In Lessons 4 and 5 of my Write for Magazines e-course, I have students find sources and set and conduct interviews.
I know this can be scary for newer writers — and I know it because a few of them always end up setting e-mail interviews so they don’t have to face the source by phone.
Some writers will argue that e-mail interviews are fine. You ask questions, the source answers them. Done! E-mail interviews also have the advantage of giving the source a chance to really think about her answers, these writers say. And what if your source is overseas?
But unless you really, really can’t get a key source to agree to an interview any other way, I advise against doing e-mail interviews. (And the operative word here is “key” — if the source isn’t absolutely essential to your article, you can find someone who is willing to talk on the phone.) Here’s why.
1. You get canned answers. The benefit of phone (or in-person) interviews is that you see the source as he really is and get unfiltered answers to your questions. Sometimes, the answers to questions you didn’t ask make the best quotes. But with an e-mail interview, you’re basically giving the source permission to spin his own answers — and you often end up with canned, sanitized corporate-speak, which makes for terrible quotes. Not good.
2. You waste time. Writers often think they’ll save time by shooting off their questions and just sitting back and waiting for the answers. But the benefit of phone interviews is that if questions that aren’t on your list come up as you do the interview — which they will — you can just ask them right then. With an e-mail interview, you have to e-mail the source each time a new question comes up, and wait for the source to reply to each one — resulting in a time-consuming back-and-forth that’s less likely to get all your questions answered.
3. E-mail interviews are easy to put off. I used to do e-mail interviews occasionally before I wised up, and one major drawback is that sources don’t treat them as seriously as phone interviews. With a phone interview, you set a date and time and (usually) the source is there when you call. With an e-mail interview, you send your questions and even if you give a deadline for responses, chances are you’ll get the answers back only after days of nudging the source — which means you risk rushing at the last minute or even missing your deadline.
4. Many editors don’t like them. If you actually ask your editor whether she’ll accept an e-mail interview, she’ll probably agree to one only if it’s a key source and he refuses to speak on the phone. And don’t think you can just adopt a “don’t ask don’t tell” policy: Technically, when you quote from an e-mail interview you’re supposed to append the quote with “said Jones in an e-mail interview.” You got it — if you do it right, you’ll be outed as someone too lazy to do proper reporting.
5. There are no excuses. “What if my source is overseas?” you may ask. To that I say, there are many ways around this. For example, Skype is often an option; I interviewed someone in Taiwan via Skype just last week. If the source doesn’t have Skype, you can ask the editor if the publication will cover phone expenses, so you don’t have to shell out for an international call. And if all else fails: Consider it a cost of doing business and deduct the expenAdd a Comment