An ode to reporter’s notebooks

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Ten years ago this month, I became a reporter.

In April of 2008, I was a 23-year-old recent college grad working at a soul-stifling corporate marketing job and feeling increasingly terrified of a life filled with spreadsheets, menial tasks, khakis, and meetings with unclear purposes. Since enrolling in a night class on creative nonfiction a few months earlier, though, I had begun to see a different path. And by May, I had abandoned my cubicle, driven across the country, and started an internship at the alt-weekly, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, where I received my first reporter’s notebook. Printed on the cover was the Bay Guardian’s logo and the inscription: “Printing the news and raising hell since 1966.” A few days later, I published my first piece: a 280-word blog post on an old-school diner named Al’s Cafe that had photos of James Dean and Audrey Hepburn on the wall.

In the ensuing months, I took more of my first wobbly steps as a reporter: roaming the city, conducting interviews, and seeing the world for the first time as one big, teeming, electric mass of stories waiting to be told. I wrote a handful of blog posts for the Bay Guardian—about an indoor firing range in South San Francisco, a barbershop that doubled as a boxing gym, an 8-year-old guitar prodigy performing in a city park—and when the summer ended, I moved home to Rhode Island to work as a substitute middle-school English teacher and write for my local alt-weekly and the Jewish newspaper. With immense pride, I began describing myself as a freelance journalist.

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Ten years, and hundreds of articles later, reporter’s notebooks are less strange and new, and more of an indispensable part of my life. I buy them in bulk—$19.50 for for a 12-pack on Amazon—and stash them in bags, in various rooms in my apartment, in jacket pockets, in nooks in my car. Now that I teach journalism, I hand them out to my students at the beginning of the term, along with a few words that try to express what they mean to me.

They are unglamorous objects: a slab of paper and cardboard, held together by a corkscrew-like strip of metal. But in the years since my Bay Guardian internship, they’ve taken on overwhelming symbolic meaning—something like a wedding ring and a religious totem, rolled into one. What follows is an expanded version of the speech I give when I hand students their first crisp, new, unblemished notebook.

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A REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK is a license to talk to interesting people. My whole pre-reporting life I had been prone to striking up conversations with strangers, but the notebook gave me a reason—and permission—to do so without feeling weird. It was a gift that continues to pay dividends. Since my internship at the Bay Guardian, I have interviewed senators, professors, rabbis, comedians, chefs, inventors, entrepreneurs, authors, actors, activists, felons, punk rockers, Project Runway participants, and a Rhode Island Poet Laureate, who paused occasionally during our conversation to recite entire poems from memory. Even as I’ve become hardened and cynical about some aspects of the profession—say, the moment CBS President Les Moonves said Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS”—the  interviews I conduct still challenge, inspire, and move me. Few other conversations go from 0 to 60, intellectually or emotionally speaking, like a journalistic interview. I often derive more meaning from one day on this job than my entire nine months in corporate life.

A reporter’s notebook is also a ticket to interesting places. Readers want to be taken somewhere, and, as their surrogate, I have attended tango marathons, mini-horse shows, medical marijuana expos, brass-band concerts, criminal trials, campaign rallies, and cage fights. The key to bringing these experiences to life, I tell my students, is to capture and convey the details. And the reporter’s notebook is the low-tech device I use to capture the sights, smells, sounds, feelings, tastes, and other impressions of the world. To report is to be alert and alive in a particular time and place; if it weren’t for the deadlines, I might call it a meditative process.

 

To report is to be alert and alive in a particular time and place; if it weren’t for the deadlines, I might call it a meditative process.

 

But reporting isn’t just observing, it’s also understanding. And a reporter’s notebook is a microscope, or magnifying glass, for examining the world. It was reporters who helped me understand heroin, Hollywood, and the atomic-bomb blasts in Hiroshima. And, in my career, I’ve attempted to do similar work with my home-state’s legislature, the country’s first offshore wind farm, and the overdose-reversing agent naloxone. In order to write well about something, you’ve got to understand it. And, like interviewing, this hyper-accelerated learning process never gets stale. In a recent interview with The New Yorker, the New York Times reporter-turned-publisher A.G. Sulzberger described it as a “beautiful combination of spending half your day learning and half your day teaching.”

The other part of the job, of course, is sharing what you’ve learned, which means a reporter’s notebook is also a microphone. It is here where much of the nerve-wracking responsibilities come into play: the careful writing and re-writing, the fact-checking, the copy-editing. Given the messy state of online discourse, modern-day publishing can feel like stepping in front of a firing squad. But it can also be an unimaginable joy. My recent pieces about mental health have elicited some of the most extraordinary responses of my career. “I just felt a sort of wave of warmth come over me, like a thawing,” one reader wrote to me, after reading a piece on depression. Another told me, via email, “Young people are learning from you.” The reporter’s notebook was the tin-can telephone that connected me to them.

When I do this work, I’m following countless journalists who have done it before me. In this way, the reporter’s notebook is a baton, or a torch, passed from generation to generation. I would have never pursued or continued in journalism if I hadn’t first been inspired by William Zinsser, and Joan Didion, and Jon Krakauer, and David Carr, and Janet Malcolm, and Philip Gourevitch, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Joseph Mitchell, and a long list of other legends. As a working reporter, I can fairly count myself—even if only in the tiniest way—as a participant in that same grand, rollicking tradition. In some cases, like when I got to interview Susan Orlean and New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, the reporter’s notebook even offered a way to meet these heroes.

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Perhaps most importantly, the reporter’s notebook is one of the world’s greatest mechanisms for accountability. Jodi Kantor, one of the Times reporters who received a Pulitzer for her work on the Harvey Weinstein story, was recently interviewed by CNN, and toward the end of the piece, she spoke of the “magic of journalism.” In doing so, she mentioned her reporter’s notebook.  

“You can start out with a hard question, a notebook and a pen, and hopefully a great institution like the Times behind you, and you really can confront somebody really powerful and ask the hard questions,” she said. The notebook, in a real sense, was the net that captured Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Roy Moore, and so many others.

 

 

ON OCTOBER 14, 2014, the San Francisco Bay Guardian shut down after 48 years. Two days later, the Providence Phoenix—the newspaper that gave me my first journalistic paycheck, as a freelancer in 2008, and then my first full-time journalism job, as news editor in 2013—shut down after 36 years.

This is the final reason I give out notebooks.

Having watched the doors I passed through slam shut, I feel personally responsible for doling out the permission, encouragement, and guidance I received from bygone institutional channels. And I urge you to do the same.

Aside from everything else, a reporter’s notebook is one of the simplest, cheapest, and quickest ways to change someone’s life. That’s what happened to me when I got mine 10 years ago in a newsroom in San Francisco.

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Philip Eil is a freelance journalist based in Providence, Rhode Island. He sued the Drug Enforcement Administration under the FOIA, with help from the Rhode Island ACLU and two pro-bono attorneys, Neal McNamara and Jessica Jewell. Follow him on Twitter: @phileil.