Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Questioning the Email Interview

It was one of the first things I ever learned in journalism school: When preparing for an interview, you should never come with more than three or four core questions to ask as your baseline. All other questions you raise over the course of the interview should arise naturally from the discussion, responding to whatever it is that your subject has said. This advice made instant sense to me. Maybe it was because I had already been practicing some journalism on my hometown newspaper before I arrived on campus as a wet-eared undergrad, but I already had a sense that the best interviews were ones conducted like a conversation of discovery, with the journalist letting the discussion steer the interview, diving in with reactive follow-ups whenever possible and lots of thinking on his or her feet.

So I guess something in me bristles a bit whenever I see the increasingly prevalent “this interview was conducted by email” that prefaces so many author interviews. I have never conducted an interview by email, and have only ever participated in one, and with much reluctance. (I held my nose and did it anyway; my novel and I needed the publicity.) But my instinctive reaction to email-based interviews is to see them as lazy journalism. After all, how much thought or skill does it take to cobble together four or five (or 10, or 12, or 20) questions and fire them off to an author via email, have the author write his or her answers out for you and email them back? E-mail interviews are an easy way for literary journalists to get copy fast, but that doesn’t make them good interviews.

I do understand the arguments in favour of (or, at least, tolerance of) email interviews, especially for online articles. The journalist and the author, for example, may not live in the same city and email is just the most efficient way for the two to communicate. But even this doesn’t really hold water for me. There are plenty of electronic devices out there that allow you to record telephone interviews; and even if you can’t afford those devices or long-distance charges to another city, there’s still Skype (free to download off the web) and various add-ons that allow you to record the conversation.

Then there’s all that pesky transcription. It’s true: depending on how fast you type, transcribing an interview might take as much as one hour for every minute of tape. It’s incredibly boring and repetitive and no journalist enjoys doing it. But careful transcription is the price you pay for conducting a thoughtful, nuanced interview in person; it’s part of how you earn your byline.

There are other drawbacks to the email interview. It provides the author time to “spin” his or her responses to your questions, to mull them over, polish them up and make them reflect the image he or she wants to present to your audience. This may make for cleaner copy to read, but it certainly isn’t an honest act of journalism. Interviewing a writer shouldn’t be any different than interviewing a police chief, a lawyer or a PR flak. You don’t necessarily want them to have time to practice their responses, and by sending them the questions in advance you essentially allow them to do just that. Impromptu questions – and a real discussion – will do a much better job of capturing insights about the author and his or her work, which is what you owe to your audience.

An interview via email should only be a last resort for the journalist – i.e. when there are positively no other means to conduct the interview. And even then there is a way to do it properly. The journalist should act as if it were an actual in-person interview – sending only one or two questions at a time and responding to the answers that come back with deeper, more thoughtful questions. Jacob MacArthur Mooney did this to great effect when he recently interviewed fellow poet Susan Holbrook for The Torontoist’s books section . This is an example of an email interview done very well.

Of course, the biggest beef I have with email author interviews is this prevailing trend of what I’d call the “series interview” – i.e. online interviews that ask the exact same group of questions to a variety of authors. These types of smash-and-grab interviews are not only grossly offensive in the way they fail to engage with each individual writer’s work, but they also tend to focus on a writer’s creative process and personal history, and not much else. I’m a huge fan of Eleanor Wachtel’s radio show Writers and Company for the simple reason that every question she asks proves conclusively that she has read the author’s actual work closely, spent a serious amount of time thinking about that work, and has tailored her questions accordingly. The canned-question interview is the antithesis of this: homogenous, thoughtless, and infinitely repeatable - rather like a sausage factory. Wachtel really does set the benchmark for all author interviews. Any literary interviewer – no matter which medium he or she chooses to use – could learn a lot from her.


  1. This is really interesting-- thanks for this! And I am pleased to say that I've got a face-to-face author interview scheduled for this Friday! You're right-- the tone is so different from email interviews. Though I do come at the interviews with my questions formed. Partly because I'm not a journalist and I'm intimidated anyway, and probably won't be able to think of anythign to say otherwise, but also because I work really hard on my questions. I make a point of asking questions I genuinely want to know the answers to, that I can't anticipate the answers to, questions that the author has probably never been asked before. And unlike Eleanor Wachtel, I don't think my questions would be that good off the top of my head. Perhaps with practice, but there's miles to go before that.

