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Q&A Quid Pro Quo

The Q&A has long been a journalism staple. During my years as a magazine editor, I assigned more than a few of them myself. But it’s different now, for at least two reasons: the dominance of e-mail as a form of communication and the spike in online journalism. Not only is the Q&A more prevalent than ever, but it’s also got a very different DNA.Why? Because the modern e-mail Q&A is unvarnished. In the old days (that is, 5 years ago), a reporter would call a subject, ask maybe 30 questions, take notes or record the interview, and whittle the conversation into a heavily edited 5- or 10-question Q&A. It was not much different than writing an article, but it was an article presented in a different format. The reporter still shaped the piece from head to toe: the order of questions, the tone and length of the replies, the selected omissions and emphases, etc.

But now, subjects are often sent by e-mail a list of questions to which they can reply exactly as they wish and generally live to see their words appear unaltered. For the journalist, this makes for pretty easy work: you come up with 5 or 10 or 20 questions, send them by e-mail, wait for the results, maybe follow up a bit, and click the “publish” button. (A journalist can even subcontract this work to readers, asking them to submit the questions.) For the subject, it’s a lot more work — you’re essentially writing the journalist’s article for her — but on the other hand, you have control over what you say (or, in truth, you now have control over what readers will read that you said). It’s Q&A quid pro quo.

So here’s the big question: how does the reader make out? I would argue that readers are the big winners. They get more content that, for better or worse, actually reflects what the subject is thinking. Is this trend good for journalism? I think so, if it’s not overused. Some topics are well-suited for the Q&A format, and if a journalist can devote fewer resources to those topics and more to the kind of articles that take more time, digging, traveling, interviewing, analyzing, and writing, then maybe it’s win-win.

I got to thinking about this because we’ve been answering a lot of these Q&A’s ourselves lately, including a harrowing but ultimately fun live one for the Washington Post website. I wouldn’t force even my own relatives to look at all of these, but I’ll post a few recent ones here. (Note that the same journalist, Larry Getlen, drew assignments from both and, which strikes me as a legitimate mark of one man’s varied interests.)

Freakonomics Q&A’s in: The New York Times Magazine; The Washington Post;;