Aspiring journalists, stop with the “email interviews”

Whenever I give journalism students assignments that require interviews, it’s inevitable that someone will ask whether email interviews are acceptable. And invariably, my responses are:

  1. In-person, Skype, Google Hangout or telephone interviews are preferable.
  2. A text chat is better than an email exchange.
  3. If email is the only option, call it an exchange, not an interview. An interview requires a conversation.

Aspiring journalists need to practice doing the real thing.

That last point is critical. Interviews are conversations between humans. Read Ken Metzlers’ classic, Creative Interviewing, and you will understand that proficient interviewing requires the development of research, affective and narrative skills that you develop over time and learn to apply under all kinds of constraints.  You don’t develop those skills by sending off canned questions and getting back canned answers.  While interviewing by email feels easier and safer, you need to practice taking the risk of asking people you don’t know to open up and share their knowledge and experiences. It’s uncomfortable, yes. It can be stressful, especially when you are on deadline, yes. But the only way to get good at it is to take the risk.

If you rely on email “interviews” usually won’t yield good content.

The email “interview” is also unlikely to the highest quality content, either. The best moments in interviews often emerge from digressions that don’t occur in an email exchange. Email interviews don’t allow follow-ups in real time. You don’t have the visual or aural that might tell you that your source might have more to say, or that you should proceed gently because you are treading on painful ground.

Besides, depending on who the interview subject is, you can’t be sure that your questions are being answered by a source. How do you know that the politician or executive you queried didn’t just fob your questions off on a PR staffer?

Some email “interviews” are really requests to co-author the piece with you.

If you send a series of questions that require a subject to write paragraphs in response that you then reproduce at length, who’s article is it?




Practical advice for journalism students

In every journalism class I teach, I have a session or two on some practical matters that fall under the heading, “Things I wish someone had told me when I was your age.” The tips often have to do with issues I have confronted on the job that weren’t part of the curriculum or management agenda when I started out in the early 1980s – how to deal with racial or sexual harassment, for example. Here are some notes on the advice I gave to my students in my undergraduate courses this semester that is particularly attuned to this moment:

As a discipline within the academy, and as a profession, journalism is an institution as well as an industry. At its best,  journalism has evolved norms, values and practices that are vital to a functioning democracy. It’s important that you understand these norms, values and practices and have your own informed positions on them. It’s also important that you develop a historical curiosity about these norms, values and practices, because these norms are being challenged. For example:

      1. Objectivity: Our tradition, at least for the last century, is that we strive to provide the best available version of the truth. As the American Press Institute puts it in their synopsis of The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know, and What the Public Should Expect  put it:

        This “journalistic truth” is a process that begins with the professional discipline of assembling and verifying facts. Then journalists try to convey a fair and reliable account of their meaning, subject to further investigation.

        Journalists should be as transparent as possible about sources and methods so audiences can make their own assessment of the information. Even in a world of expanding voices, “getting it right” is the foundation upon which everything else is built – context, interpretation, comment, criticism, analysis and debate. The larger truth, over time, emerges from this forum.

        In addition to transparency, your journalistic and personal practice should have built-in safeguards against confirmation bias. Be aware of your filter bubbles – the tendency to restrict yourself to  information that confirms your preconceptions. But more importantly, be aware of the implicit hypotheses in your reporting, and make a conscious effort to consider competing explanations for the data you find.  Think in terms of “researchable questions,” not foregone conclusions.

      2. Norms. The  Trump campaign and administration deals with the press in ways that are a distinct departure from the practices of previous presidential candidates and administrations. One reason for studying journalism history is so that you understand why these departures matter. Do a Google search for “Trump campaign journalism restriction” and you will see a slew of 2015-16 stories about ways in which the candidate and campaign kept journalists from obtaining the kinds of information and access routinely accorded during presidential campaigns. You will also see an analysis of how the Obama administration’s aggressiveness toward journalists working with leakers and whistleblowers gives Pres. Trump a precedent for targeting reporters trying to do legitimate watchdog reporting.One of the early skirmishes between the Trump administration and the national political press concerned access to  press briefings typically conducted by the President’s press secretary. In February, the administration reportedly blocked the New York Times, the BBC, the Los Angeles Times, Politico and The Guardian from a press “gaggle” – an off-camera press briefing.

