by John Larson, correspondent, PBS
Note taking for me has always been defined by deadline — the tighter it is, the more my notes tend to reflect immediate needs: the in/out cues of the best potential quotes, the most important facts/statistics that I’ll need RIGHT NOW. I needed to make sure I’d have the quotes I’d need without even looking at the media. (I used to sync the camera with my watch during extremely tight deadline press conference, so time code would be time of day. There are now software packages that will do the same thing.)
If I have a little room to breathe, my notes reflect how I think the story might best be told: you’ll see rough outlines suggesting the beginning, middle and end of the story, and the best, rough sentences that occur to me during the gathering process. And ideas for a standup bridge – if necessary.
I often organize my story by using a list of boxes, representing the best video moments/settings/bites — matched with whatever information I may want to share within each “box.” For example, a story about airport landing fees/taxes might have a box for an amazing shot of 747 landing over our heads, coupled with a statistic: 32 foreign flights land in American airports every second of every working day. Then there will be another box representing a interview with a Federal Tax Policy Specialist, etc. I started organizing stories this way from the very beginning, and I realize now it reflected my interest in writing from and for whatever video I had, instead of the other way around.
As a television journalist I often have a video backup of many interviews, so that relieves the pressure of note taking if my deadline is not tight. In local news, I always had a tape recorder that I would use for every interview. As a national magazine correspondent, I almost never needed a tape recorder — the deadlines were far enough away that we would have complete written transcripts in our hands before I began viewing raw tape or writing.
Here are two shots of my notebooks from recent stories. On the right you’ll notice all I’m really writing down are proper spellings, ages and specific numbers about the number of hours the people work at their jobs: “16 – 23”, how premature their baby was: “18 months” and how much in debt they are in medical bills: “30K” On the left you’ll see how sparse my notes can be, I only wrote down a favorite quote that I knew was off camera that I didn’t want to forget. (The director of a Wild Mustang Rescue operation said, “I have the best job in the worst location in America.” Beneath that, all I am writing down are specific events that I want to research or look up later: in Ohio, Pomona, CA, and northern Nevada.
Lastly, I try not to bury myself in my notebook when listening to people. I think it much more important to connect with them. I’ll often rewrite or organize my notes immediately after and interview, or at lunch, or at night in the hotel room. Unless it is numbers, titles, spellings that I might forget. Also, sometimes my scribbles are so random, they’ll make sense to me for about a week — but will be incomprehensible if I look at them a year later. Not good, but they seem to get the job done.