Memo to Journalism students: Don’t Panic, says interviewing guru Paul McLaughlin

by Farrah Cole

            Paul McLaughlin is telling journalism students to ignore the doom and gloom reports of changes in the media.

            McLaughlin, author of Asking Questions: the Art of the Media Interview, was at Centennial College recently discussing the changing roles of journalists from producers or writers or photographers to all three roles in one.

            “That was never my job description,” McLaughlin said.  “My job description was, ‘You do one of those things.’ Well, now you do all of those things.”

            He said it’s understandable why journalism students of today might be worried about finding a job with people in the media industry consistently saying newspapers are doomed but he reasons the students in school these days are part of the revolution of media.

“People like yourselves, who have grown up with this technology and are making it up as they adapt to it, you’re the right people,” McLaughlin said. “You’re actually in the right place at the right time.  Don’t let old people like me tell you that the world is full of doom and gloom because it’s not.”

            He said it’s important for young journalists to look ahead to changing media with an open mind.

            “The old model we know does not work, and there’s two ways to look at it,” she said. “You can look at it as if the world is ending or that you’re actually, at your age, into a complete new way of doing things and you are there while it’s happening. You’re going to shape it. You have the potential to be the leaders of it if you’re not frightened of it. (Media) is changing.”

            That’s not the only thing McLaughlin advises students not to fear. He said it’s important to realize when you’re conducting an interview to try and relate to your interviewee with what you have in common rather than focus on the differences.

“If you go to interview people, look at what connects you rather than what separates you,” he said.  “What separates you is a waste of your time.  It’s just you puffing yourself up and protecting yourself from your own fears.”

While the average person might have a hard time relating to a murderer, McLaughlin said as a journalist you have to relate to your interviewee.

“You should be compassionate, and you should understand there is no distance between you and someone else. You have to get rid of your moralizing,” he said.

McLaughlin said the role of a journalist is to find a different story in a story everybody thinks they know.

“Those of you who want to do really interesting journalism, your goal, your role in life is to try and reveal,” he said. “Look at something that everyone looks at and says “Yeah, yeah, yeah”, and if you can find a story that is more complicated than that, then you’ve got yourself a great story.”

McLaughlin said the one personality trait shared by many journalists isn’t one that most people might think of.

“Shyness can be a very helpful trait because in interviewing, if you are shy but alert, that’s good,” he said. “You’ll probably keep out of the way and let the other person talk which is a very good thing.”

            Another piece of advice McLaughlin wants his audience to take away with them is that positive thinking can help journalists achieve their goals, at least when it comes to their careers.

            “Once you decide to do something, the chances of it happening increase,” he said. “And you tell everyone what you want to do, everyone you talk to and instead of saying, “This is what I want,” you send that message out on both a literal networking level and on a psychic level.”

            Whether McLaughlin is right about the need for young journalists to adapt their thinking when it comes to what is happening within the media, he knows one thing about the medium will never change for him.

            “One of the things I love about interviewing is that you always learn about yourself.”