The phone, email, blog interview flap

This week saw a fascinating dustup as some of the blogosphere’s notables tussled with some journalists over how to conduct an interview. Wired’s Fred Vogelstein wanted a phoner; the bloggers, Jason Calacanis and Dave Winer, wanted either to answer questions by email (in Calacanis’s case) or (in Winer’s case) to receive questions by email and answer, publicly, on his blog. There was considerable snit on the part of several Wired writers in defense of their colleague once the bloggers went public with their disagreement.

If you want the full details, you can read about it on Calacanis’s blog and on Winer’s, and you can read Jeff Jarvis’s impassioned explication of the “empowered interviewee.” Vogelstein tells his side here.

It’s undeniable that pros prefer phoners. Partly it’s because the phone is fast, and most senior-level reporters today learned their craft when the phone was really the only channel available. Also, it’s because a good reporter can capture an extra bit of color by listening to an interviewee’s voice and tone. But mostly, it’s because reporters hope to use the conversational environment as a space in which to prod, wheedle, cajole and possibly trip up their interviewee.

Any reporter who doesn’t admit this is lying, either to his listener or to himself. Phone conversations have the additional advantage of (usually) leaving no record, giving journalism’s more malicious practitioners a chance to distort without exposure, and its lazier representatives an opportunity to goof without fear. (I have no reason to believe Vogelstein is either. But in his email to Calacanis, which the reporter later posted himself, Vogelstein explained his preference by saying, “Email leaves too much room for misinterpretation. You can’t hear the tone in someone’s voice.” And that just sounds disingenuous coming from someone who earns his living writing text — unless Vogelstein has reinvented himself as a podcaster while I wasn’t looking.)

Why are we hearing about more interviewees shunning the phone? As Winer argued and Dan Gillmor argued and I agree, too many journalists get too much stuff wrong, and self-defense is a reasonable concern, given the likelihood of misquotation, out-of-context quotation and factual error.

The pros are going to keep lining up to explain why the phone interview is superior, but I haven’t yet seen a persuasive argument. On a BusinessWeek blog, Heather Green says she prefers reporting by phone or in person because “a conversation allows me to do followup questions.” Gee, I’ve done tons of email interviews, and nearly all of them involved followup questions. But what’s most revealing here is the misunderstanding (Green isn’t unique here, it’s widespread) of how blogging works.

Blogging is a conversation. That’s not a metaphor — it’s a simple fact that this story itself illustrates: Calacanis and Winer and Vogelstein and Gillmor and Green and many others have been having one such exchange (and now I’m chiming in too). To argue that the amongst-blog conversation doesn’t allow followups is ridiculous; if anything, our blog conversations have too many followups — and they have a hard time finding a graceful ending (though that optimist David Weinberger finds positive value in this lack of closure).

But in the online conversation, the reporter doesn’t get the last word. And the reporter doesn’t get to filter which parts of the conversation are available to the public. No wonder journalists want to stick with the phone. But I think it’s going to keep getting harder for them to get their sources to take the calls.
[tags]journalism, interviews, dave winer, jason calacanis, fred vogelstein[/tags]

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  1. Fred made a bad move getting his colleagues to trash Jason on their blogs. Jason got the last laugh if you listen to his podcast interview with Fred.

    Fred sounded nervous, tentative, slightly afraid, and quite inarticulate. Quite surprising for a reporter from a major magazine.

    I almost thought it was so bad that for a while I was wondering if Jason deliberated tweaked the recording to make Fred look bad. But I’m sure Fred would have made that known if he did.

    I doubt Fred will be doing more podcast interviews in the future.

  2. One, this discussion is ignoring the reader, arguably the most important player in the game. While a reporter may make honest mistakes, and may manipulate interview responses to better support the construction of a preconceived “story”, so can an interview subject writing in a blog. Most of us are, in fact, the least objective and least reliable chroniclers of our own behavior.

    Two, having access to a blog as a platform is useful, but for almost everyone using that platform to respond to a reporter’s story is about as effective as talking to yourself in an empty room.

  3. Scott, can you honestly say there is no advantage to doing a phone interview rather than one via e-mail or a blog? You write that blogs are conversations, but they’re slow and lack the flow of a real-time, honest-to-goodness conversation.

    Sure, you can ask follow-up questions via e-mail, but you lose the immediacy of asking a follow-up right after the answer is given, within the context of the conversation. You lose, as Vogelstein says, the abilitiy to discern tone, and frankly, you lose the ability to catch your subject off guard. This isn’t about playing “gotcha,” but more about getting people to veer from their practiced talking points and sound human.

