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Summary:

Startup founder Chad Whitacre caused a fuss recently when he suggested that a reporter do an “open interview” that would be available to everyone — but why is that approach seen as such a threat by some media outlets?

The way the media works — digital or otherwise — hasn’t changed all that much in some respects: journalists interview people about a topic and then select the quotes they want to use. Sometimes a reporter will cherry-pick an interview in a way that the source doesn’t like, but what can they do about it? As it turns out, they can do quite a bit about it now, thanks to the democratization of publishing. And I think how media outlets choose to respond to this phenomenon says a lot about their commitment to “open journalism” or transparency.

A recent blog post from startup founder Chad Whitacre re-awakened this debate: in a post on Medium, the publishing platform started by former Twitter CEO Evan Williams, the founder of Gittip described how he responded to an interview request from TechCrunch about his company, which is building an online gift exchange. When Whitacre suggested that the reporter do an “open interview” via Google Hangouts that would be posted on YouTube, the TechCrunch writer declined.

“Me: If you’re not comfortable with streaming/posting the call, I will totally understand. In the future I’ll be sure to let journalists know up front about my open call policy. :-) Let me know one way or another …

TC: Yeh, good luck with that.”

Open interviews add more value

journalism

Many — including Sam Biddle at Valleywag — seemed to see the startup founder’s request as bizarre and somewhat ridiculous. But is it? We don’t see it as ridiculous when interviews are broadcast live, or when places like Reddit do the AMAs (Ask Me Anything) interviews. If anything, one could argue that they add value because everyone can see the questions and answers, and decide for themselves which parts of the interview are the most important or relevant. Fact-checking in public can be better.

In the interests of putting my money — or my ego — where my mouth is, I did my own open interview with Whitacre via Google Hangout’s “On Air” feature, which both streams the recording and automatically posts it to YouTube.

Whitacre’s proposition got me thinking about how rarely journalists include either audio recordings of their interviews with sources (as I did in a recent post based on my interview with Planet Money producer Alex Blumberg) or transcripts — even though the technology to do this is well established, and in many cases free. SoundCloud is an easy audio-hosting service, for example, and YouTube does automated transcripts, and there are many other solutions as well.

Not wanting to draw back the curtain

When I asked the question on Twitter, some journalists said they do this routinely and think it should be done more often. Others, however said they don’t think doing this is necessary unless there is some editorial debate about the context of a quote, or a source raises a stink about a story and so the outlet has to prove they were right. And many questioned whether there was any broader value in doing so.

Seeing the media sausage being made

Are media outlets reluctant to do this because they think no one will be interested in the full interview, or because (as Whitacre suggests) they don’t want to lose whatever scoop-like qualities are associated with the story? Does it stem from a fear of being criticized for focusing on specific parts of the interview? Or do they think their interview questions will seem unimpressive, and they don’t want to let readers see the journalism sausage being made? (I confess I was unusually aware of my questions and my appearance while Whitacre and I were talking).

Sources are already going direct

Newspaper fortune teller; newspapers' future; newspapers' fate; fate of newspapers

Here are a few things I think we do know: The life-span of a so-called “scoop” has been declining rapidly, and is probably now measured in minutes (possibly seconds) rather than hours — and all the “Breaking news!” headlines and embargoes in the world can’t change that. Meanwhile, the ability of sources like Whitacre to “go direct” and reach an audience is increasing, thanks to blogs and other forms of social media, forums like Reddit, etc. And in many cases a frustration with the way traditional media outlets handle interviews is a driving force behind that desire.

To take just a couple of examples, Gawker Media founder Nick Denton is well known for refusing many traditional interview requests, and asking instead that reporters talk with him via instant message or some other “live” medium. Billionaire media mogul Mark Cuban became notorious at one point for posting transcripts of interviews on his own blog, so that the full context of a discussion would be available for readers to make up their own minds.

One of the most common responses to my question was that most readers or listeners would be bored by audio or video or transcripts of full interviews — and that is definitely a risk. And as someone who often takes a long time to get to the point of a question, so is the risk of looking foolish or incompetent. But aren’t those risks that are worth taking if it increases the level of trust that “the people formerly known as the audience” have in us?

