As a journalist, its pretty common to be conducting interviews on a daily  basis and I’ve done hundreds in my career, but interviewing Chad Whitacre was unique.

I discovered the founder of Gittip when I clicked through on a link posted to Twitter by Mathew Ingram. Whitacre had posted a blog to Medium, explaining how he’d turned down an interview with TechCrunch because the journalist would not agree to let him live stream the interview using Google Hangouts and then post it to Youtube. As Whitacre notes in his blog, for a startup to reject an interview with TechCrunch, a very popular blog that is known for its breaking coverage of startups, is a risky move. But Whitacre explains that openness and transparency are core values for him and by extension, for Gittip. After all, his platform encourages gift-giving in the form of cash in between strangers.

My first reaction was that I could do the interview. I personally see no problem with live streaming the interview on Google Hangouts and here was an opportunity to get a story about a startup that people were talking about. I e-mailed Whitacre right away (thanks to his spirit of openness, his e-mail was easy to find) and a short time later, the interview was arranged.

Whitacre tweeted that I was the first journalist to take him up on his offer. He shared the link to watch the stream and I retweeted it as well. The interview got at least a bit of traction on Twitter. Although there’s no way to know how many people watched it, several people tweeted about it and someone shared it to a forum frequented by programmers. (Most of Gittip’s current users are Python programmers).
Convinced that almost no one was really watching the stream, I didn’t feel too self conscious during the interview and I thought it was a good exchange with Whitacre. Going back and watching the video now, I can see that its pretty terrible content for someone to actually watch. The first several minutes consist of Whitacre talking to himself and drumming on his desk while waiting for me, then me trying to boost my microphone volume so he could hear me properly.

Other journalists on Twitter were having a conversation about the merits and detriments of Whitacre’s request for an open interview, in a discussion being facilitated by Ingram. Basically, there were several reasons put forward by journalists as to why an open interview would be a bad deal for the media:
  • Getting scooped. Another journalist could watch your live stream video and write a story based on your interview. No one did this with my story, although one other writer on Twitter joked that he would do this for my interview. I replied by saying that he would be doing me a favour. Web publishers often see their content get scraped and reposted on other places on the Web wholesale, so I consider another journalist writing a story based on my video interview to be the least of my worries. In fact, it could even benefit me if another writer linked back to my video interview on my site.

  • Stage fright. Some journalists said they wouldn’t want to be seen interviewing a source because they don’t always come off looking great. You might ask a dumb question, or make a mistake, or stumble in your words. Perhaps in the print journalism era you could hide behind your published word. But on the Web, journalists are public personalities and should be finding ways to engage their audience beyond simple text – with video for example.
  • No one wants this. Counter to the “stage fright” argument is one that puts forward no one will sit down and watch a raw, 30-minute video interview recorded via Google Hangouts. I actually agree with this one more than others, I doubt the content will be that popular considering the attention span of Web users I see demonstrated in analytics. But recording the interview on Google Hangouts and then embedding it in my story was nearly effortless, so I don’t see the harm in it. If I was required to do more work to get it embedded, I might not bother.

Plus, journalists should consider the potential benefit of having a public record of their interviews – it makes potential conflicts or law suits less likely when the evidence of the conversation is available for all to see. Sometimes interview subjects ask to see what quotes they will have published before an article goes live (the answer is no), but having the entire interview posted online would render this request pointless.

I should point out that my doing the open video interview didn’t stop Ingram from doing his own later in the day. It also got a lot of traction on Twitter (not surprising consider Ingram’s impressive 45,000+ followers) and made for a great blog post by Ingram. Ingram’s article took a different angle from mine, arguing that media must adapt to a more open methodology or else be trumped by source’s ability to just go direct to the audience thanks to Web services. Ingram’s interview was also live-tweeted by Fast Company writer Gabe Stein, who said he wanted to make both Ingram and Whitacre self-conscious of being watched.

Stein co-writes an article with Ciara Byrne about this whole ordeal that brings up many other good points about how an open interview changes the game for journalists and their subjects. He also asks if I’d want to “have back” an exchange with Whitacre where I joke that another writer could just watch the interview and write the story for me. I was comfortable with my comments as a light-hearted way to ponder the different possibilities of an open interview.
Having this experience with Whitacre, I feel like the open interview is worth exploring some more. Certainly not every interview I do would make sense to approach in this way, but I think sometimes it would add value to the story. What do you think, would you like to see more open interviews on ITBusiness.ca?
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