October 8, 2010

Feature reporters know that to land a good story, you have to spend time with your sources — not just during scheduled interviews but also when your sources are going about their daily routine.

Longtime feature writer Hank Stuever, now a TV critic at The Washington Post, has a list of 13 questions he often asks himself when determining whether he has spent enough time with a source. He shared these questions during his recent keynote speech at the American Association of Sunday Feature Editors conference at Poynter. Here they are:

1. Have I used their bathroom?

2. Have I seen the inside of their fridge?

3. Have I been a passenger in their car?

4. Have we eaten a meal at their house?

5. Have I seen them with wet hair?

6. Have I watched them watch TV?

7. Have I helped with a task (hanging Christmas lights, etc.), or am I waiting to cross that line?

8. Have I seen them sleep? Or get ready for bed? Or wake up? (And that’s really super advanced feature writing. The surest way that I know that I’m in is when someone dozes off — and I don’t take that personally.)

9. Have I seen them shop?

10. Have I been to their office or out with them on their rounds? Have I seen them do what they do?

11. Have we gotten out the photo albums? The home movies? Did it happen without me asking?

12. Have I been to church with them? If not, why not?

13. Am I scared of this subject? What am I leaving out? Why am I leaving it out? Am I scared that my editor’s going to take it out if I put it in? If the answer is yes, then I probably am scared to put it in. Always do what you’re scared of.

My colleague Jill Geisler used her iPhone to shoot video of Stuever as he explained his list of questions:

How do you know when you’ve really connected with a source?

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Mallary Tenore Tarpley is a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody College of Communication and the associate director of UT’s Knight…
Mallary Tenore Tarpley

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