Thumbnail graphic by Iliana Garner / North by Northwestern

Lurking around every corner is a Medill student in the wild, on the hunt for an interview. For some Northwestern students, being subjected to an interview is a frequently awkward and peculiar experience.

Comm '22 Jay Towns  is no stranger to the nature of interviews.

Towns has been the subject of a vast number of student publication pieces, ranging from articles on his postgraduate career to his music career.

Even before the interview starts, a time to speak must be set in the first place. The initial scheduling process for student interviews relies on a meticulous Google Calendar, bending the forces of time to create a window between lectures, assignments and twenty other commitments.

For Towns, setting up interviews frequently involved throwing out a random, particular time squished between the day's other commitments. (Admittedly, when scheduling this interview, I did fall into the student journalist pitfall of sending Towns an assortment of sporadic time blocks.)

He has also found that a Google Calendar’s brief blocked-out time frame doesn’t allow enough space for the interview to draw out an all-encompassing story.  

“I never really expect an interview to truly reflect the way that I think about myself. I know myself better than anyone knows me,” Towns said. “How can I expect someone who just met and spoke with me for thirty minutes to have that [understanding] in a comprehensive way?”

Interviewers’ finished pieces frequently fail to paint a nuanced, holistic picture of their subject.

Medill first-year Ashley Wong also felt this sentiment during the fair share of interviews she's been in. Even before arriving on campus.

Wong founded an online record store, Wildflower Wax Co., at 16.

“I guess that’s very newsworthy,” she joked.

Like Towns, Wong is keenly familiar with interviews that struggled to depict her as a whole.

She had long buried in the back of her mind a different student interview: A clunky and unprofessional exchange orchestrated by a high schooler who lacked basic training as a journalist. The interview was scheduled for 30 minutes, yet it dragged out for two hours.

Wong noted  the questions strayed far from the advertised subject – and not in a good way. The questions resembled a personality quiz more than a genuine journalistic interview, and included questions like, “how many siblings do you have?”

Despite the shortcomings of many interviewers, Towns found that a key factor in a good interview is how the reporter receives his words and reflects them to understand their portrayal of him.

“I do appreciate a sense of clear tone,” he says. “Certain interviews have been more objective, and then, in some of them, the journalist takes a bit of agency on how to frame what [they] heard.”

Ultimately, the interview’s interpretation depends on the context: who is reporting the story, the angle they are taking and the message they hope to convey.

Towns recounted his favorite interview: A video chat between Jay Towns and Medill '22 Jacob Ohara produced for the Knight Lab. Towns said the interview had a game show-esque format with challenges such as “the Classroom Improv game,” where Towns ad-libbed a presentation to a slide show he had never seen before.

Towns disclosed that he could not remember the subject of this interview or even whether he saw the finished product, but Ohara’s extensive knowledge of his interviewee and energy made for a delighting experience.

“I was really impressed and low-key scared with the fact he had brought up and found information about me that I didn’t think was readily accessible on the internet,” Towns said.

Ohara’s vast information on his subject was not a “gotcha” tactic or presentation of knowledge aimed with animosity, but rather, it contributed to the conversation's success. Towns later became friends with Ohara — and even featured Ohara in his music video “MOVES.”

A budding friendship from an interview is not a singularity for Towns.

“I love to actually get to know someone if they are in the headspace to get known. It’s totally dependent on what they actually have the capacity for — I try to feel it out.” Towns said. “I don’t try to force a conversation. I always think it naturally comes up if it's meant to be.”

He said he has become friends with Medill second-year Michelle Sheen*, a student who wrote a profile on him last year for North by Northwestern, as well as other student journalists who have interviewed him previously.

Wong has also grown particularly fond of certain interview experiences, collecting memories across her features in various news outlets. She has been featured in several forms of media, including print, radio, TV and magazines for outlets such as Esquire, Time Out Magazine and Channel News Asia.

With the broad variation in interview style, Wong formed a preference for video interviews. These interviews present Wong with a particular challenge that she enjoys learning and growing from. Unlike print or a scripted podcast, video interviews manifest their own subset of difficulties: self-consciousness and the pressure of saying precisely what you want to say from the get-go.

“I think pushing myself to do an interview on video makes me really think about what I want to say,” Wong said. “A lot of interviews were done online — email, text message. I can always edit what I’m thinking about. Video really pushes me to be at my best.”

She recounted her favorite interview, a 20-minute-long documentary created by a student at the Polytechnic Institute in Singapore for his final project for a course.

The project encapsulated all of Wong’s ambitions for her future as a creative and personality beyond the confines of the record store.

“It was just perfect,” she says. “A lot of news outlets, when they profiled me, were like, ‘Oh, how do you make this? How do you do this?’ But this guy really took his time to understand who I was and why I [opened the store], and I enjoyed that very much. It was beautifully shot.”

Professional publications are more experienced with interviewing strategies. However, student journalists are just beginning to differentiate between good and bad reporting techniques.

Despite the flaws of amateur student journalism, Wong highlighted the value she found within it.

“What they [lack in] understanding of context and syntax, they make up with enthusiasm and kindness,” Wong said.

*Michelle Sheen has previously contributed to North by Northwestern and is currently serving as the print magazine's Creative Director