When Interview Subjects Go AWOL

Ever have one of those days where every step of a project feels like pulling teeth?

For me, this usually occurs when I’m working on one of my dating advice columns for Nerve. First, it takes me eons to find enough people willing to participate. And then, when I feel as if I’ve finally overcome all hurdles, and am on the home stretch, my interviewees miss the deadline I’ve given them, or balk at supplying everything they originally agreed to, or just plain flake out.

For the love of god, don’t other people recognize the importance of deadlines!??

::deep breaths::

For the sake of my sanity, how do you guys deal with unreliable sources? I use followup e-mails, charm, and begging.


  1. Ugh, Steph, I feel your pain. I had a source recently who cooperated with me (probably because I showed up on his doorstep after he wouldn’t return my phone calls). He seemed to happy to have his business in the press, but now he’s not returning calls from the fact checker and they may have to kill the story as a result. I don’t think he’s doing this to spite me or to avoid my publication. I think he just has no idea how publishing works. And it’s a shame, because this would have been a great placement for him and his business.

    Michelle Rafter has a great post on this very topic: http://michellerafter.wordpress.com/2009/01/29/stalking-the-reluctant-source-10-secrets-to-getting-anybody-to-talk/ I found when I was writing a “man on the street” article that when someone was on the fence and I told them “let me read you the questions and if you’re still uncomfortable you can walk away,” they usually stuck around because they could see that I wasn’t trying to embarass them. The only other thing I would add is to try to line up more sources than you need, because inevitably one will bail at the last minute!

  2. If you ever need advice from starving artists then let me know, I’ll be sure to make the deadlines. 🙂

    Best of luck.

  3. Oh, you’re so right Susan. I usually get more sources than I need, but I shot myself in the foot this time around. ::sigh:: And it only took me a single morning to line up a bunch of replacements. Unfortunately, I missed my original deadline. Thank god my editor loves me so gosh-darn much. 🙂

  4. Oh my God, this is one of the banes of almost every writer. I wrote about it on my blog last week after getting frustrated with not being able to reach the primary source on a freelance assignment. As my deadline neared and my source continued to be elusive, I was getting grouchier by the second.

    Here’s my best advice:

    1. In general, don’t count on one or two sources. Cast a wide net: contact a whole bunch of people and see who you can talk to. Chances are, if you ask enough people, you’ll get at least a few—enough for your column or story.

    2. Give your sources an earlier deadline than you really need. Your column’s due Thursday? Tell your would-be sources that your drop-dead deadline is Wednesday at noon. Or even Tuesday at close of business. So many people wait until what they think is the last minute…just make sure it’s not actually YOUR last minute!

    3. Cultivate your best, most reliable sources. Use them as often as you can, and ask them for referrals for others. Email them frequently to check in, ask for other people to interview, etc.

    4. Accept that sometimes, no matter how much effort you put into this, you’re going to hit a wall.

    Does that help?

  5. Thanks for the in-depth comment Jennifer! In this particular case, I forgot lesson #1, which is something I typically follow but, in the case, allowed myself to get complacent about. This is an excellent list for all you writers out there!!!

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