Reporter's Toolkit

1996 Spring

Katy Butler


When I first went to work at a city newspaper nearly twenty years ago, I did much of my research from envelopes of yellowed clippings, and typed away in a room full of clattering typewriters manned by cigarette-smoking World War II vets. Today, I write mostly from home and submit to magazines via modem. Newsrooms are computerized now and nearly as quiet as insurance offices, clippings glow green on the computer screen, and most of us take laptops with us when we go out of town.


And yet the essential tools of our trade have not changed much: what really counts is still a reporter's notebook, a reliable pen or pencil, and your own peculiar eyes, ears, nose, skin, tongue, and heart. These are enough to allow you to notice what you notice, to absorb the details that move you, and to write them down.


The tools may be simple, but they are crucial. Reporting is the essential ingredient of the writing that follows it, the flour from which the bread is baked. If you know, say, that the Tibetan monks' ceremonial drumsticks were bamboo, yellow, and curved like carpetbeaters, you convey a lot more than if you say they were weird and fantastical. If one monk wore bright red-and-orange striped socks under his robe and another a watch with an expandable band, you say more than if you write that they're not free of western influence. Details bring the reader into the room with you. Details let the reader stand at your elbow and smell, taste, see, and hear the scene. It's hard to fake them later.


That is why I take all the notes I can afford to. I note how I feel and the time of the day and the color of the sky and exactly where I am in the city or the room. I try to record every sense - smell, taste, sound, touch, and sight. I write down what people are wearing, what they eat, and what they drive. I write whatever surprises or amuses me, whatever catches my eye even if I don't understand why. I put down the thoughts that I am afraid will make me or someone else look like a fool. I write down the details that contradict my idea of what the story was about before I began. I write down the difference between what people do and what they say. I notice what lies outside the frame of the official "event," and what I'm not supposed to notice. I especially write down what people do: it is the most interesting thing because it cannot be lied about.


I USE REPORTER'S NOTEBOOKS from Stationers Inc. in Richmond, Virginia. Almost all newspaper reporter use them because they're unobtrusive they're easy to pull out of a suit pocket or purse, they're stiff-backed, and say Reporter's Notebook on the front so you look official. Your pencil or pen should write fast without skipping and you should have lots of them in your daypack or car. I like Onyx pens or #2 soft lead pencils, which I sharpen at both ends.


I prefer reporter's notebooks to laptops (too formal) and tape recorders (not formal enough). Notebooks go everywhere and can be used on the run; they are less obtrusive than laptops, which are fine when you need every word, the setting is sedate (a hearing, a courtroom), a rapport is not a problem. Notebooks create just enough formality to make people speak less lazily than they do into tape recorders. Better yet, you can put an asterisk next to a good quote and find it quickly when you sit down to write. Transcribing tapes is usually a waste of time: quotes should be brief, and not only convey information but delineate character, show emotion, and advance the action.

Long published interviews are another story, of course and so are interviews who may sue you for libel or disavow what they said. Then - and in crowded press conferences, when accurate quotes are hard to get right - I use a miniature Olympia Pearlcorder L-200. It's metal, it fits into my palm, and it feels like it will last; its internal microphone picks up voices well, even in crowds. The tapes are tiny and easy to store. It's voice-activated, and its slow speed gives me ninety minutes per side. I often take notes at the same time. (Later, you'll save hours in transcribing if you get a Sanyo TRC 5020 transcriber. It has variable speed and a foot pedal.)


I carry my recorder and notebooks in a small black daypack with the logo taken off; it doubles as a pocketbook and a lace to keep a wallet full of dimes. If the job involves waiting around in the cold, the pack also holds an umbrella, a scarf, and lycra leggings - lightweight items that can expand your comfort zone by ten or twenty degrees. A good trenchcoat with a warm lining takes me everywhere. Otherwise, I try to dress about as well as the person I'm interviewing: I don't want to be intimidating, nor do I want to be dismissed. A Burberry won't get you far at a homeless shelter, nor will ratty running shoes and a bad haircut make it in City Hall. (Dressed in jeans, I once had a terrible time trying to interview people waiting in line for opera tickets - they just laughed me off. Another day, in a white Norma Kamali shirtdress, I made it into an all-men's city club and grabbed an interview before they could throw me out.) In a mob scene, as with children, bright attention-getting clothes help. Women reporters wore red, Nancy's favorite color, to Reagan's press conferences. But the writing I like best comes when I'm a grey mouse, skulking in the corner until people forget about me and begin to talk naturally to each other again.


