What’s so bad about e-mail interviews?

On Monday, one of my favorite writers at the New York Times teed off on one of my least-favorite excuses for journalism: “quote approval,” the obnoxious process by which political and other boldface-type figures demand the right to edit quotes attributed to them. I was nodding in approval with David Carr’s column right until this:

But something else more modern and insidious is under way. In an effort to get it first, reporters sometimes cut corners, sending questions by e-mail and taking responses the same way. What is lost is the back-and-forth, the follow-up question, the possibility that something unrehearsed will make it into the article.

I’ve been conducting interviews via e-mail since the mid 1990s (please, count my gray hairs), so I took some offense to that. Then one of the college papers at Princeton, the Daily Princetonian, announced that it was taking the additional step of all but banning e-mail interviews. That bugged me too.

I hope we’re not looking at the start of some weird throwback trend.

Look, I realize that a slow, drawn-out e-mail interview can allow a squad of publicists to vet and rewrite every word. But I also know that media training exists; you can get bland, meaningless and unhelpful responses from somebody in any medium invented or imaginable. The choice of a communications channel, by itself, says zero about the news value of the conversation that happens on it.

Take a column I wrote over a decade ago about Microsoft’s support for open standards. I had a useless phone interview with a product manager at Corel (remember them?), in which it became pathetically obvious that this poor guy was under orders not to say anything that might offend Microsoft. Then I e-mailed Jeremy Allison, developer of the Samba open-source file-sharing software, and quickly got a pithy, on-point quote about Microsoft’s uncooperative practices at the time.

Meanwhile, e-mail retains all of its usual advantages over voice calls. It eliminates the need to get everybody on the same channel at the same time. It lets you easily talk to people in widely varying time zones. It enables you speak in links. It can include photos and other media besides text. And many people in the tech business would rather use e-mail than pick up the phone.

But that last part may have more to do with the awfulness of most voicemail systems than anything else.

3 thoughts on “What’s so bad about e-mail interviews?

  1. I think it depends on the topic. For my marketing blog, I’ll often do interviews by email. Subjects can respond faster, and I can often share the results sooner since I’m spending less time editing my transcribed notes. This might not work as well for investigative journalism, but that’s not the only kind of reporting out there.

    • True. Also, the type of story. For a profile, you’d be dumb not to get some face time with the person. And I have had some stories helped by hearing the anxiety or joy in somebody’s voice. Like everything else in journalism: It depends.

  2. Banning email interviews is as dumb as banning any one specific type of interview — let the conversation take place in the best manner for the purpose it’s need. If you need to probe, to cajole, or to make an emotional connection, in person. If you need immediate answers, pick up the phone. And if you want unhurried, well-composed and well-documented responses, go to email.

    If you’re 60 Minutes, catching people on-camera on their way out of an event is a good option too. 🙂


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