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.