E-mail thread between Barb Palser and Sheila Lennon  | American Journalism Review
From AJR,   January/February 2003

E-mail thread between Barb Palser and Sheila Lennon   

Nov. 26 and Nov. 28, 2002

By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (bpalser@gmail.com), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.     


Barb Palser: I'd like to explore the implications for journalism (philosophy and practice) of interviews being published by parties other than the interviewer/news organization.

Sheila Lennon: I think like an online editor -- what other elements can we bring to this story that will flesh out the narrative?

The reporter creates the backbone of the report, mulching all the facts into a story people will want to read. Then you throw up links to the rest of the photos, the interviews, the principals' websites -- primary sources, for those interested in a fuller report.

This is also what a good news blog does.

Conversations are two-way. The idea that only one party to the conversation can publish it was literally true, before the Web. But we can all own a press now.

My statements to David Gallagher, the author of the Times journalist-bloggers story, were public of course, thought-out and intended for publication. And I'm a blogger, experimenting with a form at whose core is the author's view of "reality with links."

David is also a blogger (lightningfield.com). When I asked him if he'd mind if I posted his emailed response to my publishing the transcript, he wrote, "Blog away!"

Not every traditional reporter will feel this way, but I don't think supplying a transcript undercuts the writer at all. A good story is more than the sum of the parts -- it engages the readers enough that it stays with them, even starts a buzz. There's plenty of room there.

Getting it all out there for the reader to see is what we do as journalists. Bring on the sidebars, and we'll link to them -- the mobster's taped interview, the chef's overlong ode to mushrooms, the private obit that doesn't describe a saint. We'll shine a spotlight on a topic and let the reader decide how much of it's worth reading.

I'm so used to working this way on the Web that when I read a roundup story in the paper these days -- 3 new CDs, 3 people running for state rep, 4 bloggers -- it often seems to me to need links. This was the promise of hypertext: The net offers an unlimited news hole, with audio and video and everybody else's offerings to boot.

The Web is a terrific editor's medium. Web-savvy copy editors -- curious, widely informed on a lot of topics, interested in "the whole package" -- are natural bloggers and could, when we're all finally wired, shift quickly from making news pages to hunting down the best related links.

Newspapers may by then look like portals -- full of briefs, a single sheet with links to the rest of the story on the Web, hard-copy promos for the website.

Palser: The case for offering interview transcripts online is strong, as you've explained. I'm also wondering how this practice (whether the news organization or interviewee is the publisher) might influence the way reporters approach interviews and related correspondence. Is it a reason to choose e-mail interviews over phone interviews, or vice versa?

Lennon: I like email interviews because I'm a writer, and I'm interested in the process of exchanging ideas. An interview is likely to have more substance, and be a better read, if I have time to consider the questions, follow the trains of thought they kick off, and say something I've never thought before, rather than the first thing that pops into my head.

What's off the top of my head sometimes is the answer, but some questions are fun because they break new ground for me and I see something new.

But if you want to know my reaction to winning the Powerball jackpot, use the phone!)

Palser: Should I be writing as though this conversation might be published somewhere?

Lennon: It probably already is in a government database somewhere.

On the net, people know online discussions are public, but they let 'er rip anyway.

"Threads" are intrinsic to the software, intended to encourage public discussion. It's no big deal.

The idea that one of us will excerpt our conversation and the other is the passive subject favors the novelist -- who crafts an interesting tale from overheard fragments -- rather than the historian, who wants to see all the pieces. As journalism ages, it turns into history. Might as well frontload it with all the stuff that might come out later anyway.

But what first popped into my head with this question was my mom paraphrasing Emily Post, "Never write a letter that you would be ashamed to see published in a newspaper with your name on it." (Emily's here, in a totally different context: http://www.bartleby.com/95/28.html, line 63)

The ideas will be published in some form somewhere, but -- to answer the indirect question -- I'm not planning to publish this conversation.

Palser: Of course the format is an old standard - but the reality of citizen publishers adds a new dimension since the journalist no longer decides whether an interview is published.

Lennon: That's the egalitarian nature of the web.

That journalistic prerogative came with exclusive access to the publishing technology, and, on a practical levely, there's seldom room in the paper to print an entire interview.

And... I'm hearing vintage Howard Rheingold: "A million small computers, linked by ordinary telephone lines, can suddenly wield formidable computing power that is extremely hard to control in a rigidly hierarchical, centralized manner."

Traditional reporters who think of the web as just another way to publish the same story they'd write for print are the ones most likely to be rattled by the source putting up the conversation. Online journalists are more likely understand the freewheeling nature of the web -- the synergy that comes when their story stands on its own, and the source's transcript sends more people to the reporter's story.

I was pleased that Dan Gillmor (S.J. Mercury News), for example, in his interview with the Slashdot folks, said, "I'm encouraged by the Web's growing influence in journalism criticism, and not just in traditional ways. I think it's great, for example, that people who are interviewed are posting transcripts of the interviews on their websites, to provide context for how they've been quoted."

This takes me back to the two-way conversation -- who owns it? We both do. But a formal interview is different from conversational email. I wouldn't publish private email.

Palser: (I'll admit that's a bit dramatic, as the average interviewee doesn't have a well-trafficked blog set up for the purpose.)

Lennon: Traffic builds, people find your blog because somebody else likes what you said and links to it.

If it's interesting, it doesn't matter who wrote it. The meme will spread. That cat's out of the bag.

Palser: Is it a reason to be more self-conscious of what is said?

Lennon: Self-conscious is always good when you're on the record with a reporter!

Palser: What are the ethics of editing interviews for publication?

Lennon: Everybody knows of somebody who made a joke, or worse, as an interview ended and that's the only thing got in the paper.

So it's good that the web lets everybody get their story out.

If it's interesting to the reader, it becomes a sidebar that amplifies the main story, it doesn't diminish it.

Palser: Oh, a practical question: For how long have you published your blog?

Lennon: I have two blogs: Subterranean Homepage News at the projo began March 20, 2002. The Reader at lennon2.com began on my birthday, July 3, 2002.

One final thing: I work in a newsroom, but I've been deeply involved in online discussions for 12 years now. I feel native to this medium, and publishing that NYT transcript came from that side of me, not the one that can type the "official voice" in my sleep. I think it's healthy for journalism to see what its real function and value is in a rich publishing medium, and consequently to go there.

Having the only press in town isn't what protects the franchise. The watchdog function, shining a spotlight on things that some would prefer stay hidden, using our muscle in pursuit the truth, and not being attached to how the chips fall -- these have value, no matter how many others are chattering.

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