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Luis Santos and Shutterstock / wellphoto and Shutterstock / Fengyu

  1. Andrew Waber Wednesday, May 8, 2013

    Definitely a fascinating strategy, and I think a doable one (on sites outside of this one :-) ) with just a few parameters to assuage the concerns of journalists, although I’m not sure if this is part of the startup’s ethos on this. 1, agreeing not to post the video/audio until story goes live, 2, agreeing to strip out some verbal/visual miscues (e.g. personal information, excessive coughing, etc.)

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  2. It’s a fascinating idea.

    I do suspect, though, that posting audio and/or transcripts of interviews with, say, corporate executives, would make them even more scripted than they already are.

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  3. A great concept in many respects. I definitely agree that the more direct route may be inevitable, particularly with the segmented reading/writing public. I wonder of the loss of value of off the record insight, content, nuggets, etc. Certainly, no one would really spill their guts given the open nature of these interviews. I know this can lead to other stories, many times not directly involving the original interview subject. This is particularly true of governmental entities and big corporations.

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  4. Movie Discovery Thursday, May 9, 2013

    Absolutely fascinating and mind opening.

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  5. I really like this concept, and think it needs to be advocated for as standard practice. I am getting really sick of ‘news’ organizations with agendas pushing those agendas over the truth. Having the full transcripts of all interviews would go a LONG way to countering that, and hopefully let everyone realize that the narrative that they are being sold is just infotainment and is often the product of the journalist than news. I also think it would go a long way to humanizing topics, and opening up the nuance that seems to be routinely stripped out of journalistic coverage of most topics… At least from specific news outlets. Some still do a good job, obviously… It seems that increasingly as ad revenues dry up though sites are going for big headlines and page views over honesty.

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  6. In theory, I like the idea. And, in practice on many stories fairly easily doable – I’ve posted recordings before.

    But I can see legal issues in some cases – like on investigative pieces. Questioning of key figures in those cases can be quite wide-ranging, with items brought up that, if published outside of that conversation, might be actionable. But as a reporter you use them to poke and probe to dislodge the stuff you need.

    So if that source demands an “open” interview, then what? Do it and restrict questioning or don’t do it and then risk liability? It’s going to make for many interesting discussions.

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  7. I don’t think full interviews being available is often an improvement to a media product. I bet that the number of people who will access a full interview if it is just on video or just on audio will be small. And with a searchable transcript, it might be a few more. But giving readers and viewers clips, and making some judgments about what is interesting or relevant is the job of the interviewee cooperating with the interviewer. It is frequently mind numbing to sit through a 20 or 30 minute audio. For those all too frequent boring interviews, the reporter should be congratulated on finding the interesting nugget or the bon mot.

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  8. 小林恭子 Friday, May 10, 2013

    What an interesting trend, though I have been doing this for years now (at least about 10 years) since I started my blog on British media in Japanese http://ukmedia.exblog.jp/ in 2004—I’m a Japanese journalist living in London. One of the main reasons for starting the blog was that there were so many things I picked up during the process of writing articles but I could not include everything in the stories. As I do the writing for the public (I view journalism as a public service) as well as supporting my life as a journalist, I thought it would be unfair that it is only me who holds a vast amount of unused materials. So, I stared running the transcripts of the interviews. People do say a lot of interesting things and they would have never met the sunshine unless I put them out there. As it would take quite a time to produce the transcripts, I do this occasionally, actually. Just yesterday, I introduced all the comments I received for my recent story http://www.ejc.net/magazine/article/japans_fallen_it_hero_a_comeback_kid_to_start_a_new_storm_in_the_media/v carried in the European Journalism Centre.

    I hope to release the audio of my interviews in the future.

    But I don’t know if I make open the videos—–I haven’t conducted video interviews very much so far.

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  9. 小林恭子 Friday, May 10, 2013

    (I haven’t left my name in English in the above comment)–Ginko Kobayashi.

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