A few weeks back, there was a raging debate among journalists and bloggers about the “death of the interview.” A number of pundits weighed in on the pros and cons of phoners, in-person interviews, and e-mail interviews. For reference, see Stepno, Jarvis, Gillmor, Winer, Rosen, and Glaser. I commented somewhere that I thought the IM interview was a good compromise for a number of reasons: #
- It’s synchronous – you are chatting “live” with the interview subject.
- It allows for follow-up questions – if the subject says something you find interesting, you can ask a follow-up question without having to resort to another round of e-mails.
- It allows people to respond extemporaneously, but also to think about their answers. I’m not aiming for the Mike Wallace confrontational school of journalism here. I want people to give their honest opinions as clearly and as meaningfully as they can. IM allows them to do so, and yet also requires some quick thinking, so that it’s not totally canned (like e-mail).
- It’s transcribed – The software I use (Adium for Mac) provides a transcript of the interview so everyone knows what was said.
- It’s readable – unlike a video or audio interview, web readers can “scan” the IM interview transcript to find what they want. Despite the great uses of video and audio, sometimes text is the best method.
Since we began working on this new media project (even back in the reinventing college media days), I made a conscious choice to use the IM interview and post the interviews in as “unfiltered” a format as possible. I think it provides a level of transparency and also gives the interview subjects a broader path to provide their insights. Sure, I could have written “stories” about what these people said, but what better way to get a sense of their view than to let their voices come out in response to the questions asked. While we’ve used video interviews and podcast interviews, I’ve never regretted the choice to focus mainly on the IM Q&A format. #
So, with that as a backdrop, here are a few pointers about IM Q&A’s I’ve learned along the way: #
- Always lay out the ground rules before you begin the interview. IM is a funny beast. Sometimes, it can get pretty hectic when two people are chatting and “step on” each other while they’re chatting. In an IM interview, I always set it up so that I ask a question and then the interview subject answers, and only ask another question when they are finished answering. This is a version of what I type into the IM client any time I conduct an IM interview: “I ask a question, and you answer as much as you like. When you’re finished answering, just put this symbol ### at the end and I’ll ask another question. Anything in (parenthesis) is “off the record” side chat. okay?” I will also sometimes mention that if a subject wants to use several IM messages for a long response, they should end the first response with ellipses (…) to signal that they are continuing their thought.
- Allow plenty of time for an interview. First, e-mail the subject and set up a time when you’ll both be available. People who are IM’ing often come up with great responses to questions (responses you might not get by phone), but it takes time to type those responses. Also, they are self-editing while they type. Keep that in mind and don’t schedule 30 minutes for an IM interview that’s going to hit on several topics
- Prepare for glitches. Internet access can wax and wane. People can get cut-off from their IM client. If that happens, keep trying. Eventually, you might have to resort to a workaround. It’s the nature of the Internet.
- Edit judiciously. I always leave out the instructional part of the IM chat (the stuff I mentioned above), and also any closing remarks like “thanks for taking the time.” I edit out any side chat (like when I mention that I have one or two questions left, or if the subject says they got a phone call). I also try to edit out any grammatical mistakes in the transcript (although that’s sometimes a challenge). Chat transcripts usually have time stamps and e-mail addresses, so those have to be cleaned up as well. And GTalk transcripts that are copied out of Gmail tend to have weird coding in them when pasted into WordPress. For the interview with Will Sullivan, I had to paste the copy into TextEdit so that it would appear as plain text before pasting it into the WordPress screen, and even then, I had some glitches.
- Pick your subjects/topics – IM interviews aren’t good if you’re just looking to get information about one topic from the police chief, for instance. That’s my sense. They are good, however, for delving into complex topics in some detail with a notable person. As I mentioned above, we’ve used video and audio for interviews here, and in some instances, the results have been better than they would have in an IM format. But the Q&A IM should be considered as an option when you’re looking for depth and you have the space to ask deeper questions.
- Aim high. I’ve been amazed at the people I’ve been able to interview with this format – people like Len Witt (site), Howard Owens (site), Mindy McAdams (site), Rob Curley (site), Will Sullivan (site), Ryan Sholin (site) and others. And they have always been willing to do so. If your beat allows it, find out who you can interview using the IM format. You might be surprised.