How I turn notes into quotes

Since the issue of how journalists take notes during interviews has come up this week–courtesy of former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson’s cringe-inducing declaration that “I’ve never recorded“–here’s how I capture quotes from an interview, a speech or a panel.

The usual answer involves a keyboard. For everyday note-taking, I type the most interesting sentences I hear into an Evernote file. That demands a certain amount of parallel processing, as one part of my brain decides if a sentence-like string of words is worth memorializing and another sends my fingers skittering across the keys, but it generally works for stories that don’t center on one person’s quotes.

I know that real-time transcription involves a risk of transposing a word here or there–it’s amazing how many places an adverb can land in a sentence–so I quote conservatively when writing.

If, however, I’m writing a story around an interview or a speech, I’ll record the whole thing while also taking notes in real-time. That’s a two-device proposition: While I type on my laptop, my phone is on the table or otherwise far enough away not to pick up my keystrokes.

(The one time I tried recording in Evernote on my laptop as I typed was a disaster, with the soundtrack of my keystrokes sounding like a herd of small animals running back and forth over the keyboard.)

If I’m covering a public speech or panel, I usually get the additional backup of streaming video of the event that I can replay afterwards.

I’ll also record instead of trying to jot down notes if I’m having a conversation with somebody while we both walk, as if we were in an Aaron Sorkin drama. Trying to take notes on my phone in that scenario invites typo-ridden notes at best, bumping into somebody at worst.

But while recording an interview ensures that I won’t miss a turn of phrase, it also at least doubles my writing time, since I need to play back the entire thing, usually more than once, to ensure I got the quotes correct. Automated transcription services–my friend Ron Miller is a huge fan of Otter, so I’ve now signed up for that–can speed the process, but I doubt I’d copy and paste from a machine-learning model’s transcript without a reality-check replay of the recording.

In all of these scenarios, the speaker in question can make the job easier or harder. Practiced orators who elocute in precisely-formed sentences are a pleasure to transcribe, while fast talkers and people who interleave their dependent and independent clauses escalate the difficulty level.

Or I can just do the interview via e-mail and not have to worry about any of this stuff.

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Why do I keep seeing journalists take notes on paper?

I was at a lunch briefing today, and of about 10 people around the table–some Visa executives, some PR minders, most journalists–I was the only person taking notes in an app instead of on paper.

Paper notepadThat’s a typical situation. And I don’t get it.

I started jotting down notes on mobile devices in 1995–anybody else remember the Sony MagicLink?–and by the turn of the century I’d switched to pixels over paper as my primary medium for that task. Back then, the Palm OS memo-pad app left much to be desired but still had two features absent from any paper notepad: a “find” function and the ability to back everything up.

Those two abilities alone made it worth my while to learn Graffiti and a series of other onscreen text-input systems–then have to explain to people that no, I wasn’t texting somebody else while they were talking to me.

It’s now 2015, and Evernote not only does those two core tasks but syncs automatically over the air, lets me embed everything from audio recordings to lists and tables, and runs on about every desktop and mobile platform ever made. And its eminently-usable basic version is free, although I finally started paying for the premium version this year to get extra features like scanning business cards.

Don’t like Evernote for whatever reason? You could use Microsoft’s OneNote. Or Google Keep. Or Apple’s Notes apps for OS X and iOS. Or any of dozens of third-party apps. I realize that you need to be able to type reasonably fast on a phone’s screen–but hasn’t that skill pretty much become a job prerequisite anyway, between texts, e-mail and Twitter?

I’m not saying paper notepads are useless–I keep one in my bag, just in case. But I haven’t brought that out for any reporting in years. Its most recent use: I handed it to my daughter to play with, and she drew me a picture of a flower.