How to interview a reluctant A-list blogger

[UPDATE: Dave Winer points out some bits of sloppiness in my reporting here. I’ll update this post shortly. Revisions in italics.]

The “I won’t do a phone interview” meme made the rounds again this week, via a Wired reporter’s mission to get quotes from Dave Winer and Jason Calacanis on TechCrunch blogger Mike Arrington.

Jason wanted e-mail questions and Dave has his own policy, wherein you can send him your questions and he’ll answer them on his blog if he wants to where everyone can see the complete answers for themselves.

As a reporter, as I’ve said before, this drives me batty. I don’t want static answers to static questions, I want to keep a back-and-forth going, preferably in person or on the phone, until I have your position clearly represented in a series of words my readers can understand.

The problem, of course, for folks like Dave and Jason, is that they’ve done enough print interviews to get frustrated at the fact that not everything they say, not every bit of context, not every piece of backstory makes it into the final published piece.

That’s my own interpretation of what it’s like to be misquoted, or partially quoted, or quoted out of context. It has certainly happened to me. If you want to know exactly what Dave’s concerns are, here’s a piece of a Scripting News post on the topic from August 2006:

“These days when I get an interview request from a professional reporter, I offer to answer the questions, best I can, on my blog, without saying who the reporter is and exactly what questions were asked. This way I create a public record, something that can be useful to anyone, and I avoid the problem of being quoted selectively and out of context. Having created a record that’s likely to be as widely read as the story, I make sure what I have to say has a chance of being heard.”

And in the case getting swatted around this week, of course they are right to worry about which of their quotes about a friend/colleague/rival will get used. Having no idea how the writer is going to frame the story, who knows whether they’ll come out looking like disciples or backstabbers.

Hence, the solution, and a good one at that: Podcast the interview.

The reporter gets his quotes; the blogger gets his public interview; the public gets an extra piece of the story: Everyone’s happy.

The question now, is how many of your sources would buy into this? If you have a curmudgeon of a mayor who insists you e-mail your questions, or a PIO that doesn’t do phone interviews anymore, would they be willing to talk on tape, given the promise that everything they say would be podcast for public consumption?

I’m betting the answers are mixed.

9 Replies to “How to interview a reluctant A-list blogger”

  1. Ryan, this blog post perfectly illustrates why we need to create a record of our interviews to give you an incentive to report only the story, not to make up stuff to add drama to it.

    For example, where did the “if he wants to” bit come from? Certainly not from me. I would have bent over backwards to answer his question, of course it would only be “If I want to” — but that’s the same rule that would apply if he asked me a question on the phone, I would only answer “If I want to.” That’s sloppy.

    The second mistake you make is much more serious: “The problem, of course, for folks like Dave and Jason, is that they’ve done enough print interviews to get frustrated at the fact that not everything they say, not every bit of context, not every piece of backstory makes it into the final published piece.”

    That doesn’t even come close to reflecting what I said or what I believe. I’ll leave it to your readers to click on the links and compare the way you’ve expressed my opinion and the way I express it.

    My belief: You need the discipline of having your sources fully on the record so that you’re more careful about representing what they said. In this case, where the reader can fact-check you, you’ve utterly failed in your responsibility to tell the true story. And this is an insignificant meta-story, and not very complex, and right in your area of expertise. I don’t have much confidence that you’d be straight with me or your readers if the story you were covering was more subtle, or complex.

  2. Woah, how did my name get in here? If you look at the trackback I guess Dave thought this was my blog. I guess we all make factual errors sometimes? 🙂

  3. Control and trust: who has the former and who extends the latter in the relationship between a reporter and a source.

    As you can see from Dave Winer’s interactions, he’s best served by writing his own thoughts down. Any interpretation of his words seems to be a problem, so, it’s best to avoid asking him for an opinion except on his terms.

    Most reporters will pass. That’s OK because he’ll weigh in on his blog anyway. He critiques media work all the time.

    But as a reader of reporting I do want reporters to be able to investigate and have an open conversation with the source and interpret the information as they see it. That’s why I follow a Bill Moyers or Bob Woodward… they dig for levels of access and truth that cannot be obtained without a “no rules” dialogue with sources… and if rules are required they negotiate aggressively for control of their work.

    Journalism is an art, a science and a passion. Good blogging can be too. An astute reader can detect the effort… mostly by repeated exposures to the writer.

  4. Individuals (‘sources’) can now determine the nature and context of their interaction with the media, including reporters. There’s no going back. Complaining is futile. (I’m reminded of the “Your broken business model is not my problem” t-shirts aimed at the music and recording industries.) Haven’t we heard “Innovate or die” enough times for it to have sunk in? Figure out a way to make it work. That’s your job. Wishing the new freedoms away is a fool’s game.

  5. I think your podcast idea makes a lot of sense. I understand the impetus to write down the questions in a blog post, but I don’t interview a subject with a pat list of questions that give them the chance to give pat answers. I go in with a few questions, and then we chat. I jump around. The person says something, and I follow up, or dig a little deeper. Sometimes my story shifts as I listen to them, get to know them. Blog posts don’t have that same liveliness; they allow a person to pre-script an answer and think about it very carefully, whereas in an interview they’ll be more open and honest.

    But here’s the question: when to post the interview? If I’m writing a story, I don’t want some other publication moving faster on it and making mine redundant. So if one could post the podcast concurrent with the interview, that would make the most sense.

    But yeah, I don’t know how many of my clients would dig on that.

  6. “I think your podcast idea makes a lot of sense. ”

    IMO it’s good but not sufficient, since to listen to it requires that your reader invest a fair amt of time – I think you should also print, at end of the piece, a URL(not just website, a permalink) belonging to the source, where they can provide feedback and their own take on the interview.

    This way readers of your piece can _quickly_ find out if the source believes he’s been misrepresented, and then – if they want – can listen to your podcast and make up their own minds.

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