Q. Is there anything lamer than a Q&A?
“The job of journalism is not stenography. It is getting the full story and the meaning of that story,” Bob Woodward said to an Indiana University audience in 2007.
Woodward was not necessarily talking about the question-and-answer format in his talk, but I was when I said essentially the same thing in 2003.*
The news business is often enterprising, but it’s also plenty lazy. Of all the lazy things we do, running Q&As might be the most slothful.
Adam Bryant of the New York Times, who I’m sure is a bright guy, compiles a feature called “The Corner Office,” which runs in the Sunday paper. “The Corner Office” is full of leadership-speak from business men and women, which would be stultifying even if it were written like a real story. Q&A, though, makes it especially painful.
For example, if you were for some reason interviewing John Duffy, the chief executive of 3C interactive – as Bryant did for the most recent “Corner Office” — he might very well say something like, “You can also be working with someone regularly and teaching them to aspire for their own development, and helping them understand that there’s a path, a trail of bread crumbs that they can follow that will make a difference in their life.” It’s hard to imagine how such language could advance it. If it’s for a Q&A on “leadership,” and it’s in direct response to a “Q,” it’s hard to drop it. Bryant, no doubt, drops a lot from the transcripts as he compiles the column. It makes one wonder about the horrors that didn’t make the cut.
The Q&A makes it unnecessary to find a lede. Many times, there is no lede to be found, which is not an argument to run a Q&A, but rather a reason to find something newsworthy and/or interesting to run instead.
Another New York Times** business feature, “The 30-Minute Interview,” is also a Q&A, “conducted and condensed” by Vivian Marino.
If you’re interviewing Pamela Liebman, president and chief executive of the Corcoran Group, you might very well begin the conversation by asking, “So what’s new at Corcoran?” You might, though, think twice before writing something like, “When asked ‘so what’s new at Corcoran,’ Liebman said: ‘We’re about to launch our brand-new Corcoran.com. You’re the first person I’ve talked to about it.’” Putting the quotes in a Q&A rather than in a story does nothing to make them more valuable. Nothing could.
Try this tip! When someone hands you a Q&A to edit, challenge the compiler to write a news story from its contents. If he can, run it. If she can’t, spike the Q&A.
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* I do not claim to have invented the stenography-journalism comparison, but I might as well have.
** Am I picking on the Times, which, after all, by far is the nation’s best news organization? Not really. Because of the Times’ exalted position, its building might as well have a big, red target painted on its side.