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.

No, sources don’t get to approve quotes or drafts

Two weeks ago, the New York Times ran a story with the dismaying revelation that many Washington journalists had grown accustomed to allowing political officials and staffers–especially those in the Obama administration and campaign–to approve and even edit their own quotes. Jeremy Peters described at length how much wit, profanity and, ultimately, life get sucked out of the words you see presented without indication that they’d been massaged.

This week, I read something just as odd: One of my former colleagues at the Post, education writer Daniel de Vise, had shared complete drafts of a story with sources at the University of Texas at Austin. Forrest Wilder’s post for the Texas Observer’s story quotes de Vise telling a UT spokeswoman that “Everything here is negotiable.”

Both of these stories do not represent the kind of journalism I’m used to.

Although I’ve been at plenty of background interviews that ended with reporters asking to put parts of the meeting on the record, I don’t remember anybody letting those sources veto or polish those quotes after the fact. (I have, however, gotten quotes from company executives relayed through PR people, which I haven’t always accurately described as secondhand material.) If I thought a source might quibble with quotes afterwards, I’d record the interview.

As for sharing a draft of a story with a source, I always thought was not just a bad idea but quite possibly a firing offense. I mean, I won’t even tell people about the tone of a review before it runs.

(When Apple PR types asked that question, I took pleasure in replying with one of their regular lines: “I can’t comment on unreleased products.”)

Since the NYT’s story, news organizations such as the National Journal and the McClatchy newspaper chain have located a backbone and said they will no longer allow sources to alter quotes. The Times is apparently still considering this, while my old shop has now said quote approval is off-limits… unless a source insists on it and an editor authorizes it.

To me, the best response to somebody demanding quote approval is “no,” followed by paraphrasing their words without giving them the dignity of quotation marks–or not quoting them at all. You have to be prepared to work around an uncooperative source in the first place, lest you fall into practicing single-point-of-failure journalism.

As for story sharing, it was odd to see Post media blogger Erik Wemple defend it as merely another form of fact-checking earlier this week, after which other reporters admitted to the same practice. Since then, the paper’s editors have said that will require advance permission–to be granted “extremely rarely”–from the managing or executive editor.

It’s not as if sources don’t have enough ways to control what gets in a story. They can conduct an interview by e-mail (which I often prefer because that’s easier than a phone call) or simply, you know, choose their words with care. Inviting sources to edit their own quotes or go over a complete draft gives them too much power. Check your facts with your sources and bounce interpretations off them if you’re not sure how to read the situation, but don’t let them litigate the exact words.

I have another reason not to share story drafts with sources: Before I could do that, I’d need to finish a story ahead of time.