Every article needs both summary and scene: the scene requires being out on the street, but information is best gathered over the phone. You can record phone conversations for about $20 using Radio Shack's Telephone Recording Control Device. It links your phone line directly to your tape recorder and has far better fidelity than those little suction cups you can attach to your phone receiver. In some states (not California) it's legal to record people without their permission, but I recommend chatting for a few minutes and then asking people if they mind you taping. I don't like recording people without their knowledge. A phone headset will save you a lot of pain if you spend more than ten minutes taking notes with your neck cricked up.


When it's time to write, being organized saves me hours. If I've interviewed more than five people, I print out each interview, put it in a separate manila folder, and keep them alphabetized in a Stor-All cardboard file box on top of my desk. Then I sit at my computer and noodle around, writing an informal letter to myself about what I learned, what surprised me, what details and memories move me the most. I think of what I write as a letter, written in plain English, to someone whose intelligence I respect.


When I quit my newspaper job for the third time last spring, I felt I was losing my information lifeline. But Knowledge Index, a Compuserve premium service, gives me more than I've ever had - weekend and evening access to back issues of more than thirty major newspapers across the country, including the Washington Post, the L.A. Times, the Miami Herald, and the Boston Globe. (The New York Times, alas, is available only for big bucks on Nexis.)


Begin News 11 will get you into the San Francisco Chronicle's database. Find au=(Katy and Butler) and AIDS and PY=1987 will get you the number of stories I wrote on AIDS that year. Type s1/s/all will give you a short list of them. Type s1/l/1,3,5 will give you complete copies of stories one, three, and five from the short list. The key to saving money on Knowledge Index lies in writing out your search before you begin, downloading the short list, and signing off. Then inspect the list, choose what you want to download in full, write out a second search, sign back on, and retrieve what you want. For a little more than a dollar, I can print out seven articles.


I also have books that I regard as tools. They remind me what excellent reporting looks like, and they still encourage me to take risks. Carl Bernstein and Robert Woodward's All the President's Men, the story of the Washington Post's exposure of the Watergate scandal, is the best how-to book on investigative reporting techniques I've ever seen. The introduction to Lillian Ross's Reporting (out of print but available in some libraries) also beautifully introduces the ethics of reporting as practiced at the old New Yorker.


Los Angeles writer Joan Didion is a master of noticing the distance between the thing reported and the thing itself, and commenting on that space. Her reporting collections, Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, are not to be missed. Even more instructive are two pieces from After Henry. "Insider Baseball" covers the 1988 Bush and Dukakis presidential campaigns, where phony events (Dukakis tossing a baseball on the tarmac at every campaign stop) were covered as though they were real. "Sentimental Journeys" examines news coverage of the 1989 rape and near-murder of a white woman jogger in Central Park at the hands of black teenagers. It is a subtle investigation of the ways that race, gender, and class shape reporting of sex crime, and how "sentimental narratives" about the fate of the city were overlaid onto the realities of the case. Both essays are cautionary tales and reminders that what is in front of our faces is almost invariably interesting than the ready-made boxes into which the press (at its worst) squeezes events.


Ryszard Kapuscinski worked as a reporter for Poland's official news agency between 1958 and 1980, covering revolutions and wars in Africa. The Soccer War is a chronicle of the poetry that got left out of the official dispatches. Like Didion, Kapuscinski has an unerring eye for the gap between rhetoric and reality. The other story to be found here is that of a man who courts death to find a functioning telex, runs burning roadblocks, is imprisoned and nearly murdered after the assassination (probably by the CIA) of the revolutionary Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba. His insane risk-taking, and his foolish but ultimately justified human trust, give Kapuscinski's book its redemptive power.


I expect to wrestle until I die with how not to leave the best parts out. Sometimes it can't be helped: truths wriggle free of the sieve imposed by short deadlines and tight spaces. But often what stops me is the fear that my own perceptions will expose me for the weirdo that I am. What makes your work most peculiarly yours is also what may make it most universal. In 1988, I spent an afternoon in a San Rafael warehouse watching Mickey Hart fit Tibet's Gyuto monks with headset-microphones for a northern California chanting tour. In their maroon robes and black plastic headsets, I thought that they looked like a double line of medieval telephone operators. I didn't want to write it down at the time because I thought only a peculiar person (me) would see the scene that way. When I reread the story today, I'm glad I took the chance.


1996 Katy Butler.  All Rights Reserved. Not to be reprinted without permission.