Back-to-school goals: Topping an interview with Defense Sec. Mattis
As our kids get set to return to school, we always hope they do big things – get straight A’s, make the soccer team, get a part in the school play, or get a one-on-one interview with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
OK, so that last example = not so standard. At all. But it really happened over Memorial Day weekend to one Washington state high schooler who managed to snag Mattis’ personal cellphone number, asked him for an interview, and actually got one. The story made the rounds all over the news, including here, because it was such a big deal.
I got to talk with Teddy Fischer, the 17-year-old Mercer Island High School student behind the story, as well as fellow newspaper staff writer Jane Gormley, who Fischer went to for help with making it happen. As they get set to return to school this fall (Gormley will be attending Washington University), I figured now would be a good time to tell a few of the more surprising details of how this cool experience came about.
Fischer didn’t have any real plans when he first contacted Mattis
If you haven’t read the original story, Fischer scored Mattis’ number after an article accidentally published a photo of Mattis’ bodyguard carrying papers with his number on it. Fischer wrote it down, but he didn’t really plan to do anything with it.
“I recorded a funny video of myself just calling it with my reaction to his voicemail. And then I told one of my friends, Grady … kind of as a joke. We were debating what to text him. We were going to send him jokes or something,” Fischer said.
He kind of fudged the truth in his initial text
Fischer didn’t go with jokes, but instead chose a nicely crafted message … that wasn’t exactly legit.
“When I texted him, I said I was doing an upcoming article on foreign policy, which was not true,” the soon-to-be junior said. “I asked if he could contribute to that.”
Mattis actually called him back FOUR times
The first call Fischer got from Mattis came when the teen was in journalism class. He had saved Mattis’ number as “Jim M” in his phone, and that’s what showed up on the display.
“He was expecting to do the interview right there,” Fischer said of Mattis. Unfortunately, he had to ask the secretary to call at another time since he was in class — and because he hadn’t prepared questions, since he never thought Mattis would actually get in touch.
The second time Mattis called, Fischer had just gotten home from school.
“He was really polite. He asked how school was and stuff like that,” Fischer said. But they had to reschedule yet again. “Our questions hadn’t been approved by our advisor, so that was embarrassing to have to say, ‘I can’t.’”
On Memorial Day, Mattis called twice. Teddy missed the first call.
“I was devastated,” Fischer said. “But then he called again. That’s when the interview happened.”
The interview and story-writing were a team effort
Fischer asked Gormley and their journalism teacher for help in coming up with questions. Thankfully, Fischer had been paying attention to current events, especially foreign policy.
“I check the news every day,” he said. “Seeing the headlines and seeing what’s going on in the world – the questions I asked were ones I was curious about.”
While his questions were more about policy, Gormley’s were about the “human” side of things; specifically, how what Mattis does affects high schoolers.
“We had about 10 minutes of questions, so Teddy did a really great job when Mattis was ready to keep going [after 10 minutes] to come up with a lot of the questions on the spot,” Gormley said.
The article increased their school newspaper’s website pageviews … by about 100,000%
Pageviews – the number of times visitors to your site look at a certain page – aren’t exactly high for the school’s online newspaper, The Islander, on a regular basis.
“A good article would get 100 or 200 views,” Gormley said. “We’ve never broken 1,000 on anything.”
“I could probably count on my fingers how many people go onto that site in the summer,” Fischer joked.
The Mattis article changed that quickly.
“I’ve been looking at our analytics, and they’re up, like, 100,000 percent,” Gormley said.
The transcript of the interview had nearly 223,000 pageviews when I talked to them in July, while the two articles combined were at about 25,000. Article 1 | Article 2
Mattis exceeded their expectations
“He’s incredibly smart, knows what he’s talking about, incredibly experienced, very respectful, and understands that students and high schoolers can be just as intelligent as most adults,” Fischer said. “He treated us with absolute respect and seriousness, even though we were a high school newspaper.”
“When Teddy was asking him some of his military policy-related questions, Mattis would often return to education,” Gormley said. “It’s not what I would have thought a Marine would talk about. It was really cool to hear that from him.”
They never got to publicly thank the defense secretary
While their articles turned into a whirlwind 15 minutes of fame for them, they never really got to give Mattis a public thank you. Most TV interviews they did ended before they had a chance.
“We really wanted to thank Secretary Mattis for giving Teddy this opportunity,” Gormley said.
“I just wanted to make sure he hears that from all of us at the Islander,” Fischer said.
So there you go. If you’re trying to scoop a big interview while still in high school, or college for that matter, this is a good template on how to make it happen!