        The White House move was roundly criticized – even by the conservative National Review. My point in bringing this up is that as journalists, you should understand why these norms matter. (Here’s a helpful backgrounder from the Boston Globe about how White House press briefings usually work. Similarly, you should understand what it means when the Senate Press Gallery denies credentials to Breitbart News because of its close ties to Administration officials, including former Breitbart CEO and current Trump senior adviser Steve Bannon. You ought to understand why those norms exist, why journalists think they matter, and why we expect you to uphold them.

      3. Mind your business. Once upon a time, say, back when I graduated college, you could count on getting a reporting or corporate communications job in a company that paid a salary with benefits. More often than not, that company had a mentoring program, and managers had incentives to develop talent. It wasn’t unusual for your employer to invest in your professional development, including graduate school. While you may still land in such a workplace, there’s a strong likelihood that your career will involve a string of freelance gigs. Some of these don’t pay well, while others can be quite lucrative. But what all of them will require is that you learn some fundamentals about managing a small business – from deciding on a business structure, to filling out tax forms, to joining professional associations that can help you grow your business, secure health insurance and help you understand and protect your legal rights. (Tracie Powell has some good practical advice on choosing the organization that’s right for you. ) Poynter has an online course in entrepreneurial journalism that has helped some folks I know. The Small Business Administration also has good general advice on starting your own business.  My employer, The College of New Jersey, hosts a Small Business Development Center that has services specifically for student entrepreneurs.
      4. Invest in your professional development. I don’t have to make the case any more about the need for learning coding, design thinking, or community engagement. There’s lots of good advice on all of these things, and such groups as the Online News Association offer regular training. Since I teach undergraduates, I am often asked about graduate school. That’s a longer conversation, but fundamentally, choosing a graduate program should involve a clear-headed cost-benefit calculation. What return can you realistically expect to earn on your investment? But you should be reading the trades in your field regularly, and you should be participating actively in conversations in your professional associations, whether at conferences, local chapter meetings or online.
      5. Know your rights and responsibilities. In addition to your media law text and your stylebook, you should be familiar with these websites:
        1. The Digital Journalist’s Legal Guide from Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press
        2. Legal Guides from the Student Press Law Center
      6. Take care of yourself. This can be a stressful business. Like law enforcement officers and medical personnel, journalists often see the worst of humanity. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma has helpful resources.

What would you add?

Gwen Ifill: A consummate journalist who demonstrated why diversity matters

Annual book fair and authors night, National Press Club, 17 Nov. 2009. Photo: Michael Foley
Annual book fair and authors night, National Press Club, 17 Nov. 2009. Photo: Michael Foley

There are many reasons to mourn Gwen Ifill’s untimely death today at the age of 61. She was a consummate journalist of the old school variety, who rose through the ranks of newspapers and broadcasting to occupy some of the industry’s most respected positions: co-host of the PBS Newshour and moderator of Washington Week in Review. There will be many tributes and assessments of the way she broke ground by demonstrating that there is still a place for shoe-leather reporting, tough interviewing and striving for objectivity in an industry whose desperation for ratings and clicks has raised fundamental questions about its ability to fulfill its civic responsibilities, most notably in the recent Presidential election. I want to focus on one moment that embodied her excellence, her bravery and the difference that can result when we bring diverse perspectives to our national discourse.

