Journalist tools
December 1, 2009 3:19 PM   Subscribe

What are the best must have tools for a budding Journalist ?
posted by Yiba to Writing & Language (22 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
A digital voice recorder for interviews. There was an AskMe specifically about them a while back if you need recommendations.
posted by hermitosis at 3:22 PM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

The journalists I've known make most use of pen and paper (always have a backup pen or two) and often a small digital voice recorder. A phone. These days, certainly, a computer, or access to one. It's not a very tool-heavy occupation. Good stories get written based on what journalists do, not what they have.
posted by rtha at 3:25 PM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

another plan to find another career, or some means of independent income.

I'm not just being flip here: journalism is in deep, deep crisis, and there are discussions being had about the ethics of even accepting new students onto journalism courses at present. It's remiss not to warn people about this -- comparisons to cart-making when the car came along are not unwarranted. I know of many exceptionally talented journalists who are having trouble finding work -- a budding journalist is not just competing against the usual crop of wannabes, they are competing against some of the best in the business.

That said, if you've taken all that into account: a computer, a recorder, a pen, paper, and shoe for the shoving into doors of are all you need.
posted by bonaldi at 3:45 PM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you have curiosity, skepticism, desire, and persistence, it won't matter if you write your pieces in lipstick on toilet paper (although your editor might mind)
posted by jtron at 4:00 PM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Mike Royko has a beautiful essay on this - which I can't find online.

The basic idea was it doesn't matter what you use as long as you can think and write.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 4:13 PM on December 1, 2009

Journalism. org: Journalism Tools. "This page offers links to a Tool Box of ideas, strategies and techniques about how to produce and understand journalism. The materials were collected by the Committee of Concerned Journalists, a consortium of more than 7,000 working in news around the world."
posted by bentley at 4:42 PM on December 1, 2009

IANAJ, but I worked at a newspaper for several years, for whatever that's worth.

The iPhone now comes with a digital voice recorder application. Actually, I'd think that the iPhone (or a similarly capable smartphone) would be a great tool for a journalist—web and email access anywhere, anytime; DVR; still and video camera; Google Maps; and more, all in your pocket at all times. The iPhone really is more than the sum of its parts.

Perhaps a decent notebook computer for taking notes or writing drafts in the field. You can go with the absolute baseline model for this, or even the baseline model from five years ago; if it can run Wordpad, you're good to go.

But, yeah, don't forget a good pen and notepad.
posted by ixohoxi at 4:48 PM on December 1, 2009

Pencils - they work in the rain, the cold, and they don't run out of ink. Sure, they break, but just have several.

Comfortable shoes!! For waiting around for your source, for quickly getting places. Also good-looking foul weather outerwear is smart to have.

A good digital recorder is a must. It should not be so small that you have difficulty reading the display or the buttons in low light. Mine also serves as a jump drive. A microphone is a good idea.

A jump drive and an external hard drive.

A portable mouse

An extra cable for everything! And an extra duckhead if you're on a Mac!

A laptop with lots of RAM is a given.

A point-and-shoot that shoots video as well as stills. Very critical.

Tutorials for Soundslides, Audacity, Flash, Photoshop, Fireworks, Illustrator, and Final Cut.

An indestructible bag for it all. I love my Victorinox backpack. I think it's the
Acropolis model.

Student memberships in IRE and ONA and the like. These are invaluable!
posted by jgirl at 5:09 PM on December 1, 2009

rich parents.

I am a former journalist, and I got out when I realized my awesome clips, great reputation and multiple awards (and a badass set of recommendations) weren't going to help me move up because in my state alone there were close to 10,000 unemployed journalists with more experience, better clips, more hardware and incredible reputations.

but if you're serious, get a digital recorder and digital camera. the camera should be better than the recorder, so you can get legible photos of documents you're supposed to be noting.

learn to write illegibly, then transcribe as soon as you get home - your competitors *will* try to copy your notes.

a dictionary of recent vintage, and a thesaurus. the phone number for the "lookup" liaison at the nearest university (a guy who can tell you who some local experts are in the topic you're chasing). a qwerty phone, "i" or not - you will text a lot.

second the recommendation for all the photo/video/production software, but be aware if you need all that crap, you're probably being taken advantage of.

and buy your own notebooks. I suggest a combination of 4x6 and top-bound legal. those long reporter ones fall out of your pockets, and they're not wide enough for school board meetings.

