Put down that phone

Scott Rosenberg weighs in on the phone-v-email interview debate with refreshing directness:

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.

One blogger said I was issuing a dictum against phone interviews. No, I was just saying that it’s the interviewee, not the interviewer who gets to issue dicta now.

  • Just because “the world is flat” and there is little left of the traditional media-to-consumer hierarchy — and that we now have the option to conduct journalistic research in the great wide open — doesn’t mean that’s the best way to go.

    If a particular source wants it done that way, and it’s worth it to the reporter to concede, then great. I think it’s ignorant and short-sighted to say “this is way it must be.” I do believe it is true that “e-mail leaves too much up for misinterpretation.” Sure, the words are concrete when in writing, but what is exactly meant can be misinterpreted. Voice conversations roughly have the opposite problem.

    Heather Green at BusinessWeek’s Blogspotting blog has a good post from a journalist’s perspective. http://www.businessweek.com/the_thread/blogspotting/archives/2007/04/why_i_prefer_do.html

  • “…it’s the interviewee, not the interviewer who gets to issue dicta now.”

    Hasn’t that always been the case?

    Maybe instead we need to be publishing the terms and conditions that were agreed for any interview alongside said interview.

  • As the “one blogger” (a blind quote — how transparent of you, Jeff) mentioned above, I’d say you are being as reductive about my post as you are about this whole issue. Good comments from working journalists beneath it, too.

  • Most of the government officials we (my MSM employer and current target of your ire) interview, from the President to the Cabinet, record and post transcripts of the entire interview on THEIR sites. Here’s a Bush being interviewed by Rush Limbaugh. (i chose this one becaus it was done by PHONE) There have always been ground rules. I agree with Adam Bowie. Publish the ground rules.

  • Ed,
    The real transparency is admitting that I couldn’t remember where I’d had that conversation. Never age, that’s my transparent advice to you! Sorry for the anonymity.

  • Robert Blade

    One area of the discussion that hasn’t been touched: sources who don’t like to or can’t write. Not everyone has a felicitous way with the written word; some are much better talkers than they are writers.

    These folks, clearly, could insist on making their recordings of the interview and that way safeguard words and context.

    The sad part for me is the assumption that journalists are somehow not as honest and professional as they once were.

  • Jeff, even when I disagree with you — and I do think you got a little carried away on this one, and ignored some of the nuts-and-bolts reporting issues raised at my post and elsewhere — your good humor is a relief from much of what passes for debate in the blogosphere. Hope to see you next month at PDF.

  • Mike Wendling

    This interview subset thingy is getting way too wrapped up in the silly old media vs. new media debate that’s raging at the moment. Phone and email are just two different ways of doing interviews, both with merits and demerits that should be considered in context.
    As a journalist, to refuse to interview someone by email is like refusing to take the train instead of a taxi – regardless of how convenient either might be. As an interviewee, refusing to do a phone interview is like refusing to ride a bicycle after the invention of the car.
    Or – to be a bit more relevant – it’s like refusing to even pick up a magazine because you get all your news from the web. Or like refusing to get any of your news online. The more uptight factions on both sides really need to relax.

  • Jessica

    Jeff, you are missing the real point of this Calacanis situation. Calacanis said that he would put the interview text on his website. That makes the interview worthless because then the writer is basically just doing the interview for two places and only getting paid once for his work. That’s not fair no matter how you spin it. Does the interviewee own their words? In the case of media business, my opinion is-It depends. If Calacanis wants to interview ‘himself’ and put the self exchange on his website-fine. But if a trained media worker takes the time to engage you in a conversation, I think it’s only polite/fair/etc. to allow the media worker to be the one to post the interview.

    Jeff, the main reason you are full of it is simple. If people pulled on you what Calacanis pulled on that writer, you would have never have been able to launch Entertainment Weekly. You have consultancies and teaching gigs now, so you have the luxury to tell working journalists what they should accept, but you would never have gone for some arrogant business person telling you “I will only do an interview via email which will then be posted to my website.”

    It’s so convenient that “now” he has the policy (email has been around since he started). It’s the height of arrogance. Calacanis is only doing it because he cashed out and he no longer needs publicity. The only fools arrogant enough to follow his example are people who are already well known enough they don’t need the publicity.

  • Jessica

    Jarvis, Let’s see if you have the courage of your convictions, or if you’re just full of it as I suspect.

    The next time some news show asks you to appear as a guest, tell them you will only do the interview via video conference, and you will be putting the video interview on your blog. You WILL NOT do that because you crave the media spotlight and you know you aren’t a hot enough pundit that the networks would put up with such foolishness. But let’s see if you mean what you said. Set new rules for the TV networks that interview you, and let’s see how far you get.

  • Heather Green

    Hello Jeff,

    I missed this post earlier since I took a break from blogging this weekend. But I wanted to copy here the response I made on Scott’s blog.

    “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.”