During the 2004 Presidential campaign, Ifill made history by becoming the first African American woman to moderate the Vice Presidential debate between Vice President Dick Cheney and his Democratic challenger, John Edwards. Ifill asked a question that exposed a huge blind spot on the part of both candidates. As she later recalled during a September 20, 2016 “Backstory” segment for Washington Week :

At the time, I was trying to figure out, there’s only one vice presidential debate, how do I get them to talk about something that’s off their topics, something they haven’t rehearsed for, something they wouldn’t expect? And I came across a number, a statistic about African American, I mean HIV infection among African American women.  Sky-rocketing at the time.  No one was talking about this. And I prefaced my question by saying, ‘You’ve both talked about AIDS in Africa, I want to talk about about AIDS in this country.  Please don’t talk about AIDS in Africa. What would you do if you were in this administration about sky-rocketing HIV infections among African American women?’ Very specific.

Neither candidate had a good answer. A statement released by the Black AIDS Institute and Essence magazine took both men to task:

Mr. Cheney’s response to Ms. Ifill’s question was “I had not heard those numbers with respect to African-American women. I was not aware that it was that severe and epidemic there”. … The Vice President’s lack of awareness about the magnitude of the AIDS epidemic in African American communities speaks volumes about the low priority our government places on the lives of African Americans. …


As for Edwards, Ifill later recalled,

John Edwards’ response was, ‘Well let me give you my three-point plan for AIDS in Africa.’ I found out afterward from people who prepped him for that debate that that was the question they thought I was going to give them — an AIDS in Africa question.  So he didn’t even hear the distinction.  He just, it just clicked it. It clicked in.

ACTUP, the AIDS prevention and treatment advocacy group, ran an item about the exchange, noting, “You know the chance of that issue being raised by any of the White men who are moderating the presidential face-offs is slim.”

When Ifill talked about that moment, she didn’t focus on her identity. For her, it was about considering important issues being left out of the conversation, and making them visible. She said people would still come up to her years later and say, “I loved that AIDS question.”

People remember when these candidates reveal themselves for what they are — what they don’t know and what they do know.  So I think that’s part of the moderator’s responsibility — to let the viewers at home know what these guys… are capable of.

Godspeed, Ms. Ifill. You were one of the best among us.



A personal perspective on the Trenton Makes Music project

People who know me credit me with a few talents – but musical ability isn’t one of them. Not only am I not a musician, I have no background in music journalism So, it should come as no surprise that one of the questions I’m often asked about the motivation and inspiration behind my current drive to document the musical history of New Jersey’s capital city, known as  Trenton Makes Music: Cultural Memory, Identity and Economic Development. Along with our students, my TCNJ colleague, Dr.  Teresa Marrin Nakra and renowned Trenton-born entertainer Sarah Dash, I’ve been engaged in the development of digital archive, podcast series and public programs highlighting the significant but largely unrecognized contributions of Trenton music professionals both to the music industry and the economic and cultural development of the city.

Over the course of the last four years, we’ve learned that Trenton musicians were part of some of the most popular musical acts of the last century. What’s more, with its location between New York and Philadelphia, Trenton venues were considered important stops on the tours of musicians across decades and cultures: vaudeville, opera, classical, rock, R&B, disco, funk, punk, and hip-hop. Trenton music. The playlist below is just a taste:

So, the Trenton music story is an amazing and largely untold one, and as a journalist, I’m a sucker for a great untold story. But the origins of the project, and our hopes for it, go beyond that.

The Performamatics project

In June 2012, Teresa Nakra and I attended a Performamatics workshop at the University of Massachussets Lowell that was aimed at encouraging the development of collaborative courses that use music to foster computational thinking in students. Dr. Nakra is a professor of music and interactive multimedia at TCNJ who has done groundbreaking work in the areas of human computer interaction and on using computing technology to measure the emotional and physiological impact of music. At the workshop, we learned about such strategies developed by the Performatiics research team as:

Our materials teach concepts such as modularization by breaking songs down into their components, looping and subroutines by noting where musical phrases are repeated intact and with small variations (requiring parameters), logic flow by creating musical flowcharts, and algorithms by writing programs that generate music.  New materials will explore ways to teach more advanced computing concepts such as threads and synchronization by writing programs that play multiple parts simultaneously and use various Application Programmer Interfaces (APIs), allowing us to combine software platforms into systems that to do more than is possible by one alone.

