Dear WordCount is a weekly advice column answering your questions about writing, blogging and running a freelance business. Got a question? Ask me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I work full time and have young kids. I am trying to launch a freelance writing career and hope to write for local papers. Because of my family and work obligations, it is difficult for me to schedule interviews. Are telephone and email interviews acceptable sources for newspaper articles? If not, is it possible to have a successful freelance career without in person interviews? — E.R.
There is no right answer to your question about the best way to conduct interviews. It depends on the story you’re working on and the standards that the publication you’re writing it for have in place for conducting interviews.
Let’s look at the variables.
If you’re writing a story on school lunches for a local parenting magazine, you’ll be able to add the most detail if you visit a couple schools, look at the cafeterias and interview administrators, kids and lunchroom workers in person. Doing interviews in person is also efficient. You’ve got multiple sources in one place, which saves a lot of back and forth trying to set up phone interviews. All great.
But what if you want to put your local story into perspective? You might want to interview an expert on school lunch programs, or maybe even Jaime Oliver. Unless that expert lives in your town or Oliver happens to be visiting, it’s unlikely you’ll talk to them in person. For that, a phone interview would suffice. If Oliver’s PR staff says he doesn’t have time for a phone interview but he will answer a couple questions via email, you wouldn’t turn that down, and neither would your editor.
Say you’re working on a trend piece about school lunches across the country. Unless you’re writing it for a news outlet or magazine that’s paying your expenses to fly multiple places across the country, there’s no way you’ll be able to afford to interview every source in person. For that, phone interviews work best.
If you’re a travel writer, film critic, NBA beat writer or statehouse reporter, chances are you’ll do most interviews on the scene.
Otherwise, you’ll probably end up doing more phone interviews than anything else.
But what about email interviews?
Some publications have policies on whether their staff writers or freelancers can do email interviews. Some editors don’t want reporters or writers to do them — ever. Others are perfectly fine having writers conduct email interviews, depending on the subject matter and circumstances. I worked with one editor who was previously the page one editor at a major daily newspaper, and she had no problem with email interviews. In fact, she often recommended them, especially for quickie blog posts or if I was wrangling an interview with a VIP.
On the other hand, I know some writers who refuse to do email interviews on principle. One reason: it’s too hard to tell exactly who’s answering your questions. Is it the busy CEO or college president you’ve been pestering for a week, or his PR department?
Bottom line: if you have any question about the appropriateness of doing email interviews, ask.
Why in-person or phone interviews still matter
Having said that, if you’re just starting your freelance writing career, I’d highly recommend doing as many in-person, phone or Skype interviews as possible. Email is no substitute for the experience and knowledge you gain conducting interviews in person or on the phone. You pick up so much more than you could in an email interview: the intonation of their voice, whether they were happy, funny or mad when they said something. Plus, you can be spontaneous, asking follow up questions based on what the source is saying.
Ultimately, you need to decide what works for you. If you’re only making $25 or $50 for a 250- or 400-word story, you have to decide how much time you want to put into your research and reporting to get the material you need and make your preferred hourly rate. If an email interview cuts down on your reporting time, you might have to go that route.
But you still should check with your editor first.
Here are some other posts I’ve done on interviewing you might find helpful:
- Asking the hard questions: top 10 interview tips
- 12 insider interview tips from 2 accomplished writers
- 5 secrets of successful interviewers, or how to get sources to tell you anything
- Getting sources to talk: secrets from an ex-FBI profiler
Freelancers, what rules do you follow for conducting interviews?