This is the statement of Mrs. Juanita La Bar, who has petitioned the Orphans' Court of Scranton, Pa., to allow her an additional thousand dollars so she can send her eleven-year-old son to school.

The things Mrs. La Bar thinks absolutely necessary for a modest menage are:

One servant.

To dress not handsomely but neatly.

A healthful apartment.

The best the market affords for the table.

A vacation to the seashore, country or mountains every summer.

" I can't get along on $3,000" said Mrs. La Bar to a reporter for the World last night at her apartment at No. 210 West Twenty-first street, "and I'm not extravagant, either, because I don't owe a cent."

The apartment was modest and comfortable, and Mrs. La Bar was dressed quietly, but in well cut and well made garments.

" Ten years ago, when my husband was alive, we lived well at a hotel and went to the seashore every year. We had a maid to look after the boy, but we didn't keep house . . ."

(The rest of the story consists of direct quotation.)

(The method of presenting the interview here is simple and effective — first a paragraph in direct quotation that contains the meat of the story, then identification of the speaker and a third-person statement of her views, and finally the interview it-self, running about half a column.)

II. A more formal and conservative method is shown in the following:

NEW YORK, Dec. 2.- B. F. Yoakum, chairman of the board of directors of the St. Louis & San Francisco Railroad Company, arrived here to-day. He had returned from an inspection trip over the Frisco lines with B. L. Winchell, president of the principal roads of the system; A. J. Earling, head of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway, and Percy C. Rockefeller.

Mr. Yoakum declined to make a statement about his inspection trip so far as it may result in a traffic agreement between the Frisco and St. Paul systems.

" There seems to be but little stock ticker prosperity in New York, but there is a good deal of real prosperity in the Southwest," he said. " After crossing the Mississippi River one rarely hears the New York stock market referred to. Trading in securities is not the business of the West, and securities listed on the stock exchange are not the collateral required or generally used by bankers in the West. . . ."

(Three paragraphs of quoted matter follow.)

III. Interview in which direct quotation is varied with indirect. From the Chicago Evening Post:

" The Panama Canal will be completed at least a year sooner than the time set for the official opening, Jan. 1, 1915," said Ray L. Smith, employment agent of the Isthmian Canal Commission, today.

Mr. Smith is in Chicago attempting to enlist boiler-makers to take the places of the hundred men who resigned after being refused an increase in wage.

"I attribute the reduction in time to the efficiency which has been attained by the men," he continued. " When the work began laborers were imported from the West Indian Islands and from Italy and Spain. The European laborers accomplished nearly three times as much a man as the West Indians at first, and they were paid twice as much.

" Now the efficiency of the West Indian has been so increased that the European is only twice as effective."

According to Mr. Smith, the personnel of the workers on the canal includes representatives from nearly every country in the world. There are 45,000 employés of the commission in Panama. Of them, 5,000 are Americans. The remaining 40,000 represent perhaps more tongues than were gathered around the Tower of Babel. The bulk of the laborers are negroes from the Barbados, from Trinidad and from Jamaica. Besides the negroes from these islands there are Spaniards from most of the islands except Cuba.

"The death rate in the canal zone is only 4.05 a thousand persons," said Mr. Smith. "This is lower than in any American city. The low rate is the result of the careful supervision exercised by the government. For example, there is a hospital at Culebra, the headquarters of the commission, which has 2,200 beds. All the houses are screened against mosquitoes, and in other ways the greatest attention is paid to sanitation. . . ."

(The rest of the interview is in direct quotation.)

(Note that the writer drops direct quotation in the fifth paragraph. Making it clear that the speaker is his authority, he puts his information in the third person. This may be done with a plain statement of facts and figures in which there is no expression of opinion. Nothing would be gained by putting in the speaker's words the statistical matter here given. On the other hand the reporter should be careful to quote anything of a controversial nature.)

IV. The following paragraphs from a feature story in the New York Mail show the questions-and-answers method in the interview. The extract is from a signed story, the only kind in which the reporter is permitted to write in the first person :

"Evidently," I said, " you are an admirer of the new woman, the woman who earns her living."

" Well," he said, "you can't blame me. It's always better to get business advice from a woman who knows something about business, than from one who knows nothing about it. For women are bound to meddle with their husbands' affairs, whether they are acquainted with them or not."

"And how about politics?" I ventured. " Should women take an active part in this field, too?" "Decidedly not," he returned, etc.

(Signed newspaper stories are the exceptions. In the average story, when the writer has occasion to refer to himself, he uses some such impersonal form as " the reporter asked " or " it was suggested.")

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