Technology and the Single Journalist

Laura van Dam asked me to spend a few minutes and write about how technology can help journalists, and specifically freelance science journalists, go about their lives and careers. Specifically she asked me to comment on "electronic techniques to help organize our work lives." That's a tall order, but let me see what I can do here.

The first thing to realize is that, as a freelance writer, chaos is your enemy. Any chaos. If your clips are disorganized, you'll have a hard time convincing new editors to buy your work. If you contacts file is disorganized, you won't be able find important sources. If your office is disorganized, you'll lose important papers and documents. I've discovered that disorder in my office frequently costs me real money. One of the best examples was the time that I sent back a $560 expense reimbursement check because I thought it was a duplicate. It wasn't¾ it had just been lost on my desk for a month. I was unable to get the company to issue another one.

So here are some organizational ideas, both technical and non-technical.

  1. Avoid piles. Piles are your enemy. It's easy to lose things in them. If you must pile things up, pile them up vertically, not horizontally. But I find that the best way to deal with piles is a set of hanging folders that I keep to the right of my desk. I have one open for every story that I'm working on or thinking about working on. The newspaper clippings, press-kits, and paper notes all go right into the files. When the story gets published I thin it out. Eventually I throw it away. You can always get another press kit.
  2. Get a PaperPort scanner. I love my PaperPort. It's a Vx and it can run on both a Mac and a Windows machine. If I get an important document for an article that I'm working on, I scan it. If I lose the paper, it's no problem. I just print out the document again.
  3. Scan your business cards, then throw them away. I used to take all of my business cards and lay them down on a photocopier, then put copies into a three-ring binder. But with the PaperPort search software you can actually search for a person's name in a stack of scanned cards. It's still no substitute for typing the cards into your computer, but it's pretty good.
  4. Scan your receipts. Especially if you are going to be reimbursed. This way, when the magazine loses them all, it's easy to resubmit.
  5. Scan your phone bills. Ditto.
  6. Contact management software: it all sucks. I keep two address books. One for all of my personal and professional contacts, like editors. The second is for sources ¾ the phone number of the FBI press office, or a company that is developing some new drug.
  7. Structure (in an address book) is bad. My favorite commercially-available contact management program is InfoGenie, on the Mac. Basically it lets you create free-form "cards." You do a search for "George" and it steps you through each card with a match. It's really cool, and very fast. Unstructured databases are better for journalists. You'll have one phone number for one business, and 50 names and phone numbers for another.
  8. Faxes. Use your computer. Computers make great fax machines. You can receive faxes directly into a Win95 or Mac and have them archived to your hard drive. Just print them out when you need them. Store the fax files with your other files for each story.
  9. JFAX. If you don't want to dedicate a phone line to the fax, go to and subscribe. JFAX is a fax service that will let you receive faxes (and voice mail) on a dedicated 800-number. It then sends you the faxes by email. It's great. Its' cheaper than a phone line. And you can get your faxes wherever you travel, as long as you have email.
  10. Get a good ISP. I've been doing a lot of international traveling lately. For this purpose, the best ISP is IBM, hands down. For $19.95/month I get global roaming. I'm serious! I've dialed up from Poland and Japan, all for $19.95/month.
  11. Use e-mail forwarding. Don't have your email go to your ISP. Use your NASW.ORG email address. You can have it forward wherever you want. This email address will work for years. It mans you can switch ISPs without worry.
  12. Backup your computer. Daily! Get a DAT drive. They work better.
  13. 3Com Pilots. People love them. But be warned: they break easy.
  14. Cell Phone. Run to Sprint and get one of their phones. You can get 1000 minutes/month for $99, with free nation-wide roaming and voice-mail. When you travel, forward your work phone to your cell phone. It's much easier than giving people a dozen phone numbers to remember.
  15. Call forward busy/call forward no answer. Get this service (Called Call Forward 2). Then you don't need to remember to forward your phone. It happens automatically. Use your cell phone's voice mail as your primary voice-mail.
  16. Billing. Quickbooks has the best invoicing out there, but I like the automated credit-card statement download in Quicken. Lately I've been using Quicken '98 for Home and Business, which does invoicing & automatic credit cards. It's not perfect, but it's okay. I don't know of anything else that is.
  17. Get Sprint for Long Distance, then call them up and have them add "unrestricted accounting codes" to your line. From now on, when you make a long distance call, you'll get a second dialtone. Dial a 2-digit code. At the end of the month, you'll get a separate phone bill for each code you dialed. I assign a different code to each different story that I'm working on. It makes reimbursement for long-distance phone calls a snap.