I have not found that pencils write in the rain so much as they just rip my pages and piss me off. carry a 1-gallon ziploc bag in your handbag and when it's raining, stick your notebook inside it to write.
posted by toodleydoodley at 5:18 PM on December 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I am a journalist, and I grew up precisely between the pen/paper/typewriter era and the electronic era. I'm a thoroughly committed technology user, but analog is still essential. The trick is combining the two.

Here's what I recommend (and sorry if this is quick and dirty; I'm on my way out of town and rushing around…)

1) Small digital voice recorder for interviews. The iPhone isn't up to par yet, mostly because of battery life and the possibility that you'll somehow lose your audio if a call comes through, if you fail to upload/export properly, etc. A battery-powered digital recorder is cheap and practical. I recommend the Olympus WS-311M. It uses a single AAA battery; hours and hours of recording time; and comes apart so that you actually plug it into your computer like a USB thumb drive when you're ready to offload. The only minor drawback is that it records in WMA (Windows Media) files. As a Mac user, I have to take the extra step of converting them to MP3s; I use a free program called "Switch" for that.

2) Reporter's notepads. You need to learn how to take notes by hand. These slim pads fit nicely in your pocket and you can use one per story. This will act as a backup if your recorder fails, and will also serve you well in cases where your subject may not wish to be taped. I recommend Ampad reporter's notebooks - you can get them at Staples. Buy the ones that are Gregg ruled (25 lines per page), rather than Pitman ruled (18lpp.) I avoid the Office Depot house-brand pads because they're Pitman ruled. Learn to write fast and accurately. Invent your own shorthand. The goal is to not need tape.

3) Skype w/call recording (or other online calling service with recording.) Absolutely essential for phone interviews. Record every call you make. I also type along with the interview as a form of instant transcription when I'm doing this. (As far as recorded calls go, check with your state on what level of consent you need from the person you're interviewing.)

4) Transcribing your recorded interviews. Whether via a handheld recorder or Skype or whatever, you'll end up with hours of tedious audio to wade through. That's why keeping a running, manual log/transcription is good. I use a hired transcriber to get audio into text. This can get expensive, unless you roll your own transcription service using Amazon Mechanical Turk (see this: A bit daunting, technically, at the start, but I found that once I established relationships with reliable transcribers, I could enter into private arrangements with them and get very good accuracy and speed.

I could give a lot more advice about equipment and tools, but really, this is what you need in terms of interviews and note-taking. One bit of semi-sage advice is to remember what all of this stuff is for: reporting. Call me old-school, but true journalism begins with legwork. Reporting isn't quite the same as research; it is as much about knowing how to talk to people and develop consistent sources as it is knowing your topic. Find the people who know what you want to know and start asking questions.

And as far as those questions are concerned, here are two that you must include in every interview:

1) Are there any questions I should have asked you, but didn't?
2) Who else should I talk to about this?

good luck! Feel free to private message me if you have more questions.
posted by soulbarn at 5:26 PM on December 1, 2009 [10 favorites]

PS, though I understand how discouraging the field seems, there's plenty of room for smart, curious people to do well. Solid reporting skills are a huge sell-point for anyone trying to find employment. Freelance writing is tough, too, but persistence if key. The folks I know who've built good, big careers haven't just been talented - they've been willing to endure. That may not sound like fun, but I love my job; I've traveled all over the world, met amazing people, and am more or less healthy and cheerful - if not loaded with dough.
posted by soulbarn at 5:30 PM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Don't buy expensive tools until you come across a problem which needs a technical solution. You won't know exactly what you need until you know exactly how you like to work. I have an audio recorder, for example, which I bought before I was regularly producing radio. I wish I had waited, because it lacks features like track-marking, which I now know is very useful. Try to borrow or rent equipment before you spend a lot of money buying your own.

The most important tool you need is a firm grasp of the language in which you're writing. If that language is English, start with this book: The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White.
posted by embrangled at 6:03 PM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

A spiral-bound copy of the AP Stylebook is pretty handy.
posted by jgirl at 6:05 PM on December 1, 2009

Not really a tool, per se, but learning how to write in a real Shorthand system is immensely useful.

But the best tool? Seriously? The best tool is whatever tool will get you off this career path as soon as possible.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 6:17 PM on December 1, 2009

Seconding bonaldi. You need insane amounts of perseverance. Finding a job in the field after you graduate (assuming you're in school) is possible, but certainly not a given. That said, it can of course be rewarding work.

