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Q&A: The Most Prolific Design Writer Alive

heller_thumb.gifSteven Heller isn’t just The New York Times’ art director. He’s also written about 105 books, tons of articles, directs a school program and even has “a life” outside of work. Here’s how he gets it all done, the secrets of his interviewing technique, and a peak at his thoughts on President Bush.

  • So What Do You Do, Steven Heller?

  • Mediabistro Course

    Mediabistro Job Fair

    Mediabistro Job FairLand your next big gig! Join us on Janaury 27  at the Altman Building in New York City for an incredible opportunity to meet with hiring managers from the top New York media companies, network with other professionals and industry leaders, and land your next job. Register now!

    How to Be Like Ken Auletta

    auletta_thumb.gifIn this interview, Ken Auletta gives the nitty gritty details of how he gets all those juicy details in the media profiles he writes for The New Yorker. Plus, why he’s well-dressed, his favorite TV shows, his fondness for pasta, and what his wife really thinks.
    So What Do You Do, Ken Auletta?

    An Oral History of Lunch at Michael’s

    clinton_williams.gifHow did Michael’s become the place where the media elite came to eat? We asked owner Michael McCarty — who launched his New York hot spot after success in Santa Monica at a tender young age — and many of the other regulars who made the restaurant what it is and are helping keep it that way. (Later today, you can read our regular Lunch at Michael’s column.)

  • An Oral History of Lunch at Michael’s
  • Karen Grigsby Bates Dishes

    bates_cropped.gifNPR correspondent and guest host Karen Grigsby Bates tells her guilty pleasures, favorite TV shows, cooking hobbies, and how she got started as a nationally recognized radio personality. For her, it wasn’t that hard

  • So What Do You Do, Karen Grigsby Bates?
  • Reusing Interviews

    recycleart.jpgSomebody posted a question on the Freelance Success board a little while ago. If you interview a subject for a piece for Magazine A, and then find that you have leftover material from the interview that could be used for an article in Magazine B, what is the protocol when it comes to checking with the subject in question? Arizona health writer Kathy Summers had some advice that I thought was helpful that she agreed to let me reprint:

    I just did this for a national fitness magazine. I was in a crunch. My editor asked for an additional five health quiz items on short deadline. I had all these unused quotes from a nutritionist a year ago for another publication. I sent the expert a quick email saying this is the quote I want to use for this publication. She has a new book out, which I mentioned in the attribution. She was happy to confirm the quote–to me and to the fact checker.
    But if what I needed to use was longer or more in-depth, I’d have picked up the phone for a review and update.

    I also asked her another question about this: “Do you feel freelancers need to check with editors at either the new or old publication about reusing interviews or it shouldn’t even matter if you’re not using the same quotes?”
    Her response:

    I don’t bother editors on either end. I think it would annoy them. If I have any doubts, I just go get fresh quotes. I also try not to use the same experts on the exact same topic in the same year for competing magazines. I write about health almost exclusively and have a great Rolodex of top experts. I might interview them for a certain article and check in with them on another topic for another article during the same phone call. That’s just good business. Writers might want to check their contracts, though. Some of the new contracts grab rights to interview transcripts, although I haven’t signed one of those myself.

    Interviewing Techniques for Journalists

    tape_recttorder01.jpgDoes the thought of sticking a microphone in the face of a near-stranger intimidate you? Well it should, it IS intimidating, which is why you should take Manoush Zomorodi’s New York course Interviewing Techniques for Journalists. Manoush is sharing some of her tips with us today–but if you want to learn more, be sure to sign up!
    Why spend hours stressing in front of your computer when a good interview will do almost all the work for you? Writing or shooting a gripping story can be a cakewalk- IF you lay the groundwork. It may sound boring but the key to getting unusual, emotional, and descriptive quotes or soundbites is preparation. Just go through the following steps….
    1. Be choosy about who you interview. Just because she has an amazing title doesn’t necessarily mean the head of NASA will be able to describe space exploration in a scintillating fashion. If you can, briefly pre-interview people on the phone and get a sense of how they talk. If they’re boring, nix them and find someone better.
    2. Don’t walk into an interview to get facts. Unless you’re covering a breaking news story or researching the latest in gene therapy, why waste your interviewee’s time asking about information you can get online? Always read everything you can get your hands on BEFORE you interview someone. Your interviewee will take you more seriously if you come across as educated.
    3. Identify what you want out of the interview before you ask a single question. If you can, sketch out your article or script to and find out what holes you’ll need to fill with info from your interviewee. You might discover that you need to ask a question that hadn’t occurred to you yet.
    4. Don’t wing it! Write out your questions. Trust me. By strategizing your line of questioning, you’ll project major confidence…and won’t get sidelined. Every interview is an exercise in psychology and you need to be in the therapist’s chair. Warm them up with an easy one, move onto specifics…and always ask the hard questions at the end (but before the publicist kicks you out)!

