Open interviews and gatekeepers: The media can either open up or sources can go direct

Open sign

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.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5rb5qGsYat4?rel=0&w=640&h=360]

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

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