And another post-interview question to tack onto soulbarn's post:
3) Is there a phone number where I can reach you later, for clarification or follow-up questions? Great! What about a cell number, too?

Regarding the notes/recording discussion, I'm a former/current (long story) newspaper journalist who tries to avoid recording when possible. Rely on your written notes, especially if you're on deadline and the subject matter is ho-hum or not so sensitive. If you're working on a sensitive story or interviewing a politician/important public figure, record the interview as a back-up and double-check your quotes. Personally, I find lengthy transcriptions to often be a huge waste of time, but it depends on the story/context.

I can't speak to the type of recorder, but it's really nice if the one you buy comes with software to upload the audio files to your computer, and if you have the space on your hard-drive to save files indefinitely. But still, never rely on the recorder entirely.
posted by nicoleincanada at 3:52 AM on December 2, 2009

Regarding shorthand - I find most journalists just invent their own, depending on words they use the most often. My shorthand is pretty similar to text-messaging shorthand, for what it's worth. Because = b/c, people = ppl, etc.

One last recommendation - a good messenger bag. I had a Lug bag similar to that one (but a little cooler, imho) and all those pockets were invaluable for knowing where I'd put my cell phone, note pad, car keys, pens, etc. You want your stuff easily and quickly accessible. (That said, plenty of male reporters I know keep their stuff in their pockets and manage fine.)
posted by nicoleincanada at 4:00 AM on December 2, 2009

I'm a journalist, but unlike jgirl and soulbarn, the only equipment I've ever used are a phone, pen and notepad, and the desktop computer provided by the paper.

I'm in the (less litigious) UK, so YMMV, but in my experience, dictaphones are only used by feature writers who carry out long, face to face interviews and need to build a decent rapport with their subject, and so need lots of eye contact. They might have a one-off slot with their interviewee so can't call back and check anything, and will have a lot more time to write up the interview than news reporters.

If you're on a newspaper your interviews will mostly be short, and carried out over the phone or in the street with strangers, so there's no/less need for eye contact and you certainly won't have time to spend hours trawling through a dictaphone recording trying to find that thing you're sure they said. Dictaphones also carry the risk of failure, whereas notes are reliable as long as you don't leave your book behind anywhere (As I discovered last week... oops). Seconding the use of pencils on outdoor jobs - reliable in the rain, unlike pens. I've also never recorded a phone call.

If you're planning to go this route, proper, fast, accurate shorthand - in the UK Teeline is standard for reporters - is the one thing you really do need. And warm clothes (As I discovered standing at the scene of a hit and run at 6.45am today).

So the moral is that it depends what you're going to do where - as others have said, it's probably best not to go investing in anything major until you've got a job - if it's crucial your employers should provide it anyway.
posted by penguin pie at 4:27 AM on December 2, 2009

I find the "get off this career path" advice incredibly disrespectful to the OP.

As far as hand-writing vs. taping, I agree with penguin pie - if you don't have to record, it is easier and better not to.

Don't be discouraged by the negativity. The profession is not dying - the business model is, and that means opportunity for new people and new thinking.
posted by soulbarn at 7:16 AM on December 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

The profession is not dying - the business model is
Which is why people are talking about needing independent income. However, the business model supports the profession, and in the past 10 years, nobody has come up with another way to support people in the profession outside the now-failing business model.

All of the warnings here are coming from people in the profession, people who know how hard it is, and see the layoffs happening all the time. It's a common expectation among my peer group that journalism will not last them out their careers.

Of course, people still want to enter the profession. But it's vitally important that they do so with their eyes open, in full understanding that this isn't a guaranteed livelihood, and that they most likely will not be able to make the sort of living that someone joining even just 10 years ago could.

There's a lot of nonsense talked about "new thinking" and the bright new uplands of online news, but until somebody, anybody, actually makes it pay, warning people of the dangers of entering this trade is not negativity, it's realism.
posted by bonaldi at 7:51 AM on December 2, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks guys for your candid views.
posted by Yiba at 11:28 AM on December 2, 2009

There is already a lot of great suggestions here but I just wanted to add that if you want to into broadcast journalism and be in the field -- a push to talk headset for your cellphone will help immensely for the sanity of your counterparts in the control room.
posted by spec80 at 2:56 PM on December 2, 2009

Wow my English and typing skills are horrible today. My apologies.
posted by spec80 at 2:59 PM on December 2, 2009

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