Sitting in front of me as I write are six paper notebooks. They undermine my paperless journalist goal.

Four are A4 size, two are old-school reporter notebooks. One A4 notebook is open and I’ve an array of pens to hand – I’ve left a few messages this morning and am waiting for various call backs on stories I’m writing. There are many more used notebooks packed away in boxes.

I’ve made huge strides in the past two weeks reducing the amount of paper in my life – cutting the notebooks looks harder.

There are reasons

  1. A journalist’s notebook is a legal record of interviews, conversations and so on. If something goes badly wrong and I find myself on the wrong end of a defamation action, my notebook could be valuable evidence. In the past I’ve been told to keep old notebooks for seven years – many journalists keep them for longer.
  2. Notebooks are valuable. I write quotes, dates, times, phone numbers, web and email addresses as I go. There have been many times when I’ve gone back to a notebook and found a missing piece of information.
  3. Notebooks are physically hard to scan – I mainly use ring-bound ones.
  4. My handwriting is not easy to read, I use self-taught shorthand. Read scanned notes is difficult.
  5. There’s far too much to scan anyway.

Years ago I thought my Apple Newton MessagePad might solve this problem, but it was too slow and clunky. My Palm TX was also a useless substitute and the old style tablet PCs couldn’t hand the job either. I did see something called a ‘chording keyboard’ which looked useful, but in practice it was too flawed.

I’m interested in hearing how other journalists have dealt with this problem.

4 thoughts on “Paperless journalist: Notebooks

  1. This problem baffles me because there’s no way to do without paper notebooks, not until someone invents an electronic device that allows us to input text as fast as we can write by hand.

    I make sure to take the important notes from my notebooks, such as phone numbers, names and e-mail addresses, and record them digitally when I write my stories. If I’m diligent, then I can assure myself that there’s nothing contact-related in those old notebooks in the box under my bed. That eliminates one mental obstacle to trashing them.

    As for the legal risks of throwing them away, I had one editor once advise me not to keep notes, since having them might open you up to more legal risk than not having them would. I have no idea if that advice was accurate, but I thought it was worth mentioning.

    Realistic solution: Rent a storage shed and toss in your notebooks. Imagine the monthly bill is money you send off to support the family of your partner who was killed on a secret mission in Nicaragua. The imagined cover-up will make your growing paper weight a little more fun.

  2. One electronic device that can take notes as fast as pen and paper is called a chording keyboard. I tested one in the early 1980s. It sits under one hand and different finger combinations are used to create letters. I think, but am not certain, something similar has been used by court recorders.

    Chording keyboards are a small market, and therefore expensive. They are also difficult to learn.

  3. I have generally used a laptop or keyboard for notes. Used to use a Tandy 1000 (more comfortable keyboard) up to a few years ago. Blindingly fast typist. On the road these days, I generally use an android phone for brief notes. Used to carry notebooks, but they tend to compost in one’s pocket. Sometimes I use voice recognition (Dragon) as a break. Have dictated entire reports that way.

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