Reporter's notebook
September 25, 2009 7:07 AM   Subscribe

Journalists' notes: how do they take them, store them and reference them later?

I am looking for resources and tips on how journalists take and manage notes, especially how they store them for later reference.

I've read this question but specifically I'm looking for info on the actual taking of notes and then organizing/filing them away once the story is finished.
posted by Brittanie to Writing & Language (10 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
My journalism professor, a former editor at Harpers, used Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes as a textbook. It's focused more on deep writing than on, say, reportage of the arson over on Fifth and Vine, but it's very useful. As for how people reference notes later, most of the journalists I've talked to or read about say "whichever way works for you." Michael Pollan described his technique: For each story he's working on, he creates one reference document. Every day at the end of the day, he adds to that document by putting in everything he wrote, thought, remembers, quoted, anyone he met with, their quotes, etc. He does a section break for each day, but it's all in one file. Then he has another file going where he's doing the actual writing of the story. That may be one file, or multiple files if chapters are large or have their own tangents. (To leverage technology even more, I'd add tags to the file each day as well, to help you find material at a later date.)
posted by cocoagirl at 7:33 AM on September 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

My friend is married to a tv reporter. She said he has a drawer in the bedside table filled with reporters notebooks in piles, rubberbanded by date. Probably this isn't the ideal technique you're looking for.
posted by toastedbeagle at 8:00 AM on September 25, 2009

Response by poster: Actually, that is an idea. I'm more concerned with the physical paperwork than any kind of digital organizational system (I'm think in terms of saving notes for legal purposes, later reference, etc.)

Right now I write in a notebook, then tear out the pages for each story and staple them together. Date them and tag them with the story topic, them place them in a file labeled with the publication name in order of story date.

I am a freelancer working on many different stories for different publications at a time. I am wondering if I should just keep a running notebook of notes instead of tearing pages out all the time. I do not like my system and am looking for other (better) ideas.
posted by Brittanie at 8:05 AM on September 25, 2009

Best answer: I keep mine organised like this. The first page of an interview has the name and title of the person. The left-hand column is so I can note any good quotes, remember to check spellings and write down any questions that arose in the conversation. The bottom of the page will always be the name and date of the interview. The folded-over page is so I can glance at my questions without turning pages.

For research, it's all the same, except the title of the source and the quotes are at the top of the page.

On the front of the book is the date I started and date I finish the book. I keep all of my books in chronological order...I expect I'll have to start scanning them soon.
posted by katiecat at 8:07 AM on September 25, 2009

My mother has been a journalist for about 25 years. She uses reporters' notebooks. On the cover she writes the dates covered and names of interviewees. These are rubber-banded together and stored in copier paper boxes. Other copier paper boxes hold her clips. Yes, it's bulky and messy, but it means the clips don't get damaged, and aren't mixed with the notes, which are only used in rare cases.
posted by Miko at 11:13 AM on September 25, 2009

I suspect it will depend on the nature of the reportage. I have a friend in radio and I highly doubt she intentionally retains the notes at all once they've been used for the story in question. It seems like an ever-changing, forward-looking profession. There are notebooks laying around her place but they don't appear to be organized in any fashion.
posted by Pomo at 11:27 AM on September 25, 2009

My apt is filled with tottering piles of notebooks. None of them are organized or labeled or dated and I honestly can read maybe 10% of the scrawl they contain. It can take me 5 minutes of puzzling over one to figure out what the story was, and often I can't figure it out at all. Sometimes I get in a decluttering mood and just throw some out.
That said, I'm not an investigative reporter and I don't like to do long-term projects, which means I've never ever needed to look at any of them. The only information they might contain that I'd need - phone numbers - are already transferred to a source list. And indeed, one of the times I was subpoenaed, I was actually advised that the less extant notes you have the better: you want to testify to the accuracy of what you reported, and no further. Not sure how good that legal advice was, though. Most people I know keep their notes for at least a few years.
posted by CunningLinguist at 11:30 AM on September 25, 2009

Best answer: I used a reporter's notebook, drew a line straight down the middle, took shorthand notes (half T-line and half my own) on each side, scribbled the date in the top right hand corner and the interviewee name along the bottom of the page, along with the story slug. I'd try and flick back through the day, for example while I was on hold on the phone or whatever, to make sure each page had the info on it. I also dated the front of the notebook with the first interview date and the last interview date in that book. I'd always start a new page for each interview. Special trips / projects got their own notebook.

I had little scribbled icons that I'd circle on the left of my notes. So ''!'' was for a good story idea that came up in the course of the interview, that I wanted to follow up later; ''?'' was for a WTF of one sort or another, ''#'' was for contact details.

I stashed each finished notebook in archive boxes under my desk with the most recent books on top. When I was *super* organised (rarely) I would scribble the interviewee / story names on the inside cover of each book. I never, ever dug into the boxes, but I did sometimes flick through books that I hadn't stashed yet, that were still floating around on my desk or in my overflowing ''to file'' tray.

When I took notes on a computer, I'd just open up a word document, name it with the date in year, month, day order and the interviewee's name and file it in a folder called ''Interviews''. So 2080721 Bob Smith.doc, for example.
posted by t0astie at 5:03 PM on September 25, 2009

One note about rubber bands: they tend to disintegrate and (a) snap and (b) stick to things.
posted by kristi at 9:47 AM on September 30, 2009

Waaay after the fact here, but here's one more data point for the history books. And I'm kind of obsessive about note taking and filing, so I'm glad to have some place to unload.

