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Jun 27 / King Kaufman

Phone, email, face-to-face? Poynter explores interviewing methods

What’s your preferred method for interviewing someone? The choice used to be face-to-face or over the phone, but now we’ve got lots of additional options: email, instant message, Skype, texting, Facebook, Twitter.

Mallary Jean Tenore of talked to five journalists recently about their preferred method of interviewing.

The journalists—Lane DeGregory of the Tampa Bay Times, Joanna Smith of the Toronto Star, Jaweed Kaleem of the Huffington Post, Cindy Carcamo of the Orange County Register and Steve Fox, a multimedia lecturer at the University of Massachusetts—go over some of the strengths and weaknesses of the different formats.

DeGregory, for example, prefers to be in the room with her interview subject, where she can see body language and observe details she’d never dream to ask about on the phone or over email. Smith, on the other hand, finds it effective to interview political figures on the phone, where she says she’s able to get them to focus on the conversation.

Sometimes you have no choice. The person you need to interview is in the room, as in a locker room. Or he’s 3,000 miles away and only reachable by phone. Sometimes you go with what makes the interview subject most comfortable, because that’s likely to get you the best quotes.

But when it’s your call, what method do you choose?

  • Tim Coughlin

    Phone interviews cause a bit more anxiety before they begin, but they’re great for interviewing coaches in particular, and there are there some big advantages once they do begin.

    First and foremost, you can cradle your phone between your ear and shoulder and type right into your publication’s text editor (or Word) as the subject is talking. Boom. No transcribing work later on, and sometimes you can fuse some of your notes and quotes into the meat of your story while you’re winding down the call, depending on the subject. Also, when you’re a 20-something reporter, sometimes it’s easier to talk to older coaches when the age/experience disparity is not as apparent.

    I’ve also found coaches are better on the phone because, similar to what Smith said, they’re more focused. Plus they’ll often have some stats and observations from the most recent game, or for the season as a whole, that you might not get in a post-game interview.

    That said, you can obviously get better reaction about wins and losses right after a game ends, and being there is a huge advantage for a few other key reasons: (1) consolidating interviews, as you can talk to multiple players and coaches—from two teams—in short order and even benefit from questions other reporters are asking, (2) you’re guaranteed you can get who you need as long as you try, (3) players aren’t usually as good on the phone, especially the younger you go.

    All that said, when you only need one or two quoted sources and being at an event isn’t crucial, phone is the most efficient way to go.

    • King_Kaufman

      Great points, Tim, except for one thing:

      Use a headset! Don’t cradle the phone between your ear and shoulder! If you do this now, stop. You will thank me when you get to be as old as your …

      Uncle King

  • Chris Hummer

    I really do believe that the only right answer, if you really want the most of the interview, is in person.

    It’s the only way you can judge your subjects reactions and body language. In person it’s also much easier to break the ice and establish a quick rapport with the subject, which is how you get the interesting answers and quotes. Over the phone is always more awkward, even if you have talked in the past.

    • King_Kaufman

      It can’t be the only right answer, Chris. What if the person you need to interview is in Brazil and you’re in Omaha?

      • Chris Hummer

        Hey I never said it was always possible, I just said if you want the most out of the interview it’s best to do it in person.

        After all the question was if was “when it’s your call what method would you choose?”

        I do understand there are times when a phone interview is your only choose, I’ve done this plenty of times (even did a twitter interview once). But if you really want the most out of the story in person is the way to go.

  • Matt Saccaro

    All of my interviews have been done via phone since all of the people I’ve interviewed have been far away. I think I’d be even more nervous in person haha.

  • Alan Hainkel

    I prefer in person for a couple of reasons. 1) Gauging reactions to questions. 2) I HATE talking on the phone. I spent more than four years taking incoming phone service repair calls for a major carrier (landlines) and I got yelled at 40 hours/week for stuff that wasn’t my fault. And I left that job over three years ago.