Neuron Culture

Chris Anderson, editor of Wired and author of The Long Tail, recently raised some juicy issues about bringing a Media 2.0 sort of transparency to a Media 1.0 (okay, Media 1.4) “traditional” magazine like Wired. His proposals address questions that I, as a writer mainly in 1.0 venues like print magazines and books, have been mulling over in a back-of-the-head sort of way.

(My long recent silence on this blog, for instance, while due mainly to being far too busy, rose also from my ambivalence about what makes a worthwhile blog post (more on that some other time) and a slight unease with writing and posting something that I haven’t heavily researched, developed through several structural and stylistic permutations, and then drafted and redrafted many, many times. It helps to think of writing a blog as writing a letter. But that hits a bump when you realize the letter could be read by pretty much anybody.)

But I digress. (And with great labor restrain myself from yanking the digression.) I meant to write here about the vague discomfort I feel, as a writer and journalist, with some of the implications of Anderson’s argument for more transparency in the making of long magazine pieces.

Some of the unease rises from concerns that might seem vain or proud: I like to think that in many casees I really AM more qualified than others to write about a given subject and (more to the point) that doing a ton of research on a subject — reading hundreds of pages and talking to highly informed and involved people —gives me a deeper and more nuanced view of a subject that gives the resulting story a certain priority in placement and attention. Indeed, that’s precisely what publishing is all about. (Yes, it’s also about power and hoarding information that can then be packaged and sold, yada yada. I’ll raise my hand and confess I’m almost certainly unwittingly doing all those things — but then, so does a farmer or carpenter or plumber.) But it’s also quite legitimately — and most proximately and mainly and primarily, all that — about covering an interesting subject by finding a person skilled at finding and illuminating a subject’s most interesting and relevant parts. To treat the offerings of such a person the same as those of reader-commenters …. well, you tell me whether that makes sense.

I realize this is unsatisfyingly general. So let’s consider a specific thing that makes me uneasy: Anderson’s proposal to post interview transcripts online as soon as they’re transcribed.

This could pose some stunning problems; I’ll touch on just a couple that leapt to my forebrain.

1. To start with, posting raw interview transcripts ignores the vast gulf between what the reader can accurately understand from the interview and what the interviewer can accurately understand or reconstruct from the transcrip. Transcribed interviews read awfully roughly. Lots of ums and ungrammamtical sentences and sentence fragments. Lots of digressions, side comments, and stupid failed wisecracks. All that clutter of broken strings and floating parrticles makes little sense if encountered on paper by a reader who wasn’t present but makes complete sense (well, nearly complete sense) to the person who was there in the conversation. People say things several times — sometimes at the behest of the interviewer — in an attempt to get the phrasing right. They say things in the same conversation that — because of the vast imperfection of most people’s spoken phrasing — on paper look to be contradictory or unrelated. In short, a transcript presents all sorts of ambiguities and contradictions that make it highly likely to be profoundly misunderstood. And you want to publish this? I think not. You could, of course, clean it up, have the writer edit it so the “real” conversation comes through. But now you’re going down the Media 1.0 road — you’ve shifted into reverse, I suppose — and are controlling the material and its interpretation and so on …. which maybe isn’t so bad after all.

2. Another problem with publishing a transcript is that it can make even the best-informed and most articulate writer look dumb (falsely, I swear!), which can then create a skepticism about the writer’s knowledge of the subject that’s unjustified, which in turn will falsely stain the integrity of the article the draws on the transcript, which does no one any good. (I realize the is the flip side of another dynamic, the way that a bad story can be given a false credibility by appearing in print, especially in more prestigious outlets. But still. I hope we can agree that impressions taken from the messiness of a work’s creation should not discolor our reception of the work itself.)

So back to looking stupid. Transcripts — believe me — often make the writer/interviewer look stupid. But seeming stupid in an interview can be either a sign of a good thing or actually BE a good thing.

Let me explain.

I know that when I interview, I often ask ignorant questions. Sometimes I ask a ignorant question because, despite having read all the relevant stuff etc., I’m pushing, when I interview someone, into territory that is new to either me or to all but a few people or even to the person I’m interviewing. Finding out something new is (along with getting cool quotes) the point of the interview, right? And when you’re asking about complex subjects (why write about anything else?) you’ll ask some simple-minded questions. Ask enough questions about how depression or memory or roller coasters or violins really work, for instance, and — count on it — you’ll sound stupid sometimes. The good news is you’ll be smarter after you get the answer. Again, that’s the point: asking questions, some of them dumb, is part of how you come to know the subject. But at the time you ask them, you’ll often look dumb even at the time, and you’ll look even dumber on paper. And the reader reading this online is going to forget, utterly, that the writer asking the dumb question is not the same writer who sat down days or weeks later, considered the answers to his dumb questions in light of many other things he has learned, and wrote a story from a place vastly more informed than the one he sat in when he asked his dumb questions. Reader who reads the transcript 5 weeks before the writer even writes the story isn’t going to think of that. He’s just going to think, Christ that’s a dumb question. Why the fuck I wanna read this guy’s article? So even if he reads it, he starts it thinking what a dummy the writer is. Great!

