Whither the reporter’s notebook?

When I read about local efforts to get iPads into the hands of school kids, I feel a little envious.

OK, so maybe I’m falling prey to the cool-thing-of-the-moment. But I picture how useful it would be to have a tablet computer and can’t help thinking every reporter should have one.

If that sounds far out (not to mention expensive), consider Gannett, the huge media conglomerate whose holdings include USA Today. The company announced a few months ago that it’s equipping 1,000 of its print and broadcast reporters with iPhones, enabling them to edit, report and broadcast from wherever the story happens to be. IPads are next.

Journalism has spawned a new breed known as the mojo, or mobile journalist – reporters who do most or all of their work in the community as opposed to the newsroom, using digital technology to create, write and publish stories, photos and video.

It’s pretty exciting stuff. But you need the technology to make it happen, hence the appeal of an iPad. I picture toting it to meetings and interviews, whipping it out to take notes, check facts or send an email. I could follow all my news and social media feeds. I could tweet or blog. My iPad would be lightweight and portable – a virtual extension of the computer at my desk. It would be… and here my imagination starts to fail, because frankly there are times when nothing else can take the place of the old-fashioned reporter’s notebook.

You know what I’m talking about: those narrow flip-top notebooks so traditional and so beloved in so many newsrooms. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, fans of “Lou Grant” saw them in the hands of Joe Rossi and Billie Newman. The ones we use here at the West Central Tribune actually say “news” and “reporter’s notebook” on the cover. If I could collect all the notebooks I’ve gone through over the years, they would amount to a respectable-sized mountain.

The reporter’s notebook is small enough to fit in your hand while taking notes or conducting an interview on the go. It’s simple. It’s unobtrusive. It’s cheap. It’s rarely prone to technical failure.

I wouldn’t dream of writing a story in longhand – far too primitive and cumbersome compared to the ease of a keyboard. But I confess to a preference for hand-written note-taking. Something about the physical act of writing it down seems to reinforce the meaning in a deeper way (and it’s not just me; recent research has confirmed that handwriting helps activate parts of the brain involved in memory, learning and ideas).

Sure, I lust after an iPad. But I’m still attached to my reporter’s notebook and not ready to give it up entirely.

Besides, the notebook has one supreme Darwinian advantage over electronic gadgets: In the sometimes rigorous field conditions of daily journalism, it’s built to last.

The following story might not be entirely true. It happened before my time and was handed down as a newsroom legend. The version I heard went something like this:

Back in the 1970s, there was a wave of activism by dairy farmers protesting low price supports for milk. They demonstrated their unhappiness by staging public demonstrations during which they’d pour gallons of milk onto the ground.

A Tribune photographer, sent to cover one of these demonstrations in Willmar, saw a cherry-picker parked nearby and asked to be taken aloft in the bucket so he could shoot the scene from above. It would have been a marvelous shot, except he forgot to secure the camera strap around his neck and – yup, you saw this coming – the camera fell several feet to the ground, landed in the milk and was ruined.

If that had been a reporter’s notebook, 20 minutes or so with a hand-held hair dryer and it would have been good to go again. Now try that with an iPad.

- Anne Polta, staff writer

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