Ten great tools for journalists

Inspired by this, I tried to come up with ten tools that will be useful for journalists. I have tried all these at one time or the other and found them quite useful. Here they are, not in any particular order.

1. Handsfree: There is a theory that man evolved so much only because of one small absent bone somewhere around the back of his neck. This allowed him look up and stand straight. With his hands free, he could rub a stone against another to make fire, count with his fingers and design wheels. Some say a Bluetooth headset is more convinient, but others say it drains battery fast. Bluetooth or no, it frees you hands. To take notes on computer during a phone interview. To Google search when you talk.

2. Voice recorder: I have Olympus W210S. It’s good. Stereo microphone. 138 hours in low quality mode. I dont have to change batteries often. No software needed to connect to computer. I keep promising myself that i will use it only as a backup. When it’s on during an interview, i tend to pay less attention and get sloppy in taking notes. Transcribing can be a pain. But, if you are writing a feature, it’s worth listening to some of the key interviews again.

3. Freemind: A very good mind mapping software. It’s free. Helpful when you structure a story. Even more helpful when you are planning one. I feel it slows down my computer a bit. But, given the benefits, i don’t mind.

4. Dictation software: I am typing this post, which should say something about how comfortable i am with using this software. David Pogue says he uses it. Once you train it, it can be an amazing tool. Remember the scene from Finding Forrestor, where Sean Connery says first write with your heart, and then rewrite with your head? Dictation software makes the first part easy.

5. Blogger: I recently moved to wordpress. But for all password protected blogs, blogger is still favourite. You can use it with your Gmail account. We tend to look at blogging as a social tool, and generally ignore its other benefits. The blog format, the way posts are organised, the fact that it’s dated, its labelling/comments feature, the ease with which you can link to other sites, and the control you have on who can access it, the ease with which you can post through mails (and it says mobile too, even though I haven’t tried it) – makes it a great tool to store and organise any information. I feel, it’s most useful when you store contact details. It betters any other address book I can think of – for all the reasons I mentioned before. Make sure you label them. And make sure you update it everyday. I don’t. But I still benefit from what I and a friend used to do once upon a time.

6. Memory sticks: Carry them. Especially when you are going for a meeting or attending seminars/ press con. The PR person will never send the amazing presentation you just saw.

7. Good old notepad/pens: It’s good old….

8. Mobile phone with internet access / qwerty key board: Been accessing internet on my mobile for quite sometime. But a bigger screen and qwerty keyboard can make a lot of difference. It’s obvious that big screens are easier to read. The benefits of Qwerty keyboards aren’t that obvious. Easier to send mails, and even type shorter stories. I have this

9. Calendar / to do list on mobile: A friend once told me ‘Journalists are generally not very disciplined. Otherwise why would you even be a journalist?’ With this, we can atleast say, not for the want of trying. Whether we like it or not, we carry a kind of to do list in our heads. Transferring them to our mobile kind of makes your mind free.

10. Google Docs: Many advantages. You can go straight from your Google account. Google saves different versions, so it’s easy to go back and check. Most importantly, it’s a collaborative tool. Useful when two or more people work on a story.

Like Azeem Azhar says in his post: ‘So those are a few things that make my life a little easier. Would love to hear yous.’

Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers

In October 1998, Warren Buffett gave a speech at University of Florida School of Business. At one point he told his audience, “(Bill) Gates says that if I had been born three million years ago, I would have been some animal’s lunch. He says, “You can’t run very fast, you can’t climb trees, you can’t do anything.” You would just be chewed up the first day. You are lucky; you were born today. And I am.” (video. transcript, pdf)

What about Gates himself? That’s one of the questions that Malcolm Galdwell asks in Outliers, a word to describe people, events that lie outside ordinary experience. Like Gates.

Think about it. The answer is simple. Remember the scene from Schindler’s List? Oskar Schindler, glowing in his newfound success, tells his wife: “In every business I tried, I can see now, it wasn’t me that failed. Something was missing. Even if I’d known what it was, there’s nothing I could have done about it because you can’t create this thing. And it makes all the difference in the world between success and failure.

The wife asks: Luck?

Oskar replies: War.

Events beyond your own control play a major part in your own success or failure. And other things like where you were born. What if Gates were born in India? What if his parents had been poor, abusive? He probably still would have made some mark. But to the extent of his present life?

I am not sure about a culture which swears by hard work alone, but in India, where we all know instinctively that success is a result of a lot of things, many of them beyond an individual’s control, the central argument of Outliers would come as no surprise.

Still, it’s a great read, for three reasons.

Gladwell knows how to tell stories. We read, listen to stories for the emotions they evoke, for the chords, out of reach during our normal lives, they strike. By a description of the setting there, by a telling detail here, by withholding some answers till a few pages later Gladwell doesn’t just say, ‘hey to be successful, you need to hardworking and lucky’. He creates an atmosphere where we see what success is all about. What about other settings, what about counter-examples. They don’t matter at least as long as you are reading the book.

Gladwell has peppered his book with a lot of interesting information, anecdotes, which in normal circumstances you would have no reason to read up on. I personal favourite is the chapter on air crashes.

Finally, Gladwell makes you say, ‘hey I could use this information’. In a way this book is about parenting. He contrasts the lives of two amazingly intelligent men. Christopher Langan and Robert Oppenheimer. You would have heard about Oppenheimer – he headed America’s programme to develop nuclear bomb during WWII, and quoted Bhagawad Gita when it exploded. You probably never heard about Langan, even though he is probably as intellegent as Oppenheimer. Reason: Oppenheimer knew how to charm people and work his way around the world, and Langan didn’t. Reason: parenting.

But, Gladwell’s book also raises bigger questions. And you ask: Given that a lot depends on where and when you are born, what kind of system would you device if you were behind ‘a Rawlsian veil of ignorance‘. In fact, in his speech, Buffett made his observation about the role of luck in the context of designing a fair system.

“Let’s just assume it was 24 hours before you were born and a genie came to you and he said, “Herb, you look very promising and I have a big problem. I got to design the world in which you are going to live in. I have decided it is too tough; you design it. So you have twenty-four hours, you figure out what the social rules should be, the economic rules and the governmental rules and you and your kids and their kids will live under those rules. You say, “I can design anything? There must be a catch?” The genie says there is a catch.

You don’t know if you are going to be born black or white, rich or poor, male or female, infirm or able-bodied, bright or retarded. All you know is you are going to take one ball out of a barrel with 6.5 billion (balls). You are going to participate in the ovarian lottery. And that is going to be the most important thing in your life, because that is going to control whether you are born here or in Afghanistan or whether you are born with an IQ of 130 or an IQ of 70. It is going to determine a whole lot. What type of world are you going to design?”

Gladwell makes a similar point too, and it’s the most important one made in the book. “We are so caught in the myths of the best and the brightest and the self-made that we think outliers spring naturally from the earth. We look at the young Bill Gates and marvel that our world allowed one thirteen year old to become a fabulously successful entrepreneur. But that’s the wrong lesson. Our world only allowed one thirteen year old unlimited access to a time sharing terminal in 1968 If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today? To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success – the fortunate birthdates and the happy accidents of history – with a society that provides opportunities for all.”