Publish the Transcript!

PUBLISH THE TRANSCRIPT!….Every week Deborah Solomon publishes a zippy little Q&A with some famous person in the New York Times Magazine. I’ve always wondered just how she manages to make them so zippy, and it turns out the answer isn’t related entirely to Solomon’s skill as an interviewer. Clark Hoyt, the Times’s public editor, explains:

Her sharp, challenging questions elicit pithy, surprising answers — a disloyal comment about an employer, a confession to a Diet Coke habit, what’s in Jack Black’s iPod.

That is the illusion of Solomon’s column. The reality is something else: the 700 or so words each week are boiled down from interviews that sometimes last more than an hour and run 10,000 words. Though presented in a way that suggests a verbatim transcript, the order of the interview is sometimes altered, and the wording of questions is changed — for clarity or context, editors say….And, Solomon told me, “Very early on, I might have inserted a question retroactively, so the interview would flow better,” a practice she said she no longer uses.

[Summary of seemingly justified complaints about creative editing from Ira Glass, Tim Russert, and Amy Dickinson.]

I think editors made a mistake by not publishing an editor’s note with Russert’s letter, acknowledging error and explaining the reforms. Now, I believe, if they want to preserve the illusion of a conversation, they should publish with each column a brief description of the editing standards: the order of questions may be changed, information may be added for clarity, and the transcript has been boiled down without indicating where material has been removed.

I have a different idea: publish the entire transcript of the interview on the web. It’s not a big expense, there are no space constraints online, and it forces the interviewer to do an honest job of condensing. If there’s a specific piece of the interview Solomon wants to redact for use in some future piece, that’s fine. But if she’s doing these Q&As for the Times, then the Times ought to have the right to print the whole thing.

The Times, like most media outlets these days, publishes the complete results of polls they conduct, which makes it easy for readers to dig down and see what’s really going on. We don’t have to rely solely on short summary articles anymore. The same ought to be true of pieces that rely largely on interviews with public figures. Publish the whole transcript on the web and show us what they really said. Newspapers, after all, are supposed to be in the business of providing information, not hiding it.