    I’ve been a reporter for more than 15 years, and while I appreciate the ability to get a clean, concise quote via e-mail, it doesn’t hold a candle to the give-and-take one can have with a subject on the phone, or even better, in person. The exchange between two people sitting face-to-face (or, barring the ability to do so, over the phone) is so vastly superior to e-mail exchanges in almost all instances that this entire argument strikes me as ludicrous.

    That said, I love the ability to follow-up and clarify with e-mail, or to get technical explanations in print rather than rely on notes, but those are enhancements to, not replacements of actual conversations. I also love the fact that, if we get it wrong, interviewees have myriad ways to respond. You certainly run the risk of people offering revisionist history in such cases, wanting to backtrack from what was said once they see its impact, something that I’m sure happens as often as any occurrence of the record needing to be be corrected.

    Lastly, while there is an advantage to receiving the raw text of an exchange and letting the reader determine what is important and/or analyze it themselves, the best reporting is of value because it does this for the reader. I rely on great reporters to not only accurately convey what they have been told, but to filter out the noise and present me with the most important things, and often to analyze that and/or give me their interpretation. You write about filtering parts of the conversation as if such efforts are part of a conspiracy to keep the reader in the dark. Rather, it’s a way to focus the light on what is truly important.

  4. OMG. I just found this blog because I’ve recently discovered twitter and dave winer posted, I looked at his blog and he was talking about the whole link baiting thing which was also on twitter. And he said that he would link back to anything Scott Rosenberg wrote, which of course I agree with so I found this blog. But can I just say wow that’s a lot of links. As someone who used to pretty much know what was going on but left and worked in the much simpler world of TV production I am totally and completely overwhelmed by the amount of information being pushed, pulled, twisted, commented, digged, blogged, debated. Personally I like email over phone but I feel totally unqualified to even voice an opinion but I did anyway ’cause that’s the way I roll. peace.

  5. Heather Green

    Hi Scott,

    I think you might have missed my point. I am not arguing that conversations should stop. If I did, I certainly wouldn’t blog or respond to other folks and their blogs. And heck, I have no power to end conversations. Even before the Internet, people were able to keep a conversation going about something once it was printed or said. Of course, the Internet and new forms of social media speed that up.

    My point isn’t simply that I think that the only way to have a followup conversation is through a phone conversation. My point is that I prefer phone conversations because I think that for the most part humans pick up more nuances in speech, especially when you don’t know everything about a story. You can follow up on those hints and ideas in a way that I find it more difficult to do with email. I don’t understand why suddenly this is a one or the other debate.

  6. Thanks for responding, Heather. I don’t really see it as an either/or debate, either. I think this all started with Fred Vogelstein drawing a line and saying he doesn’t do email interviews, period. So what I and others are doing is saying, hey, that’s crazy; there are times when in person or phone are ideal, but there are other times when email is just fine. And increasingly there are going to be people like Calacanis and Winer who live their lives online and who are just going to prefer conducting their business with journalists through email or blogs. And it behooves journalists to get comfortable with that. Yes, the human voice has nuances, and if you’re doing a human interest story or color then email isn’t as good. But if you’re after information, why exclude this important channel? And, I’d argue, for those of us who are writers, email interviews aren’t simply a poor cousin to phoners; what you might lose in vocal nuance and instantaneous followup you sometimes gain back in reflection, and in being able to go deeper and into more detail, and in having an easy-to-fall-back-on record that both parties to the conversation can share.

  7. Heather Green

    Understood and it’s a good point that bears repeating. Email is an integral part of what everyone does these days. And there is plenty of news gathering and relationship building that’s done via email. But I think that you might have done better to pick someone else as your example. Because I said in my post that I do email interviews. But when it’s an in depth conversation, which seems to be specifically what we’re talking about with Fred Volgestein, I prefer to do it via the phone.

  8. Neil Elliott

    I insisted on an e-mail interview with Ellen Warren of the Chicago Tribune, and she still gave me a fucking, using only those parts of my response that supported her pre-conceived conclusions. So e-mail interview is no defense to a journalist determined to misquote. Still, I like it better and I’m glad I made that choice. It’s good to have everything in writing, although she used that to make it seem as if I was uncooperative, even though I answered every question without evasion, delay, or subterfuge, in 58 separate–and thorough–e-mails.

  9. I agree that the having a follow-up conversation through a phone conversation or an email are interesting methods. However, I believe that the human’s voice and speech are effective way to evaluate – therefore, a phone is a good channel. You may get essential good info from a follow up proper well reviewed and versioned email.
    These may replace face to face interview/conversations.


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