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Archive for May 25th, 2007

Interview formats

Friday, May 25th, 2007

I’m a little behind in my RSS feeds this week, but I just came across this post over at MediaShift. Basically, it’s a run down of the most common interview formats and the strengths and weaknesses of each, as well as how each could improve.

I’d been following the debate that inspired the post, so this was a nice overview of where things stand.

Personally, I prefer face-to-face interviewing if I can swing it. First, I’m an observer; spending 10 minutes in a room can reveal so much more than half an hour on the phone. Second, I like to remind my sources I’m a person, not just a voice on the other end of the phone. That’s why I make a point of stopping by the principal’s offices when I’m in a school and knowing the names of the secretaries (who I talk to pretty frequently), even if it’s just to say “Hi, how are you doing?”

I also think you gain more credibility by actually being out there. I remember one time I was covering an event and this man came up to me and thanked me for being there, for actually getting out in the community to do my reporting not just letting a few phone calls suffice. It’s also a lot more fun for me to spend time outside the office observing and taking in the action and the atmosphere than to wait on returned phone calls. Plus, it’s harder to dodge a reporter who shows up at your office than it is to forget to return a call.

Other than that or if I just need a quick hit quote or basic information, I’ll turn to the phone. I like being able to think on my feet and react and respond immediately to the information I get. Sometimes, you go into it expecting one thing and the story turns half-way through. That’s a lot harder in an e-mail.

I am warming up a lot more to e-mail, though not at all as my primary interview method. I only use it to ask follow-up questions or to try and catch someone who hasn’t been returning my calls or who I can’t seem to catch on the phone. But I’ve been leaning on it a lot more now than in the past. You’d think being as tech-savvy as I am that I’d use it more, but it just feels really impersonal for most of the things I do.

The turning point I think in the benefit of e-mail as a information-gathering method for me was last month when I wanted to confirm some facts and ask a few follow-up questions for the story I wrote about amazing students being rejected by Ivy league schools. I e-mailed the main source and asked him maybe two follow-up questions. He replied and wrote me a long, thoughtful essay about what it was like for him to go through the process of applying to the elite colleges. I mean seriously introspective, way beyond what I’d been able to get from the interview I conducted with him at his school. I considered using a quote from it, but then I decided it should stand on its own. It told the story so much better than I could hope to, so I took the e-mail to my editor and asked to run it in its near 50-inch entirety online. We did.

Since then, I’ve been a bit more open to using it, especially in follow-ups.

I’m still not sure how I feel about IM interviews, though I think it has a lot to do with my beat. Education really isn’t something you can cover, not even poorly, by sitting at your desk. You really need to be out in the classrooms and at the schools. Probably (or at least) 90 percent of my sources don’t sit at a desk with a computer at it all day. So, this really wouldn’t work for me. However, I suppose I could try it with a few high school students. Perhaps one day I’ll try it. For now though, I’d rather meet them at the mall or after school.