Friday, August 5, 2022

Insight: Secrets to some great newspaper interviews

By Ed Pierce
Managing Editor

Being a journalist isn’t always easy. Yes, you do get to meet newsmakers, celebrities, and people of all ages from all walks of life, and I’ve always prided myself on having the knack for asking the right questions at the right time.

Ed Pierce once interviewed professional wrestler Mick
'Mankind' Foley about his career in the ring.
But it hasn’t been easy doing that and many of the questions I now ask during interviews for an article are based upon experience, my knowledge of the issues and the person answering the questions. Back when I was in Journalism 101 class taught by Dr. Harry Lancaster at New Mexico Highlands University in 1971, we discussed the proper way to conduct a newspaper interview and Dr. Lancaster said something I’ve never forgotten all these decades later.

He said that Voltaire was quoted as saying “Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers” and that pronouncement led me to always having a few thought-provoking questions in my back pocket to ask interview subjects through the years.

When I sat down with Hall of Fame baseball manager Earl Weaver of the Baltimore Orioles, I had a tough question for him that came up halfway through the interview with him I was writing for the Sunday sports section of the daily newspaper I worked for. I told him that I noticed a few of his major league players he had managed, such as Don Baylor and Frank Robinson, had gone on to become major league managers. He smiled and nodded and said he was proud of their success.

Then I asked him if he ever had a player when he was managing in the minor leagues that he knew then was going to become a successful major league manager.

Weaver thought about it and answered. “That’s a great question and nobody’s ever asked me that before. Yes, I had a 19-year-old player back in 1964 when I was managing at Elmira that I knew was going to manage somewhere someday,” he said. “He kept a small notebook in his back pocket and one of those little bowling scorecard pencils. When I would make a pitching change or put on a hit-and-run, he’d ask me why I did it and wrote down my response. He was preparing back even then and I was proud when he eventually managed the Cincinnati Reds to the World Series championship. His name was Lou Pinella.”

In another interview I was running short on time and was interviewing recently retired professional wrestler Mick “Mankind” Foley, who was throwing out the first pitch at a minor league baseball game in Florida. I had little time to get him to give me some quotable material to fill out my article about him. Foley wasn’t volunteering a great deal of information, even though he was promoting his new book, so I needed a question to turn the interview around fast.

I asked him how many times he had been clobbered with a folding chair during his professional wrestling career. Foley’s eyes lit up and his entire demeanor changed. It was like I had struck a nerve with him. “Would that be over the head or over the back,” he asked me. I told him either one. “Wooden chair or metal?” he asked me. Again, I told him it didn’t matter. “10,000 times,” he said.

That exchange led to an awesome 10 minutes of him telling me about his experiences in the ring and how much he loved the sport but hated being away so often from his wife and young children. That simple question had helped me to gain a greater understanding of a complicated man the public didn’t know very well, other than for his weird behavior, the foolish characters he portrayed, and the unusual plotlines he was involved in as a pro wrestler.

On another occasion, I was interviewing the Wisconsin governor, Scott Walker, who was visiting New Hampshire and had announced his intention to campaign for the Republican nomination for president in 2016. We discussed a range of topics including the success of America’s space program and how it inspired and drew the country together and he talked a bit about his love for thrifty shopping and how thrilled he was to save $10 on a sweater by using a Kohl’s cash certificate. But I still didn’t think I had the hook to write a great article.

While he was delivering his stump speech to supporters, I noticed his wife, Tonette, standing off to the side. I made my way over to her and asked her if she was me, what question would she ask her husband. She laughed and told me to ask him about his motorcycle.

It seems that they drove to New Hampshire in his truck pulling a trailer with his motorcycle. After checking into a hotel in Manchester, the couple rode to the campaign stop on his motorcycle which unfortunately ran out of gas along the way. He hiked to a gas station, refueled, and then flooded the bike, making them late for the event.

I asked him, “What do you love about riding your motorcycle in New Hampshire?” He grinned and said, “How in the world did you know that?” <

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