When I was struggling the other day to write a piece that never did jell, it reminded me of something from my early days as a reporter that I had practically forgotten all about.
Of course, I got into the trade long before journalism schools were invented --- at least in the country of my birth --- and before there were oceans of electronic gadgets to aid in the reportorial function. I was 17, had just left after four years in high school, where I spent all my energies in running, jumping and hitting or kicking balls round, and I had to learn, first, to type, and secondly to master shorthand methods of taking notes. I tried Pitman’s but found it confoundedly complicated, so moved on to Gregg’s, an easier system, so I finished up with a mixture of Gregg’s and my own scribbled note-taking, and --- the best weapon of all --- a memory that for a few years seemed to be almost infallible. As I grew into the trade and became accustomed to interviewing people --- we used to interview almost every foreigner who ventured into our small city, Invercargill, in the far south coast of the South Island of New Zealand, the place we proudly called “the southernmost city in the British Empire” --- I quickly became used to mentally editing what I was going to write as I conducted the interview. Consequently, I eventually could return to the office with the outline of my piece already laid out in my head, and knock it off quickly. Of the various skills involved, the actual writing was almost the easiest part of the exercise.
I worked at this trade for 25 years, off and on, moving from one newspaper to another in four or five different countries, usually staying for no more than three years in any one place, until I got kind of stuck in Montreal, mainly because eight years of my 14 years in Montreal journalism were spent in London, England, where I was more or less working on my own time, choosing what to write and when to work.
By the latter years of my quarter century, these little recording machines had popped up, and I found younger reporters were taking them along to interviews, and then coming back to the office and laboriously going through the interview all over again. I tried I once, and gave it up. First, I wasn’t good at working the little gadgets --- although God knows they were easy enough, requiring just a slight manual dexterity to click them on and off --- but, secondly, I just couldn't produce as good a result as I could through my internal editing system. And, in addition, it took twice as long, and for me even longer, to do the job.
Well, the reason this has sprung to mind is that the other day, trying to work my way though to a satisfactory conclusion, I was working, first of all, from a recorded account of a symposium.
Until about 15 years ago, as I observed the reporting trade on TV and the like, I used to think, I could still do that, no problem, if anyone asked me. But it has slowly been borne in on me in the last 15 years that, in fact, I could not still do the job as I used to do it. I have discovered, not just last week, but also on some previous occasions, that my note-taking, which used to be eminently readable, at least to me, is nowadays lost in the purgatory of the incomprehensible. I still use some of the Gregg’s symbols, as I had always done, but nowadays when I try to read them back, I cannot remember exactly what I thought they were supposed to mean when I wrote them down, and the linking scribbles, that also used to be easy for me to understand, are nowadays unreadable.
Having failed to make readable notes by hand, after playing the tape through slowly, stopping and backing, and starting and stopping again, I decided I would be better to type it directly, as the tape wound through the computer screen. Unfortunately, on this 13-inch computer keyboard, I make gazillions of typing errors, and when I looked at what emerged from my rapid typing, as I tried to keep up with the speaker, it was even less comprehensible than were my hand-written notes.
Eventually --- fulfilling the injunction I passed on to my children that “remember, you can always quit” --- I decided to quit, to give it up as a bad job. (Mind you, my advice to them that they could always quit was not meant to be applied to the minutiae of daily work performance, but really should have been confined to the big decisions, as to whether they could stand working for this or that particular asshole employer).
Anyway, all this reminded me of the days when I didn’t need a recorder to know what I had been told by an interviewee. And to tell the truth, even today I would tend to put more faith in a reporter who knew what he had been told, understood which part of it was relevant as a piece of public information, and knew also how to get that down on paper as soon and as accurately as possible, than I would in a reporter who, returning to his office, did not know how to begin his story, and could not fill it out without help from a machine.
All this shows how far behind the times I am (he says, with a touch of pride).