By Scott Nover
Being a freelance journalist is a masochistic endeavor. If you’re working freelance, I assume you’re either between jobs, supplementing your income, or a far more successful freelancer than I will ever be. Without the support structure of a proper newsroom, you’re often all alone except for emails and phone calls with an editor who serves as your liaison for story, payment, and more. I have only been freelancing — writing and editing — for about a year (and, until recently, had a full-time job too), but I think I’ve figured out what tech, gadgets, software and hardware are most helpful. Here’s my tech guide to being a freelance journalist:
Writing, Editing, and Note-taking
Where you write and take notes is all about your preference, so I’ll keep this section short and sweet. I haven’t figured out a system that feels truly comfortable. That being said, I rely mainly on Google Docs and Evernote.
Google Docs are probably the most user-friendly writing and editing system I’ve used. They’re easy, nimble and superb for editing. They’re my choice as a writer, but really my choice when I edit. Tracking historic changes are a little tricky, but they are there. But, nothing’s quicker or better for working with a writer than the suggested edits (track change feature) and comments on Google Docs. While some editors really prefer Word documents, I find the user experience very convoluted and the track changes are hard to use.
The Google Docs integration on iPhone and iPad, however, is fairly dreadful, so I try to always write on my MacBook Pro.
I also find the organizational system in Google Drive to be disorganized—for some reason, I can never keep my files straight there. Instead I link my stories to a master spreadsheet — on Google Sheets — where my freelance pitches and stories live.
Evernote is my choice for a note-taking app. I use the free version, which allows you to sync with one other device. I do some writing in here, but often I just find it a little more organizationally sound than Google Drive, so I keep folders of all my stories or projects and drop links and notes in there. The interface is simple, but pretty good. Again, I’m not in love with my note-taking or organizational systems, but this is the best set-up I’ve found so far.
Okay, now that we’ve got that first part out of the way, let’s get into the fun stuff. The interview process is one of the most important aspects of reporting and you should make sure you’re doing it right.
First, live interviews: for in-person interviews I use two recorders! What? Yes, I’m paranoid and my greatest fear is losing an interview and telling a source that I lost a recording and I either need to redo the interview or have to exclude their voice from my story. On my phone, I often set up Voice Record Pro, a free iOS and Android application, which I find to be extremely high quality. (You can even level-check a room and customize a lot of the audio features I don’t know anything about.) When you’re done, you can export — I email—the file in full or through a password-protected link that expires a day later (recommended). I also use an in-hand USB voice recorder from Sony (Sony ICDUX560BLK Digital Voice Recorder), which is currently $86.49 on Amazon. If you’re looking for an easy-to-use, high-quality voice recorder, this is the one for you. Great for taping press conferences, long interviews, or full events if you need to do that.
The built-in Apple Voice Memos app (preinstalled iPhone and Mac) are undeniably excellent. If you’re on the go or scrambling to get set up, just use that!
Before we dive in to phone call recording, please study the consent laws around recording phone calls. The Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press has a handy state-by-state guide to what’s legal where. Just remember that if you or the interviewee is in a two-party consent state, you need to have consent to record or the recording is illegal. Be safe, not sorry and ask permission even if you think you know where the interviewee is! I use TapeACall, an iOS app that costs $29.00 a year. TapeACall allows you to easily record a phone call by conferencing in their phone number and merging the calls. Simple as that. Totally worth it. Been using it for years. (Note: we’ll talk about Trint in a minute when it comes to transcription but I believe their new iOS app also allows you to record calls.)
Now you have a place to write, to store notes, and a few ways to record your interviews. So, what’s next? Transcription: arguably the worst part of the journalistic process.
I used to use OTranscribe, a free service where you simply upload your audio file and use a few keys to speed up or slow down the playback as you transcribe by hand. That’s great as a free option.
But, Trint has changed the game for me. You upload your audio file and either pay $15 per hour of audio or pay a monthly fee of $40 for 3 hours of tape (or $120 a month for 10 hours). The transcription they shoot out is pretty accurate, especially if you’ve got a clear audio file (no coffee shop background noise). It struggles with accents, but I believe it’s getting better. You’ll still need to go through and perfect your transcript for either the quotes you’re pulling or (especially) if you’re publishing a Q&A or full transcript. It’s not perfect, but it’s a massive upgrade from any other consumer-facing transcription service. Worth the price.
Simple: I use a MacBook Pro (the cheapest one without the silly touchscreen bar), an iPhone 6S (here’s the trick to iPhone longevity… go to the Apple Store and they’ll replace your phone battery for $50). I recently bought the cheapest iPad and added the Logitech Slim Folio with Integrated Bluetooth Keyboard ($71.99 on Amazon), which I really love. I believe the higher-priced iPads work with an Apple-made keyboard, but this one is great and Apple promotes it on its own website.
(I always carry around a USB-to-USB-C converter too!)
Because I don’t have an office and I often work on the go, battery infrastructure is crucial. For my iPhone and iPad, I charge with a Anker PowerCore 20100mAh ($50 on Amazon), which holds 7 phone charges. For my MacBook Pro, I needed a charger with USB-C integration, so I bought the ZMI USB PD Backup Battery & Hub ($64.95 on Amazon). To be honest, I’m still getting used to it. It’s good, but I find I have to charge it a lot. Maybe check some other guides before buying, but I believe Wirecutter recommends this one.
The most important thing about full-time freelancing is managing your money. I’ll keep this section simple: I use QuickBooks Self-Employed ($5 a month) and Mint (free), both from Intuit. I like to use both, as neither does everything I want them to do. Together, I find they do most things right. QuickBooks lets you create and send invoices straight to editors, so it’s super helpful!
I use Clockify for my freelance editing, as I get paid an hourly rate. It easily allows me to clock in and clock out and keep track of my billable hours that way. Just started using it, but I’m a big fan!
I love LastPass (free). I use it for all my password storage. If you’re a reporter, good information security is super important, especially if you deal with sensitive issues. Signal is a great messaging application with end-to-end encryption, but remember to enable auto-delete! I love Instapaper for bookmarking stories I want to read. It’s great if you see a magazine-length feature and want to save it for the weekend or for a long trip.
I think that’s it for now! Thanks for reading!
Let me know if you have any questions — firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @ScottNover.