Reporters go back and forth about the wisdom of using a tape recorder. I come down against, for several reasons. First, it’s a huge time-sink. You have to listen to, and transcribe, the tapes later, which takes three or four times longer than conducting the interview in the first place. You are required to tell the person you’re taping, which can make them nervous. Tapes can be evidence in a libel suit. You’re less likely to pay close attention to what’s being said if you know the tape is catching everything, which means you might be more apt to let a good question opportunity go by.
Much better, I think, to train yourself to type as fast as somebody can talk. Then conduct your interviews with laptop open. I’ve been doing this for years, and what I end up with is a virtual transcript of the conversation, right down to the people’s verbal tics, regionalisms, odd expressions, and the like. The best way to train yourself to type fast is to type all the time. Watching a movie? Type the dialogue. Talking to a friend over dinner? Type the dialogue. You don’t need a laptop open. Just move your fingers as though you’re typing. Fast typing may be the most useful skill I’ve developed as a reporter.
Some people wonder if having a laptop open makes people nervous, and less likely to give up the good stuff. No, for two reasons. First, laptops have been around a long time. People are used to them. Second, I always offer to email the person, that night, my notes. I say, “I’d rather you look the notes over now, and clear up any misconceptions or inaccuracies, so there are no problems later. Few people actually ask for the notes. Fewer, I’m sure, read them. But they are comforted by the offer. (In truth, it’s good when people read the notes and get back in touch to correct them. It really does clear up inaccuracies and misconceptions, and it gives me a follow-up interview.)
Sometimes, you can’t use a laptop — like if you’re walking around beside the source, or in the middle of a battlefield, or anyplace where the setting isn’t a formal sit-down. Then you have to use a notebook. But this is key: transcribe all your notes that night. And when you transcribe, don’t just move the words from the page to the laptop. Use the notes to write full paragraphs about what you saw and heard. This will often by your best writing, because the subject will be the freshest in your mind. I’ve frequently moved whole paragraphs from my transcribed notes straight into my stories.
I’ll say it again: transcribe your notes every day. If you get even a day behind, you’ll never catch up, and your memories won’t be fresh. The moment will be gone. This means spending hours in your hotel room every night working, instead of going out on the town. But that’s what it takes.