Pairs of faculty working at the same institution were invited to participate, with the hope that each pair would develop a class applying the techniques and concepts demonstrated during the workshop. Teresa and I had discovered a common interest in storytelling during our prior participation in the development and delivery of our campus’ videogame development curriculum.  As we brainstormed about course ideas, we began realized that we’d each developed an interest in the city’s music history.

Teresa’s digital baton research informed Paul Lehrman’s 1999 production of Trenton-born classical composer George Antheil’s Ballet Mechanique, and she’d developed an interest in Antheil’s life. She had also been getting to know some of the area teachers and students involved in local classical ensembles. I had known that Trenton had a history as a place to hear live music. Venues such as Joe’s Mill Hill Saloon were well known even during my undergraduate days at Princeton. And during the late 1990s, my friends and I regularly attended the Trenton Jazz Festival, where we heard such artists as Tito Puente, Patti Austin and Al Jarreau, along with local greats. My late colleague, playwright Don Evans, had created a History of Jazz class that included field trips to some of the city’s noted venues. Don’s son, Orrin, a notable jazz pianist in his own right, played a well-received concert on campus in 2002.

Meanwhile, my daughter Ja-Tun, a professional singer, had moved back to the area after college and was now performing with such local musicians as Grace Little, a former Philadelphia International Records vocalist whose talent garnered acclaim from the Apollo theater at the age of 13, and Kym Miller, the guitarist from the hitmaking disco band Instant Funk. Ja-Tun has since gone on to a career that takes her throughout the East Coast and overseas.

Kool and the Gang’s trombonist Clifford Adams often performed in the area, including at the school his son and my son both attended. I had visited Grant Chapel AME church, where members of Nona Hendryx’s family were still singing in the church choir. I learned that Hendryx’s Labelle bandmate, Sarah Dash, was also from Trenton, and I met friends and family of hers who were also musicians.

Before long, I met musicians who had recorded and toured with some of the biggest names in the music business, from Nelly to David Bowie. Teresa and I found ourselves asking, “What is is about Trenton? What was going on in Trenton that made this creative flowering possible?” Teresa had another question:” Is there a ‘Trenton sound’?” Can we analyze the music to identify a distinct musical lineage?

More questions: Our technology backgrounds had also made us aware of the region’s contributions to the music industry. As a music technologist, Teresa was aware of the legacy of the Sarnoff Center, the old research division of RCA. The Sarnoff Collection, housed at TCNJ, memorializes David Sarnoff and his company’s contributions to recording, radio and television technologies. We were both aware of the important contributions of Bell Labs, the former research arm of the old Bell System, an institution whose innovations in communications hardware, software, networks and distribution systems helped to revolutionize music production. Could the city’s proximity to these R&D powerhouses have played a role?

And of course, there was the relationship between the evolution of the city’s music scene and the ebb and flow of its economic fortunes, migration patterns, cultural sensibilities and social mores.

To answer those questions, it was necessary to document that history in a way that permitted both ethnographic and musicological analysis.

The Trenton Makes Music project is born

We kept talking about the idea over the next couple of years, as we worked on other projects. By the fall of 2014, we decided that I would offer a First Seminar class that would begin collecting oral histories of some of these musicians. Jazz composer and educator Dr. Anthony Branker put me in touch with Clifford Adams, with whom I had several phone conversations about his musical beginnings in Trenton, and the people in the city’s music community who needed to be part of any archive. Chief among them were two men that he cited as mentors: retired Trenton High school teachers Thomas “Tommy” Grice and Thomas  Passarella. I would soon learn that these men taught and mentored a number of professional musicians and educators. What’s more, they are still performing and creating learning opportunities for young people.

