The obsolete interview

The interview is outmoded and needs to be rethought.

There’s no better demonstration of this than the recriprocal snipes we’ve been seeing from and around Wired magazine from its attempt to interview people about Michael Arrington. (If you know the tale, skip to the next paragraph.) See Jason Calacanis’ quite reasonable effort to respond to Wired writer Fred Vogelstein’s questions via email and Dave Winer’s equally reasonable offer to respond in public on his blog. Now see the blunderbuss response from Wired in a blog post by Vogelstein recounting the email exchange and his dogmatic rules — “I never do email questions right out of the gate…” — and also in a blog post from his colleague Dylan Tweney, calling Calacanis “cowardly” (it appears to be an awkward attempt to be cute) and in an even clumsier attack from Ryan Singel: “What happens when a top tech figure has an online soap box, a Silicon Valley-size ego, millions in the bank and a grudge against the mainstream media?” Arrington piped in, fearing the fuss would cost him his publicity. And unable to resist any post about Arrington, Valleywag joined the journalism seminar. Vogelstein — who came to Kofi Annan agreement to record an interview with Calacanis — emailed me, too, but I told him I was about to blog about this snit and he probably wouldn’t want me. Finally, Wired Editor Chris Anderson joined in, saying in a comment on Calacanis’ blog, “I don’t impose any one policy.”

But maybe, given your vow of radical transparency at the magazine, Chris, you might want to at least impose openness to new ways, or at least an open discussion about the state of the art of the interview in the time of the empowered interviewee. A few discussion points:

Who says that reporters are in charge of interviews anymore? Why should they set terms? They are the ones who are seeking information. As Calacanis pointed out in their email exchange, Vogelstein was willing to give up two interviews because the subjects would not follow his rules. So the story suffers — it’s less complete, less informative, or less accurate — because of the reporter’s controlling rules? That wouldn’t make me happy as an editor, subject, or reader. If you need the information, shouldn’t you be willing to get it however you can? Isn’t that what reporting is all about?

Are interviews about information or gotcha moments? Vogelstein said in his email that he wants phone interviews to get the tone of the subject. Why? If this is about information, what does that really add? Or is it about the reporter’s effort to characterize the players in a narrative? Is this about information or drama? As a subject, wouldn’t you be wary of that? Or does the reporter want to catch the subject in a slip of the tongue? But what does that really accomplish? Isn’t it better to get considered, complete answers? What’s so wrong with enabling a subject to think about an answer, to review it and get it right before sending it? Isn’t accuracy and completeness the goal? When I came up in the business, I was taught not to review quotes with subjects before publication but now I see magazines doing just that; as Valleywag points out, reporters even negotiate quote approval. The only reason not to do that is that you don’t want to ruin the gotcha moment: ‘You said that.’ ‘Well, I didn’t mean it.’ ‘But you said it. Gotcha.’ ‘But it’s wrong, so can’t we correct that?’ ‘Gotcha.’ We’ve all misspoken. Should we be able to take back our own words? The only reason not to is if the reporter believes he has indeed caught us. And there is a place for catching people (George Allen couldn’t take back “macaca”). But in most stories, that’s simply not the case, unless your agenda is to get someone.

Too many reporters get too much wrong. Listen to what both Calacanis and Winer — not to mention veteran journalist Dan Gillmor — are saying: They’ve been burned when their words in stories end up incomplete or wrong. Gillmor’s right that reporters should be the subjects of stories to learn what it’s like to be on the other end of that pen. I’ve certainly learned that lesson myself.And by making complete interviews public, as Calacanis insisted, even on audio, we get to check the reporter. If, again, the goal is accuracy, there’s nothing wrong with that.

There’s a better way. Try combining the Calacanis and Winer methods: Perform the interview in writing, in public. As Winer says: “So if you want to work together, let’s find a new way to do it. I’m fed up with the old system. The way we start the reboot is to do all our work out in the open, real-time. Not via email, but in full view of everyone.” Examine the possible benefits of this: The reporter asks a question and I answer it. But I get it wrong and a reader pipes in to give a correction. Isn’t that a better way? I read my answers as I write them and improve them myself. What’s wrong with that? Why should the reporter get the opportunity to rewrite and edit and I don’t? Why should the reporter get to look smarter than the subjects? The best reporters, after all, go to find people who are smarter and know more than they do to get the best story. Ah, but I can hear some of you saying, wouldn’t this blow an exclusive? Well the exclusive has a fleeting value of about 30 seconds anymore anyway. And what’s exclusive about what Dave Winer has to say about Mike Arrington? If anyone owns that exclusive, it’s Dave, no? And Dave’s stance is that if he has anything to say on a subject, he’ll say it on his blog. Welcome to the transparent era, my fellow journalists. You want transparency? This is transparency.

