Journalism, at its core, is about obtaining information from people, Lewis Beale told Margarita Diaz’ “Writing for Magazines” class Monday, Oct. 10. He spoke about interviewing techniques he has used to hone his craft, as well as the pitfalls he has learned to avoid.
“As interviewers, you’re basically manipulating your subjects, which is not necessarily a bad thing,” Beale said.
Reporters must maintain a professional relationship with the people they interview, something that requires them to refrain from discussing their personal lives, Beale said. At the same time, reporters should not launch into questions as soon as they meet their source. They should “break the ice” by commenting about a subject of common interest, such as the weather or a certain sports team’s likelihood of winning a championship.
“Don’t be abrupt,” Beale said. He teaches journalism classes at Hunter College in Manhattan in addition to writing on a free-lance basis. “If you can think of a way to get into the humanity of a subject and they can get into your humanity, that’s good.”
Beale has never taken a course in journalism but has always enjoyed writing and he writes quickly, which is imperative for newspaper writers, he said. His first work in the industry came as a Philadelphia-based regional entertainment correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, a position he heard about through an advertisement in a trade publication.
More recently, he has written for the entertainment sections of several large newspapers, for which he has interviewed many high-profile actors and actresses. During this experience, he has encountered a number of celebrities who have been groomed by publicists to suavely avoid answering any sensitive questions.
“The film industry is the most paranoid industry on Earth. No one wants anything bad said,” Beale said. To overcome this impasse, Beale has reverted to asking celebrities such unorthodox questions as: ‘What is something about you that most people do not know?’ ‘What is something that is always in your refrigerator?’ ‘What movie would you take with you to a deserted island?’
Katy Bugajewski, a graduate student in the journalism program, said she enjoyed hearing the anecdotes Beale shared from his experience working as a reporter.
“I found what he said about real-life situations enlightening and helpful,” Bugajewski said.
Diaz, assistant professor of journalism and advisor to The Chronicle, worked with Beale at the New York Daily News where she was as an editor and he was a staff writer. She asked him to speak to her class because she wanted her students to get the perspective of someone who has lots of experience writing for newspapers and magazines. “Specifically, I wanted Lewis to talk about his interviewing skills…and how to avoid certain mistakes,” Diaz said.
Two of Beale’s points that particularly resonated with Diaz are that journalists must foster professional relationships with their interview subjects and that magazine writers are given more leeway than newspaper writers to integrate their own insights into their story.
“When you work for a magazine, you have the opportunity to really write – to go beyond the facts and the most obvious news aspect of the story,” Diaz said.