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4/25/2007
11:58 AM
Richard Martin
Richard Martin
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Is It An 'Interview' If It's Via E-Mail?

In working on my story on Wall Street's efforts to reduce data latency, I had several e-mail exchanges with a spokesperson for BATS, a very nice but not overly responsive fellow. After the story came out, he chided me for not checking the facts with him. I pointed out that in the week the story was being edited, I made several attempts to reach him by phone and by e-mail, unsuccessfully. I am reminded of this

In working on my story on Wall Street's efforts to reduce data latency, I had several e-mail exchanges with a spokesperson for BATS, a very nice but not overly responsive fellow. After the story came out, he chided me for not checking the facts with him. I pointed out that in the week the story was being edited, I made several attempts to reach him by phone and by e-mail, unsuccessfully. I am reminded of this exchange in reading the spat going on right now between bloggers and tech mavens Jason Calacanis and Dave Winer and the Wired journalist Fred Vogelstein.

(Full disclosure: I was formerly a contributing editor at Wired, like Vogelstein. I don't know any of the principals involved.)Nutshell version: Vogelstein pinged both Calacanis and Winer, asking for interviews for a story he's working on. Both said they would do e-mail questions only (actually Winer went further -- see below). Vogelstein demurred, saying he preferred to at least start with a phone conversation. Then the fur started flying.

What's really at issue here is the old litany of complaints: "I got misquoted." "My words were used out of context." "I didn't know I was on the record" (my personal favorite). As Calacanis pointed out, "I own my own words."

Fair enough. To be sure, the advent of e-mail has altered the relationship between source and reporter, in ways mostly beneficial to all. I have to say I don't really understand Vogelstein's refusal to do e-mail interviews -- my view is that sources are doing you a favor by talking to you at all, and if they want to do it in Morse code that's their prerogative.

Also, e-mail is a huge boon to reporters like me who a) often work on very tight deadlines, and b) often produce very complicated technology stories where getting the facts and the quotes right is crucial. Particularly on big features, I try to check all quotes by e-mail. That way no one can say they were misquoted.

I will also say that there is no substitute for the sit-down, face-to-face, taped interview. It's a whole different ballgame when you spend time with people, and there's always the tape to refer to if disputes arise. (Many years ago I interviewed a public prosecutor in Chicago. I walked into her office, put a tape recorder on her desk, and turned it on. She never said a word about "off the record." When the story came out she rang me up and exploded, "How dare you quote me without my permission!")

Still, while I scratch my head at Vogelstein's refusal (which he seems to view as a matter of principle -- no phone call, no interview), the attitudes of Calacanis and, in particular, Winer, seem witlessly combative. Here's how Winer responded to Vogelstein's original request:

"If you have a few questions, send them along, and if I have something to say, I'll write a blog post, which of course you're free to quote. Sorry that's about the best I can do."

Not only is this insufferably pompous -- "I'm too important to answer your questions directly, but if you're lucky I'll write a blog about them" -- but it's also a total miscasting of the relationship between journalist and source. Nobody is obligated to talk to the press -- but reporters live and die by exclusivity. A journalist who rings you up (or e-mails you) is interested in your thoughts and opinions because he considers you, in some way, an authority on the matter at hand. Saying "I'll answer in a blog" is violating, at the outset, the tacit agreement between reporter and source: Our conversations are private until the tape recorder goes on or the e-mail gets sent.

I don't blame Winer for wanting to make sure he gets quoted properly. But if you don't want to do the interview, just say so. Don't be a jerk about it.

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