Dean John Laughton of TCNJ’s School of Art and Communication offered his support for co-curricular programming, including a campus lecture by Sarah Dash and a concert by the TCNJ Jazz ensemble. Our campus center for Community-Engaged Learning helped us make necessary community connections. As we started digging into archives and talking about the idea with the Trentonians we knew, we began to realize that the history was deeper, richer and more variegated than we knew, but very little of that history is in the scholarly or journalistic record. (Some of the prior online projects in this area that deserve recognition include:

  • Tom Krawiec’s Trenton Makes Music Facebook page: a photo collection that especially focuses on the city’s rock and roll history.
  • Dr. James Day’s  Trenton Soundscapes First Seminar class project on the contemporary Trenton music scene was featured at the Trenton City Museum in 2011
  • The book and documentary about City Gardens, the club that became a favorite destination for such major rock, punk and alternative artists as Nirvana, Iggy Pop and Green Day.
  • The documentary video and photography produced by Scott Miller’s Exit 7A studios.


One anecdote: One day in 2014, I was riding the bus from campus to town, and I got into a conversation with the driver about the Trenton Makes Music class. He says, “You have to talk to my sister.” Who’s your sister? Diane Jones, he says. It turns out that Ms. Jones sang backup for Taylor Dayne and Guns N’ Roses, during the 1980s and 90s. She came in and we recorded an incredible oral history interview with TCNJ first seminar students. The unedited audio of that interview is here:

What’s more, the bus driver, Vance Holland, was a session musician at Salsoul – the hot disco label of the 1970s. and became a tour bus driver for several major acts. And passengers on the bus began shouting out the musicians, music teachers, and musical accomplishments associated with the city.

What was most remarkable about that and other conversations that we have had with Trentonians is the near-universal pride and excitement that comes out when longtime residents start talking about their city’s music heritage. Like many faded rust-belt towns, Trenton has taken a beating in the last several decades, and its rare to hear residents speak about their town with pride. Our hope is that documenting and showcasing Trenton’s music history will foster conversations that reinforce and deepen that pride and rekindle the community’s spirit. Also, we hope that an accessible digital repository of both curated and original information about the city’s music culture will assist the city’s goal of strengthening the arts sector as part of its economic development strategy.

This fall, Teresa and I will be teaching two collaborating classes on podcasting in which students will work with Ms. Dash to create a podcast series that will be hosted on the on our project website. The podcasts will be based on our accumulated research and a series of public programs that will take place on campus and and in the community. We are hopeful that community members will begin using the website to share their stories, in addition to exploring the content that we have begun to collect.

We haven’t forgotten our desire to connect this work to our research on curricular models for fostering computational thinking. We’ve got some ideas for which the documentary project is a necessary foundation.

In one of those 2014 telephone conversatons Clifford Adams told me, “This could be a great project, if it’s done right.” Sadly, we won’t get to find out what he thinks of what we were able to accomplish. The innovative musician and educator died in early 2015. (Here’s his entry in our digital archive.)  If this work brings more attention to and support for the Trenton music community, I am hopeful that he would have been pleased.

Democratic National Convention Press Release on Accessibility

Note: This press release is a sidebar to The DNC and the politics of accessibility

2016 Democratic National Convention Announces Plans to Make this the Most Accessible Convention Ever  

Unprecedented Accessibility Plan Outlines Resources for People with Disabilities, Seniors and Individuals Who Need Specific Accommodations.

PHILADELPHIA – In the lead up to Convention week, the Democratic NationalConvention Committee (DNCC) today announced an unparalleled accessibility plan to make the Democratic Convention being held in Philadelphia from July 25th to July 28th the most inclusive and accessible in history. The DNCC’s Accessibility plan reaffirms the organization’s commitment to build upon the promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by removing barriers for all American’s with disabilities who wish to be involved in the Convention and engage in our nation’s political process.

“Our party has been at the helm of advancing the rights of people with disabilities for the last quarter century,” said DNCC CEO Rev. Leah Daughtry. “That is why our priority has been to make this a convention for all Americans, and we have worked tirelessly to ensure full equality for those with disabilities. As we celebrate the 26thanniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we intend to make this Conventionthe most accessible convention in history.”

