Guardian column: The state of the interview

The thoroughly modern interview rewrites the rules

“Who says reporters should set the conditions when they are the ones seeking information and when the interviewee no longer needs the press to reach the public?”

Jeff Jarvis
Monday May 14, 2007
The Guardian

Bloggers love a kerfuffle and our latest involves nothing less than the state of the art of the journalistic interview. The fuss began when Fred Vogelstein – a Wired magazine journalist, reporting a story about a powerful blogger – asked two fellow bloggers for phone interviews. But they each set conditions. Jason Calacanis, a blogging entrepreneur, insisted on doing the interview via email so he could publish a full record of it online. Dave Winer, an internet pioneer, said he’d answer questions in public, on his blog, if he had anything to say. Both explained that they do this in part because in the past they have been misquoted. Wired’s own bloggers piled in, sniping at Calacanis and Winer, launching more bloggers. And the kerfuffle was on.

Then I joined in on my blog, because what I saw here was a fundamental challenge to a journalist’s control of the interview. Who says reporters should set the conditions when they are the ones seeking information and when the interviewee no longer needs the press to reach the public?

If the reporter stands firm on his conditions, doesn’t he risk missing information? This then raises the question: what is the purpose of the interview, information or gotcha moments? Vogelstein, like most journalists, insists that tone is part of the answer. For profiles, that may be true, but for all interviews?

Scott Rosenberg, founder of, responded on his blog: “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.” Rosenberg extends his conspiracy theory to argue that phoners “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.”

Well, I say there’s a better way. The asynchronous email interview allows the subject to actually think through an answer – and, again, if information is the goal, what’s the harm in that? If the reporter has time to edit the words to be more accurate and articulate, why shouldn’t the source? Putting the exchange in writing also puts it on the record so no one can claim misquotation. Of course, quotes may still be taken out of context, but the solution to that is the link: why shouldn’t any quote in a story link to its place in the fuller interview? There’s the context.

This even suggests a change in the structure of the article itself. For example, rather than writing the bare background paragraph that has long been part of the form, we can now link to a fuller background online: click here if you need to catch up. If we also link to fuller quotes and research, then the article becomes a sort of table of contents to knowledge. The article should still be sufficient in itself, but why shouldn’t it also be a gateway to more?

And now consider the idea that a story never ends and never begins. When a reporter has an idea for a story that should be reported, the discussion can begin online: what do we know, what do we want to know, what and whom do we ask? Then, as interviews and reporting get under way, in public, the public can add its knowledge and questions.

Then the reporter writes the article. And make no mistake: there always will be value in an article. For the vast majority of subjects and stories, I don’t want to go digging through original interviews and reporting-in-progress. I want the reporter to do the work of packaging it for me. So the article remains a keystone.

But even so, who says the story should be over – fishwrap – just because the reporter has finished writing it and the press has stopped rolling? Once published online, the story can continue to grow as readers add their facts, perspectives, corrections and remixes of the information. So the article is a process. It is collaborative. It is three-dimensional, linking to background and depth. It’s alive! Of course, phone and in-person interviews have a role. But how interviews occur can no longer be limited to a reporter’s rules.

By the way, the Wired saga did have a happy ending, Calacanis did agree to a phone interview with Vogelstein, so long as it was recorded and Calacanis could put it up on his blog as a podcast. There’s the thoroughly modern interview.