Other ways a transcript makes you look dumb: Sometimes a question that seems out of nowhere on paper actually rises from intangible (i.e., untranscribable) things going on in a conversation. Such questions — quick darts down briefly glimpsed side paths, quick peeks into closets you’re passing by — sometimes reveal things highly interesting — sometimes you find there the treasure of the whole interview … but other times they go nowhere and look stupid. I don’t see any reason the latter should reach the reader.

Finally, sometimes a journalist asks questions meant to seem ignorant, naive, or simple-minded. I once read that John McPhee, for instance, sometimes struck his interview subjects as rather diim because he would ask lots of simple, obvious, basic questions, the kind to which answers are readily available; and he would also ask questions that he asked 10 minutes or two hours or two days or two weeks before. Read McPhee’s’ stuff and you see the results: He gets wonderful long explanatory quotes and explanations. McPhee is also (so I read) fond of yet another dumb-journalist tactic, that of staying silent when your interview subject “finishes” his or her first, usually routine answer. You ask a simple question; you get the simple, routine answer that the person usually give journalists or casual inquirers; and then you say nothing. You sit there looking pleasantly expectant, tempting the conclusion that you’re so dumb you still don’t understand — and the subject, now animated by a certain new energy that is partly pique at your ignorance, goes on to give a longer, deeper answer that will take you new places.

Any of these dumb-writer techniques might get you the best, most deeply interesting and thoughtful answers (just as, at other times, elevating the questioning will). But they don’t ALWAYS get you good answers. Sometimes they get bad answers, or sometimes the person actually expresses pique at your dimness, and you look dumb. That gets put online weeks before your story runs, it will needlessly and inaccurately stain the integrity of the final product, as described above. (We won’t even touch the possibly more critical issue of how publishing transcripts of a story in progress could undermine your ability to get straight answers from people you’ve yet to interview.)

I actually like a lot of what Anderson is suggesting. (I love his take on journalistic conflict-of-interest, for instance, and his declaration that for him, having a friend at a company or organization is far more likely to shape his opinion than taking a speaking fee from that organization — yet standard journalist conflict-of-interest practices require revealing only monetary and not friendship connections.) But showing a story’s background material to all readers risks losing to the messiness of the collection process the real beauty of deep, considered reporting and writing — the writer’s identification and shaping of a story’s most essential or interesting aspects.

I find it clarifying to think more privately here. Say you’re writing to your lover the most important letter of your relationship — you’re at some crucial turning point, and it’s vital first that you yourself understand exactly what you want to say and vital as well that you communicate that to your lover with maximum clarity. Do you want her to see the rough drafts? You want to show her transcripts of the conversations you have with yourself in your head? Methinks not.

There’s much, much, much to be said for opening up information to the world via the web. But there’s an awful lot to be said for — and to reserve magazines and online equivalents for — works that rise from private rumination over information carefully excavated, slowly, quietly considered, and finally transformed through the unique creative act that is writing at its best.

I better go now. I’ve got to write some ugly rough drafts, decipher and harvest some transcripts, and write some story proposals (including one to Chris Anderson).

The Long Tail: What would radical transparency mean for Wired? (Part 2): “”

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  1. #1 Christopher
    December 25, 2006

    I agree with your concerns here. I think that this approach really diminishes the role of the journalist in our democracy. It’s another example of a move toward minimizing the influence of professionals at a time when professionals are most necessary. The techniques learned in training and while on the job give the journalist the greatest ability to ensure that the reader/listener gets the truth. Certainly there are bad journalists and this transparency seems like a good idea when applied to them. I’d rather, however, do my own homework and develop trust with a good journalist and shun those who have misrepresented the truth. To do otherwise seems to me to be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I want don’t want to see the paint, I want to see the art.

  2. #2 Scott Belyea
    December 27, 2006

    I agree with just about everything that’s been said. The comparison that sprang to mind was that I don’t want the chef to send along a plate containing the carrot tops and bits of gristle.

    I also believe that both the influence and the “goodness” of the so-called “blogosphere” are overstated. Having a process broader than just the writer and which involves selection and editing certainly has disadvantages, but the benefits tend to be ignored.

    And I agree with the responsibility of the reader as mentioned by Christopher. I don’t think that has changed.

  3. #3 Chris Saad
    January 4, 2007

    Hi David – sorry but I respectfully disagree with some of the things youre saying. I have written a reply post here:

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