Tricks of the Trade With NPR’s Laura Sullivan

NPR Investigations Correspondent Laura Sullivan is the subject of today’s Tricks of the Trade feature. And the timing couldn’t be more fitting. Credentials: On May 23, she’ll pick up a Peabody  for a report called “Behind the Bail Bond System.” She also recently won an Investigative Reporters & Editors Award and a Dupont-Columbia Silver Bond award back in January.

1. Favorite Interview Technique: And then what happened?… what did you think of that?… and then what happened?… what did you think of that?.. and then what happened?

2. Most Compelling Question You’ve Ever Asked: See above.  Conversely, worst non-question question I’ve ever asked: “Talk a little bit about…” I might as well have said, “Talk about whatever you feel like talking about in as boring a way as you feel like saying it, and don’t bother to actually address anything I’ve come here to talk to you about.  But please, go ahead.”

3. Best Self-Editing Approach: With an axe, not a scalpel.  Only 15 percent of a first draft is any good.

4. What to do When an Interview is Tanking: Cut and run. Find a better subject. If you really have to have the person/interview,  I take off my head phones (put away the  notepad for a while) so they relax and think the important part is over — and start over.

5. Approaching Lawmakers and other “Important People”: Groan. The approach isn’t the problem.  (The interview’s either in their self-interest or not. Doesn’t matter what you say.) Getting them to give a compelling interview is.

6. Most Surprising Thing to Happen During an Interview…

(Most Surprising): I once was interviewing inmates in a gymnasium when a prison riot alarm went off. Three hundred grown men dropped to their knees in front of me.

7. Advice From An Editor You’ve Never Forgotten: San Bernadino Sun City Editor, circa 1994 : “Call the mayor back and tell him to answer the damn question.” Rosemary Armao, Baltimore Sun 1997: “Did this guy donate any money to his campaign?” Bill Marimow, Editor, Baltimore Sun, 1999: “Call everyone who’s retired from there in the past year.” Ellen Weiss, National Desk Editor, NPR, 2004: “Start rolling the minute you get out of the car.” Steve Drummond, National Desk Editor, NPR 2008: “Make an argument that everything they’ve done is right, so we know what they’ve done is wrong.”

8. Wisdom for Budding Journalists: Write the stories you’ve always wanted to write, right where you are, right now, even if you’re covering zoning hearings in suburban Hoboken.  And stop asking your editor for permission! They don’t know what they want until you give it to them. People are doing crazy, absurd, quirky and foul things everywhere for all kinds of very human reasons.  Makes for great storytelling.

Note to Readers: Have a Washington journalist you’d like us to interview for this? Tell us at FishbowlDC@mediabistro or write to me directly at Nominations are always anonymous.