  2. Interesting post, Mark. Honestly, I'm shocked that you've ever encountered anyone arguing in favour of email interviews. For me, and most other journalists I know, they're an absolute worst-case, last-resort, no-other-way-to-get-the-quote tactic only. It seems to me that the rise in email interviews may come because many of these interviewers (particularly online) aren't actually trained journalists, and have never been taught how to properly do an interview. In more than a decade of doing interviews, I've (grudgingly) done a total of two email interviews and I was unhappy with both of them. I just can't fathom why anyone would want to interview that way—the back and forth of a real interview is the most enjoyable part of the process.

  3. Later: This entry really did give me so much to think about. In my interview today, I used my questions as a guideline, but was brave enough to actually have a conversation, and I think the interview is better for it-- so thank you! Though I still think there is a place for email interviews-- perhaps they're less interesting, but in other ways they might be moreso. It's not necessarily a bad thing when respondants have time to think about their answers. It's just something different. Also, I agree there is something lazy about "canned question interviews", but they also have their place. It can be illuminating to read how differently the same question can be interpreted by different people.

    Anyway, I learned a lot from this. Thank you.

  4. Kerry: You're very welcome. I'm glad my piece was of some help to you. RR raised a good point when I was chatting with her about this. The canned email interviews aren't really interviews at all: they're more like a questionnaire given out to numerous participants, which in itself can have some value.

    Trev: Thanks for your comment. I remain deeply envious of your interviewing skills. You're one of the best I've ever known personally.

  5. Well, I can say that during all my years of magazine writing, not once did I interview by email. That's what telephones are for. You'll never get the flow of a conversation by email, not even if you ask questions one at a time, because the personal interaction is missing.

    But yer j-school is showing (pull yer pants up, man!) when you talk about not letting the subject spin his answers. Inherent in this is the notion that we've all got something to hide, that we don't want to tell the truth about ourselves. This matters to a news story, but I think when you extend it to something like an author interview, you run the risk of playing cheapo gotcha journalism with people.

    Is there a point, for example, in publishing an inarticulate response? I don't think so.

    The Paris Review interviews are wonderful, despite the fact that the subjects often rewrite their responses before publication.

  6. Andrew: Excellent points, all. I agree with you that there's no point in publishing an inarticulate comment (another j-school nugget: thanks!) especially when it involves an author interview. Having said that, there can be such a thing as a too-polished response. I actually think that the writers whom Wachtel interviews *appreciate* it when she catches them a little flat footed: that is, when one of her questions gives them pause, makes them think a bit more closely about their work or themselves. This kind of interaction would be hard to recreate in a polished email exchange. It isn't a "gotcha" moment so much as a moment where the authors need to dig a bit deeper into the motivations behind their work and come up with something more substantial than they'd give the average interview. And we, as the audience, are all the richer for it.

  7. I found this blog post interesting. I am a veteran reporter and recently (and reluctantly) had to interview a political candidate via e-mail. I wrote three questions, he responded to each. He then forwarded a copy of the e-mail with my questions and his answers to hundreds of people in an effort to preempt my article.

    I will never conduct an interview via e-mail again.

  8. Helen,

    I'm glad you liked the post. But yikes - that sucks about your article. Just goes to show that the fundamentals of journalism exist for a reason.

  9. I know there has been a lot of debate in regard to the pros and cons of using email as a form of interviewing. I use telephone and face-to-face as often as possible. In this instance, I couldn't reach the candidate after almost a week and he wasn't returning my calls, so email was my last ditch effort to get his comments. I wasn't going to hold the story any longer, but I really wanted him to have the opportunity to have his say.

    I was shocked when so many people started to call to ask why they had received the email. It went to judges, lawyers, politicians, residents and other members of the media.

    When initiating the email, I never gave thought to the fact that it could be so easily distributed to a hundreds of people.

    I felt violated, as if I had lost a notebook and someone found it and gave it to another media to publish.

    As reporters, we need to weigh the option of the risk of mass distribution prior to publication against not being able to reach someone via conventional means. If I had to do it over again, I would have simply stated that the candidate did not respond to numerous telephone messages left at his office and home.

    In all I have read about this debate, I've not seen what happened to me addressed anywhere.

    That's how I found your blog which I bookmarked and will now become a regular read!