My words are mine. Enough said.

Quotes need no longer be taken out of context. Isn’t that the greatest problem subjects have with how their words are treated? But that need no longer be a complaint. Why shouldn’t every quote, every snippet and soundbite, link to its context in the fuller interview? If the reporter has done a great job on the story, no one need click on those links. But if you want more or if you want to investigate the context in which this person said this thing, why not make that readily available, now that we have the ability, thanks to hyperlinks and permalinks? In fact, doesn’t this change the very structure of the story? Why shouldn’t that change, too? I’ve been arguing for sometime that online, there’s no reason to insert the standard background paragraph when you can link to full background. Ditto for interviews. Think of the finished story as a summary, a guide to more information. It may give you everything you want. Or it may link you to background if you’re new to the tale. Or it may link you to more depth if you want to dig deeper. Every story becomes a table of contents to knowledge. Let’s not just reexamine the interview. Let’s reexamine the architecture of the article.

Interviews and articles need never end. And never start. A story can begin with a reader’s blog post: ‘I wish I knew…’ Or it can begin with a reporter’s blog post: ‘I’m looking at doing a story about ____. What do you know? What do you want to know? What should I ask? Whom should I ask?’ Who says the reporters should ask all the questions? Shouldn’t the readers? Shouldn’t even the subjects (good interviewers usually ask whether there’s anything they didn’t ask)? Then the interviews can appear online to be challenged, amended, and corrected by writers, readers, and subjects alike. Why shouldn’t it be a collaborative effort when it can be? Won’t that only yield better information? Then the reporter writes a story. Make no mistake: There is still and always will be great value in that. For the vast majority of subjects and stories, I don’t want to go digging through original material and reporting-in-progress. I want the reporter to do the work of packaging it for me. Absolutely. So the article remains a keystone. But who says the story should be over then — done, fishwrap — just because the reporter’s finished writing it? The story is online and as we see every day, it continues to live and grow as people add their knowledge and perspectives and corrections via links and comments and remixes of the information. So the article isn’t a product. It is a process. It is collaborative. It is three-dimensional, linking to background and depth. It’s alive.

Yes, it is a favor. Vogelstein said in his email to Jason that “no one talks to me to do me any favors.” Oh, they most certainly do. In our gift economy, every act of sharing is an act of generosity, a favor. No reporter or reader should ever forget that. This is the essential human trait that makes the internet — let alone libraries, newspapers, and magazines — valuable. Reporters think that they are the ones doing the subjects the favor and, indeed, that used to be the case and to a lesser and lesser extent, for some, it still is: The reporter holds the key to the presses and with the reporter’s choices — ‘I’ll quote you but not you’ — the reporter grants attention, publicity, legitimacy. Or that’s the way they thought it worked. But this is the essential lesson of the democratization of media: We don’t need you and your presses to be heard. Calacanis in his email to Vogelstein: “Besides I have 10,000 people come to my blog every day–i don’t need wired to talk to the tech industry.” Winer: “Like Jason, I don’t have any trouble getting my ideas out on my own.” Or hear the students at Virginia Tech who got sick of reporters bugging them about the stories they’d already told on their own .

That should force reporters to reexamine the human economics of the interview: because they have to and because they can, because the power dynamics of journalist-subject have changed and because they now have new tools to do interviews — and articles — in better ways. Why not at least try?

Vogelstein wanted to talk to me about Arrington. But I didn’t want to talk to him about that. I wanted to talk to him about this. And I just did it, in writing, in public. And I hope he talks back and that you will, too. Yes, news really is a conversation.

Meanwhile, elsewhere at Wired, they are trying radical new ways working with Jay Rosen and on their Assignment Zero. I was interviewed via email and posted the results immediately, as did the reporter; they also solicited questions and wrote about doing interviews this way. Not a lot of conversation around that because I was long-winded, pontifical, and boring. But hey, the internet and conversation are meritocracies. We talk about what’s worth talking about.