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October 23, 2013

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E-mail has made the news, news stories, and newspapers dull. (Patrick B. Pexton)

Pexton, a former Washington Post ombudsman,doesn’t like email interviews.

“E-mail is a rotten reporting tool for journalists, particularly here in Washington. Every elected and appointed official is so worried that they might go off message, they don’t do in-person or telephone interviews anymore,” Pexton writes.

You see a lot of that in business reporting, too, for the same reason. Business executives and PR people  want to make sure they don’t accidentally say something truthful and embarrassing.

Pexton has a point. A lot of the responses reporters get in an email is marketing gobbledygook. “We see especially robust internal development activity focused on tablet applications and business transformation” isn’t going to help you or your readers.

On the other hand, if you’re dealing with numbers and such, it’s good to have hard copy to back you up: “$14.5 million was the net amount (the cost basis) that the University had invested in a particular fund that was subsequently invested with Mr. Madoff.  The larger number [$110 million] represented the inflated, fictitious value just before the collapse of the scheme.”

That quote might have been better if it were paraphrased. Just as it is with face-to-face interviews, you don’t have to run quotations just because someone says something. Pick and choose what you quote verbatim. If you can say it better yourself, do it.

I like email interviews, partly because they ensure that you get the quotations right and partly because I gave up reporting 30 years ago because I don’t like to talk on the phone. You can also get a lot more done by using email (judiciously, of course), while not forgetting that you must meet your sources in person from time to time so they can match a face to your emails.


A brand new 2014 Tesla Model S recently burst into flames in Seattle thus becoming the first Model S to face such a devastating fate. … While no one was physically injured in the blaze, it did cause a widespread panic with Tesla’s shares plunging on Wall Street. (GTSpirit.com)

Widespread panic is nothing to sneeze at. Widespread panic is what we had in New York on Sept. 11, 2001. The stock-market crash of 1929 absolutely caused widespread panic of a different sort. A car fire doesn’t spark widespread panic. Tesla’s share price didn’t even reflect a narrow panic after the Oct. 1 fire.


Part of the problem, [David Leonhardt] said, is that “the human mind isn’t equipped” to deal with very large numbers. When people see these numbers, he said, they read it as “a lot of money” or “a really big number.” (New York Times)

Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times “public editor,” has joined the big-numbers bandwagon. She endorses the idea, suggested by a reader, of expressing federal budget items as percentages of the total budget.

Leonhardt, the Times Washington bureau chief, says reporters have been reminded to do that.

We’ll see.


The Bitcoin is a “virtual currency” that has gained a small following around the world as a substitute for national currencies such as the dollar. Test your knowledge of this form of cash. (Los Angeles Times)

The Bitcoin mystery continues. The nut graf continues to elude us (the definition above serves only to confuse, not explain).

You can score 90% on this L.A. Times “quiz” (as I did) and still be unable to tell someone what Bitcoin is in a couple of sentences. The quiz is a trivia test, nothing more.


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