Fred Vogelstein, a Wired magazine writer, set out to do a recent assignment — a profile of Silicon Valley blogger, Mike Arrington — in much the same manner he'd always begun such things: He planned to talk to the people central to the story, either in one-to-one interviews or over the phone. That's how the majority of journalists proceed.
But according to "The Technologist" column in the June 11 issue of Newsweek, "in this case, simply by making the request that newspaper and magazine scribes make thousands of times a day, Vogelstein found himself in the middle of a controversy that's challenging the utility, the accuracy and the very morality of the real-time interview."
The title of the piece, appropriately enough, was "When Bloggers Say No to a Simple Chat." First, its author, Steven Levy, sketched in exactly what happened when Vogelstein attempted to set up the interviews. "First, blog entrepreneur Jason Calacanis told him he would not speak to him, but answer questions only by e-mail, something Vogelstein wouldn't agree to. Then, blogging pioneer Dave Winer told him he would not be interviewed by phone. He suggested that Vogelstein e-mail questions that he would then answer publicly on his blog, a solution for which Vogelstein had even less enthusiasm."
None of these rejections should have given the reporter much pause; journalists don't always get what they ask for. But, according to Levy, "both Calacanis and Winer trumpeted their turndowns on their well-read blogs. Apparently they hit a nerve, because the issue redounded all over the blogosphere. The main subject of the story, Arrington, lamented on his blog that the Wired story was blown and would probably be killed. Soon no less than The Washington Post (the parent company of Newsweek) was using the case to examine the dynamics of the journalistic interview in the user-generated 21st century."
So what were the bloggers complaining about?
Calacanis wrote to Vogelstein: "I don't want someone taking half a sentence or paraphrasing me … Just too much risk." Calacanis and Winer both said they understand the "value" of a one-on-one interview. But in their experience they said that those kinds of conversations have been used to get "gotcha" quotes, which misrepresent a subject's point of view.
These complaints aren't newly minted, as Levy said. But the Internet has changed the equation. According to Levy, a live interview allows him, and apparently other reporters, "not only to follow up quickly but to sense the verbal cues that direct me to more fruitful topics. In e-mail, people talk at you; in conversation I can talk with subjects, and a casual remark can lead to a level of discussion that neither party anticipated from the beginning. I am more likely to learn from someone in a conversation than in an e-mail exchange, which simply does not allow for the serendipity, intensity and give-and-take of real-time interaction."