How to do online interviews?

Interviews are very underrated in the world of online media, and there’s a great potential for doing more of them. It’s a way to write if you don’t know what to write about. I think also there’s a good way to avoid the self-focus inherent in blogs. An additional person forces an additional perspective into the story. So I thought I’d ask to see what other people in online news are doing in this area.

There’s a couple I’ve enjoyed reading in the last several months: Rayne Today of Radio Free Blogistan interviewing Larisa Alexandrovna of Raw Story; Jay Rosen of NYU interviewing David Akin of Canada’s CTV. As Rosen has articulated, news is a conversation, not a lecture. So let’s get more conversations.

In April I sought an interview with Brian Keeler of ePluribusMedia to learn about his group’s approach to citizen’s journalism. Here’s the output. I thought I’d explain some of the behind-the-scenes to the interview:

I didn’t do it via audio. First of all, I don’t have the equipment set up. Secondly, audio interviews are very difficult to make others enjoy unless one of the voices has the timbre of Christopher Lydon or Lisa Mullins., both legends of public radio. Lastly, I didn’t want to have to transcribe it later. I have transcribed recorded interviews, and I don’t find it a good use of my time.

Thus I did it text. I wanted to do it live, so I used IM. Interviews by email are awfully convenient, but they can get long and off topic (multi-paragraphs dialogues, like those on Slate, and the Becker-Posner blog, are rather tedious to me). I wanted something that would be snappy and quick. But I gave him all the time he needed to answer questions. If he stopped, I’d ask if I could interject with another question– and most of these “stage directions” I cleaned up in the edited result.

In addition, we retain the “gotcha” aspect of live interviews. Granted, neither I nor the readers would be able to gauge the interviewee’s facial expressions or vocal command for tough questions. But for this type of interview, I didn’t expect to resort to that.

I wondered also how much time to split between myself and the interviewee. Brill’s Content used to track the amount of time interviewer Charlie Rose spent talking at the expense of his subject, suggesting that this was a a practice to be avoided. In a short phone conversation setting up the IM interview, Brian gave me a sense that it was a conversation of equals, and that he was willing to learn from me as well. So I obliged with a few questions which had a bit of introduction to them.

I thought up some questions ahead of time, but didn’t write them down. What I was really after was solving the problem about best practices for distributed research/journalism, and that was just a small part of the interview. He did get to griping about the mainstream media, and I did want to minimize that.

Lastly I wondered how valuable the interview would be to readers. I’ve been following Kent Bye’s work on the Echo Chamber Project, and he is following the tradition of PBS/Frontline in making all his interview material available online– the difference being that Kent is asking his distributed helpers to sort through the information in the interviews.

The whole transcript was ninety minutes, 2500 words (about ten pages), should I have pared it down? Perhaps. Nonetheless the discussion turned out coherent enough that I felt it was just fine to show the whole thing. I hope it’s an enjoyable read. And I’ll have to eventually pull together all the research on the best practices.

In the meanwhile, I was hoping to learn from others about the practice of conducting, and publishing, online interviews.