    Asking the Readers: How Do You Troll?

    trollhead.jpgI have a nice stringing job that comes my way once a month or so, and the turnaround time does not allow me to take my time using ProfNet or waiting for an association to call me back: I have to rely on specific networks of individuals that I know will have a good chance of getting back to me. Namely, a few of my favorite message boards, but more importantly, my own email rolodex (see my recent post about the importance of backing up your address book.)
    There is something wrong with me but every time I try to make a ‘group’ in any email system, I fail miserably. It doesn’t save, or the system can’t send them all at once. So I end up picking out one by one who should get the email. It could be hundreds of people. So it’s a waste of time but at least I’ll remember that so-and-so doesn’t live there anymore, or so-and-so hates getting these emails.
    When you have to do a blast for sources, what are your methods? How did you gather your networks (you don’t have to name them by name if you want to keep it your own secret) and how do you get lots of contacts without pissing too many people off by pestering them? I’m just curious to hear if there are more effective or time-saving techniques out there. Email me any tips you have so we can share it with the rest of the group.

    On What Makes Interviews Work

    mortsahltimecover.jpgI got a very nice email from reader David Macaray responding to last week’s post Interviewing for Beginners, who shared some of his own insight as to what makes interviews work:

    That was a nice piece on interviewing. Honestly, I really wish I’d read it before I did my sit-down with legendary political satirist Mort Sahl, a couple years ago. One of the (many) rules I violated on that occasion was dropping a fairly aggressive question on him, almost immediately (I’m not exaggerating when I say that I’m not even sure we’d had a sip of our coffees yet). The question related to Fidel Castro’s regime, and, looking back on it, was needlessly provocative. Anyway, some other goofs: I didn’t have enough follow-ups; I pressed him on topics he was obviously reticent to discuss; I constantly consulted my notes; I didn’t set a “clear tone.”
    So what made the interview work (it was purchased and has been published and reprinted)? Two things: First and foremost, it was Mort Sahl, himself. The man is a genius; his wisdom, breadth of knowledge, courtesy and poise (he’s been a performer for 50 years and was a speech-writer for 4 presidents) are what got us through the Q&A. And second–with all due modesty–my own prodigious knowledge of Mort. I not own every single comedy album he ever made but, as a college student, I more or less memorized (yes! memorized them word by word!) every bit he ever did; I’ve studied all of his bios, his previous interviews and anthology pieces, and even read an obscure (but brilliant) book he wrote, called “Heartland.” In short, I was a walking-talking Mort Sahl Encyclopedia . . . and that–along with Mort himself–is what saved the day. An 80-minute interview led to us being sort of “friends.” I still call him from time to time. A great guy.

    Interviewing for Beginners

    tape_recorder01.jpgIn just a couple weeks Jenny Sundel will be teaching the Interviewing for Beginners class in West Hollywood. She was generous enough to share some of her tips with us. If you’d like to learn more, make sure to sign up for her seminar–do it soon and get a break on the price!
    Here is my recipe for the perfect interviewer. As I can’t cook to save my life, take it with a grain of salt. And of course mix to your own personal taste.
    1 Part Hostess with the Mostest
    · Break the ice: You want the interview experience to be as pleasant as possible, so greet your subject with a nice solid handshake and a smile. And remember: you’re the one in charge of the tone. Come prepared with lots of good questions so you can easily switch topics if your interviewee clams up. Look for common ground, even if it’s as simple as admiring the person’s shirt.
    · Dealing with a bad guest: Grin and bare it for the better good of the interview. If you lose your cool, the interview could get cut short. And worse, if you ever deal with celebs, you could get banned from a publicity firm’s entire client roster.

    Read more

    Loosening Lips: the Art of the Interview

    someonetalked.jpgI actually received this advice (Word doc) as a handout in my nonfiction workshop last week and hoped that it would be available online to share with youse, and voila. Obviously many of these tips are useful for people working on long deadlines or doing deep investigation (“check clips, resumes, biographies, various writings and home addresses (map the address on a locator program just to get a feel for it). Look at court records, bankruptcy files, association memberships, etc. Question friends, family, neighbors and associates. If you are going to talk to a person about a machine, read the operating manual ahead of time.”) However it’s great interviewing advice for interviewers of all skill levels.

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