The DNCC has made accessibility an integral part of all aspects of Conventionplanning since its arrival in Philadelphia, from transportation and housing to designing the traffic flow at Convention events. In selecting official Convention venues, organizers chose sites that were ADA compliant and designed systems to accommodate all individuals including delegates and participants with specific needs.  Last week, the DNCC also announced that Ted Jackson, a recognized leader in the disability rights community, was joining the organization to serve as a specialist in the Office of Public Engagement’s ADA & Community Engagement unit. Ted is helping create an accessible environment for people with disabilities and folks who need an accommodation at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

Convention Accommodations for Disabled Individuals

The DNCC has partnered up with the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau (PHLCVB) and the Valley Forge Tourism & Convention Board (VFTCB) to help enhance the convention experience and ensure that delegates and participants have an array of options to meet their needs during Convention week. For months, the DNCC has been developing our Accessibility Plan, which is inclusive of people with disabilities, seniors and individuals who need a reasonable accommodation.

  • Structural changes – e.g. ramps and seating – to the Convention center and Wells Fargo Center to ensure access for all.
  • Mobility support in the form of wheelchair check out, scooter rental, power chair charging stations and sighted guides.
  •  Access to information by providing materials in alternate formats such as Braille, screen reader accessible electronic materials and large print.
  • Inclusive communication by providing live captions, American Sign Language and Assisted Listening Devices at both facilities and Audio Descriptions forconvention hall proceedings plus an assistance request alert texting system.
  • Disability Services at both locations which include individualized assistance plus:
  • Personal Attendant Credentials (On Request In Advance)
  • Optical Character Recognition Systems
  • Guide Dog Relief
  • Tactile Map
  • Magnifiers
  • Reading and Scribe Assistance
  • ASL Interpreters
  • Reachers
  • Step Stools
  • Medicine Refrigeration
  • Masks for Chemical Sensitivity
  • Non-Stimulation Space
  • Ensuring all public facilities are accessible.
  • The DNCC has secured hotel rooms and event spaces forconvention guests – delegates, the Democratic NationalCommittee (DNC), campaign staff, elected officials, allied groups and members of the media – in compliance with the ADA to ensure equal access opportunities, communication and mobility for all.
  • Hotels are assigned to State Delegations based on the room block allocation for the Delegation, the function/caucus space needs, the number of suites and any ADA room requirements that are specific to each Delegation
  • There are 27 hotels, and 15,000 hotel rooms in the Airport, River to River and Valley Forge clusters that have been exclusively set aside for our state delegations participating in the convention.
  • Transportation: Daily transportation will be provided to the Wells Fargo Center and Pennsylvania Convention Center from all state delegation hotels. Each state delegation will receive ADA accommodations to ensure a safe and seamless shuttle service to and from convention-related proceedings, including Golf Cart transfers from the security entrance to the building entrance at the Wells Fargo Center.
  • Employing people with disabilities to be engaged at all levels of accessibilityplanning.


 About the Democratic National Convention

The 2016 Democratic Convention will be held at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia July 25-28, 2016.   Working in partnership with the Philadelphia Host Committee, the City of Philadelphia and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, our goal is to make this the most engaging, innovative and forward looking Convention in history.  The 2016 Democratic National Convention will leverage technology to take the Convention experience well beyond the hall in an effort to engage more Americans than ever before in the event.  With the birthplace of American Democracy as a backdrop, the 2016 convention in Philadelphia will highlight our shared Democratic values and help put the Democratic nominee on a path to victory.

The Democratic Convention is the formal nominating event for the Democratic candidates for President and Vice President.  At the Convention, the Democratic Party also adopts the official Democratic Party platform as well as the rules and procedures governing party activities including the nomination process for presidential candidates in the next election cycle.

The CEO for the 2016 Democratic National Convention is Reverend Leah D. Daughtry. The official website of the 2016 Democratic National Convention is