I take more notes over the phone than in person. As I call people, I maintain a phone log, where I write down the name of the person I'm calling, their phone number, their organization, the time of my call, and a few notes. Usually if I get through to the person I just put a check mark in the note space. If I leave a message I write "msg, re: STORY TOPIC." If I get through but need to follow up, I write "follow up re: WHATEVER." This log is really helpful when I want to write "so and so didn't respond to repeated calls" - I can show my editor that I called 17 times over two and a half weeks, and he takes my word for it. It's also helpful if I need to call the same person several times over the course of a day, because I have his/her phone number right there and don't have to look it up again and again.

I type over-the-phone notes into a basic word processing document with the person's name, title, organization and contact info in bold at the top, and questions that I want to ask are also typed in bold. I use a uniform date and naming format: "2010-04-20-FIRSTNAME LASTNAME." If it's a common name or a difficult to remember name, I may also throw in "ORGANIZATION" or "STORY TOPIC" to the file name.

All notes are saved into the same folder on my computer, and because of my naming convention they automatically sort chronologically. I always know what day I had a particular conversation by the file name. if I can't remember when I conversation happened, I can find the file by searching for the person's name.

Hand written notes I take in different types of notebooks, depending on the circumstances. If I'm covering a meeting or sitting down with someone and I know I'll have a desk, I like legal notepads. Legal pads give you lots of room to write and organize your thoughts, but they're a bit unwieldy if you'll be walking or standing, or if you just don't know what you're getting into, so for most interviews I use hand-held white reporters notebooks. (Used to use stenopads, but my current job doesn't supply them).

Whatever the notebook, on the first page of my hand written notes I write the date, name of the person I'm talking to, organization this person represents, and a few notes on questions I'd like to ask. If I'm covering a meeting, I write the date, name of the meeting, and the board members/speakers names from left to right. I typically number the people and write a few descriptors, too, if I'm talking with a group, so that I can quickly identify them in my notes without having to remember/look up the correct name. I can just write "#3 - quote quote quote" or "glasses - blah blah blah" and then later look back and see who was the third person from the left, or who was wearing glasses.

I like to fold over a sheet from the back of whatever notepad I'm using so that it's still attached at the top, but jutting out at a 90 degree angle from the notepad. I can use this sheet for meta-notes -- questions that occur to me that I don't want to forget to ask later, other people to talk to later, etc.

I file my paper notes into story-specific manila folders while I'm actively working on a story. When the article is filed, I move them to the appropriate subject-specific folder in my filing cabinet.

I also do some interviewing and data gathering by e-mail. I keep a story-specific e-mail folder doing while I'm actively reporting, then archive my messages in subject-specific folders when the story has run.

I keep track of all the typed, handwritten and e-mailed notes that I'm actively using through a ever-evolving Word document that I use to track my work. For each story that I'm working on, I have a quick budget line "Due: April 30 - Small Biz special section, profile of Blah Blah Blah." Then I follow with up to a paragraph summarizing the story. Below that, I summarize my progress in two columns.

The right column: People I need to talk to, research I need to do, photos I need to assign, etc. This includes stuff I haven't started yet, as well notes on incremental progress. So "Need to ask Joe Blow about xyz" might be right above "Scheduled phone interview with Sue Doe at 3 p.m. on 4/21. Call her at 555-1212; see notes filed in FOLDER NAME." Until the story's done, the first item on this list is always "WRITE IT!!!"

The left column contains stuff I've accomplished -- photos I've assigned, data I've compiled, people I've interviewed. I list everyone I've interviewed for the story in question, and where I can find the relevant notes. So it might say "Interviewed XYZ on 3/18 in person; notes filed in STORY NAME folder; also see follow-up e-mail she sent later that day."

Every Friday, I save a new copy of my master planning document with the following Friday's date, delete out the stories I've finished, and make sure all of my new progress has been logged. So right now I'm working in "04-23 BUDGET," last week it was "04-16 BUDGET" and next week it will be "04-30 BUDGET." I like keeping old documents, rather than saving over them, because it allows me to go back and replicate my research if necessary. It's also really useful to have detailed documentation if someone threatens to use you or accuses you of falling down on the job.

It sounds really overwhelming when I type it all up like this, but it's the best way I know to keep track of all the balls I'm juggling at once. Right now, for example, I have 10 stories in the works - some due tomorrow, some due in May, and one with no specific deadline. For these stories, I've talked to 42 different people between February and this afternoon, and there are many more people I still need to speak with. I've also corralled databases, created spreadsheets, assigned photos, requested graphics. There's no way I could keep track of it all in my head. I need a master plan.

Learning to take and store my notes well was a long and difficult process. I've been a professional journalist since 2000. I had electronic notes figured out pretty early on, but only got good about paper files about 5 years ago, phone logs about 2 years ago, and e-mail filing within the past year. The effort has repeatedly paid off, however. I've been able to: prove that people didn't return phone calls, quote from an old conversation with an executive when he was incommunicado on the day his company went under, and keep the lawyers happy when an unhappy source suggested I didn't do my job. It's all well worth the effort.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 6:02 PM on April 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

« Older What can I grow in Zone 8?   |   Dry erase/whiteboards walls and me? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.