This article was published on May 9, 2013

‘Open interviews’ with startups are a nice idea, but who would actually benefit from them?

‘Open interviews’ with startups are a nice idea, but who would actually benefit from them?
Martin SFP Bryant
Story by

Martin SFP Bryant


Martin SFP Bryant is the founder of UK startup newsletter PreSeed Now and technology and media consultancy Big Revolution. He was previously Martin SFP Bryant is the founder of UK startup newsletter PreSeed Now and technology and media consultancy Big Revolution. He was previously Editor-in-Chief at TNW.

Earlier this week, a post entitled Turning Down TechCrunch generated a heap of discussion around the Internet.

Here’s a quick recap in case you missed it all: startup founder Chad Whitacre asked a TechCrunch writer if he could livestream a call being planned in preparation for a possible future post and publish it on YouTube, the TechCrunch writer said no, the startup founder blogged about the conversation, other publications read it and agreed to ‘open interviews’ with the startup, much publicity was generated for said startup and much debate was had about whether ‘open interviews’ are a good idea or not.

Now, there’s definitely something to be said for the idea of open interviews. Openness is what society’s ideals are all about these days. Open source code, open government, open mapping, the list goes on. Why shouldn’t businesses be run as openly as possible? It’s a nice idea, I’ll give it that, but who would actually benefit from a more open interview process?

Journalism: An open process… or a performance?

158674793Maybe if all journalists woke up one day and decided to stop worry about being scooped by rivals and just tweeted about every story they were working on and every hot lead they received, the world would be a happier place and we’d all stop worrying about being first to break a story.  Of course, it’s not going to happen because a mixture of pride and economics means that an important part of many journalists’ modus operandi is being seen to be first and best to a story.

Still, that’s been chewed over plenty in some of the other coverage of this debate. There’s another perfectly reasonable explanation for why journalists (including me) might not be too keen on ‘open interviews’ becoming the norm – they redefine the product I’m producing.

Normally if I interview someone, I’m trying to get the facts and quotes together to tell an interesting story. It can be messy – a call designed to collect information for a written article is often pretty boring in and of itself, complete with what may seem like dumb, super-specific questions simply designed to ensure that the article that comes out of it is clear and accurate.

If that interview is livestreamed, suddenly it’s the raw interview that becomes the product, not the packaged, edited and spellchecked written story. The interview becomes more of a live ‘show’ than a fact-finding mission. Suddenly I’m having to think about my hair (is it sticking up like I just got out of bed?), what I’m wearing (if anything! I am a blogger after all), my turn of phrase (this isn’t just a call now, remember, this is in front of an audience so I’ll switch on my ‘broadcast voice’ and the whole thing will be very different as a result), the location in which I conduct the interview (is the background okay or does it pick up a messy bookshelf that makes my house look like a tip?). Normally in a private call those things don’t matter but in these cases, they really do.

Then there’s the fact that an open interview on its own doesn’t fully represent what journalists do. To be totally open, you’d share everything you write, as you write it, in real-time sharing your typos and as-yet unchecked facts with the world. Again, it’s a nice idea but I’m not convinced it will ever be more than an occasional experiment for most news organisations. We simply haven’t the time or capacity to handle performing every part of our job in public. Journalism as an open process? Journalism as a performance, more like.

How much would audiences benefit from open interviews?

Open sign on a windowI honestly believe that very few people really care about the process behind how a startup profile piece is written . If you want to record my interview with you so that you can call me out if I seriously misquote you or something, fine, but putting those interviews online as a matter of regular procedure is little more than a novelty that just creates more little-watched videos on YouTube – and the world has enough of those as it is.

I doubt that all the publications that have taken Whitacre up on open interviews following his article this week will embrace them as a regular part of their work, not because they’re scared of ‘pulling back the curtain’ on their processes but because there really wouldn’t be that much interest in most cases.

If I tweeted out: “Join me in this Google+ Hangout where I’ll be talking to someone about her startup. No idea if it will be any good or not, in fact it could be a really boring conversation,” I may get a few people click through and watch a bit of it, but nowhere near as many as the finished article based on that Hangout, where I take choice quotes from the interview and package it up into a few hundred words that (I hope) you’ll find interesting.

It’s not that I’m scared of my interview being out there (and I’ve occasionally published a few raw audio interviews along with writeups in the past), more that I see my job as being a filter – taking signals from email, social media, phone calls and wherever else they arise and packaging them into bitesize blog posts that you’ll hopefully want to read. Who really has time to sit and watch through a load of calls with startups anyway?

And the startups?

opensignCould a startup benefit from operating an open interview policy? The startup we’re discussing here clearly did in terms of generating publicity, and if you believe in the power of tech news brands, then other startups could well benefit too. A speculative call to discuss the possibility of coverage suddenly becomes ‘coverage’ itself, even if that interview doesn’t result in an actual article being written.

Just as startups covered by the tech press sometimes put text like “As featured by [insert tech blog names]” on their homepage, those who don’t make the cut but were speculatively interviewed for possible coverage could say “As interviewed by…” Again, it changes the product with which you’re associating the journalist and the publication from the article to the interview. Video interviews have their place, but unedited and out of context they’re often not that valuable.

Beyond that though, open interviews will in most cases be nothing more than an entry in a digital scrapbook telling the story of a startup – a nice memento for those involved but of limited interest to everyone else. A few may have some value later on (“Look at David Karp pitching a tech journo for the first time when no-one had heard of Tumblr!” might be interesting, for example) but that’s about it.

Yes, when it comes to the tech press, it may be that startups more than journalists and audiences have the most to benefit from open interviews, but even then the benefit is slim. It’s worth noting that Whitacre’s follow-up to his original article, Journalism in a Collaborative Society, comes across as sitting between wide-eyed naiveté and blatant self-promotion (“The world should work the way I want it to! Oh and journalists should use my product!”).

Openness as an ethos is a benefit to the world but let’s balance it against how much value it really generates.

Image credit: Thinkstock 

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