Chapter 15: Newsroom books

Chapter 15: Newsroom books

Here we look at the books which you will need to use as a journalist, and how to get the best out of them. We look at the notebook, contacts book, newsdesk diary, style book and various reference books.


Journalists cannot know everything or remember everything. They need to write down information which they will need in the future; and when they need the information, they need to know where to find it.

There are many kinds of books which will make you a better journalist if you know how to use them properly.

Your notebook

Even in the digital age, the notebook is an essential tool of a journalist's trade, whether working in print, radio, television or online. Few people have memories good enough to remember everything they are told, and there is no room in journalism for getting things "roughly right". The notebook allows you to record essential details and organise information; it frees your mind for thinking.

However, it is no use carrying a notebook around unless you are able to use it properly and consistently.

Whenever someone starts to talk, you should assess whether or not it is likely to be newsworthy. If it is, take out your notebook and start taking notes.

Many young journalists are embarrassed to take their notebooks out in front of people. Remember, if a person is to be quoted, he or she would much prefer that you get a correct version than be misquoted. If there is any doubt in your mind about a person's willingness to be interviewed, ask if they object to you making notes. If they do, try to remember what they said and write your notes up as soon as they have gone. Be careful though. Your notes will not be so accurate and you must bear this in mind when you are writing your story.

The equipment

Do not struggle with notebooks which are either so large that they become impossible to hold or so small that they do not hold enough information and leave you turning the page for every sentence.

Ideally you should choose a notebook with the following features:

  • It should sit comfortably in one hand. This is useful whenever you have to make notes standing up or walking.
  • It should have a hard back for support.
  • It should have a metal spiral at the top to make it easier to flip pages over.
  • It should have feint rules on both sides of each page.

Once you have found a make of notebook that you like, stay with that make where possible. It will be one less thing to go wrong.

Before you attempt to make notes, also make sure that you have either a sharp pencil or a working ballpoint pen, whichever you prefer, and always have at least one spare. Regularly check all your pens and pencils to make sure they are in working order. If in doubt, throw it out.

Using the notebook

As soon as you get a new notebook, write your name and the name of your news organisation clearly on the cover, in case it ever gets lost.

Write on the cover the date when you start using it. This is useful for future reference.

Hold the book firmly in your hand, with the cover and any used pages flicked well out of the way. On windy days, hold any free pages firmly under the book.

You can even hold down used pages by putting a rubber band around them.

reporters notebookStart every story on a new page, even at meetings where there are several stories (e.g. Parliament).

At the foot of your new page, mark clearly in longhand:

a) the title of the meeting or full name of your interviewee and
b) the date and place of the meeting or interview.

It is easier to flick through the notebook looking for these details at the foot of the page, than to look for them at the top of the page.

Many journalists like to draw a rough margin down the left-hand side of each page, in which they can make longhand notes or marks of emphasis. Others like to draw a line down the centre of the page, which allows them to get two columns of shorthand per page. This is especially useful if your shorthand outlines are small.

Note clearly whenever a new person speaks or the speaker touches on a new topic. This does not need to be a full title, just enough for a reminder. Leave a blank line between new speakers and/or topics.

Clearly mark those passages, words, figures etc. which you regard as important. You should develop your own system of marks, preferably made in the margin. For example, one stroke alongside your notes for any material you must include in your story, two strokes for more important sections and three strokes for the most important angle or remark.

Work your way through your notebook in an orderly fashion, starting at the front and using only one side of the paper. This makes it much easier to go back through your notes when you need to recap.

When you come to the end of the book, turn the whole notebook over and start again, using the reverse side of each page.

At an interview, always review your notes quickly before you thank the interviewee and leave. This allows you to identify any areas you may have missed or which are unclear. It is always a good idea to go through your notes after the interview, before sitting down at the keyboard. This is the time when you should go over any doubtful shorthand outlines and put extra marks or key words in the margin. If you review your notes while they are still fresh, you decrease the chance of making errors in reading them back.

On occasions you may make notes of an interview or meeting without expecting to use them immediately, for example if they are part of your research into a future feature article. Always type these notes up straight away. If you do not, when you return to them in a week or a month, you may find that you cannot read your shorthand.

When you have used the notes, strike them out with a single diagonal line across each page. This makes the task of finding "active" notes a lot simpler.  Do not obliterate the pages and never tear them out. You may need to refer back to them at some time in the future, such as in the case of a complaint.

When you reach the last page of your notebook, you will have used only one side of each page. Now turn the whole notebook over and work your way from the back to the front, using the other side of each page.

When a notebook is finished, do not throw it away. Mark the date you finish it clearly on the front cover, then store the book safely in your desk drawer or filing cabinet. You can eventually throw the books out, but make it a policy never to discard a notebook for at least a year after it is finished. You never know when you might need it again. Should you be accused of defamation, for example, a properly marked notebook can be produced as evidence in court and may help in your defence.

Finally, there will be occasions when you are caught without a notebook, maybe at a social event. Then you must make use of whatever paper is handy. Most experienced journalists have, at some time in their careers, used paper napkins, the backs of menus and even beer mats, peeled apart to give them two white squares of paper. This is only for emergencies, though. There is no substitute for a well-kept notebook.caught without a notebook

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Contacts books

It is often said that a reporter is only as good as his or her contacts book. Whether it is a real book or simply files on a computer or personal digital assistant (PDA), it serves the same purpose. So what is it about a contacts book which makes it so important?

Whenever you write a story, you need two things. You need information and you need quotes. In order to do your job well, you have to know who to contact for these things.

Your contacts book is the list of people who you know are prepared to be helpful to you, together with their telephone numbers, email addresses, fax numbers, addresses, or whatever other information you need.

It is basically just an address book, the sort of thing which many people keep by their telephone with a list of their friends' numbers. The best ones have a thumb index, so that you can turn straight to the letter you want. What makes your contacts book special is the names and numbers which you put into it.

Every time you write a story, and speak to someone who was helpful, put their name, job title and telephone number in your contacts book. The next time you need to speak to somebody about the same subject, you will know who to call.

It is useful also to cross-refer. For example, suppose you have just phoned the Agriculture Department to talk to someone about fish farming. You have found that a Dr John Sine, who is the Manager for Aquaculture Development, is very knowledgeable and happy to talk to you.

The best place to put this entry into your contact book is under A for Agriculture. So on the A page you need to enter:

Dr John Sine
Manager for Aquaculture Development
Agriculture Dept

But the next time you want that name, number or email address, you may have forgotten who he works for. You may only remember that he was the fish farming man. So on the F page you need to enter:

Fish farming - see Agriculture Dept, John Sine

Or the next time you may just remember Dr Sine's name, but not remember what it was he knew so much about. So on the S page you need to enter:

John Sine - see Agriculture Dept (fish farming man)

This may take a few minutes to do, but it is something which you will only have to do once. It will give you a contacts book which will save you time when you really need it. If you are using contacts/address book software on your computer or PDA there is usually a function to make cross-referencing easier.

Look after your contacts book, keep it safe and it will serve you well.

Personal contacts book; are personal property. Do not look in another journalist's personal contacts book unless they give you their permission. If you need a contact, ask your colleagues if they have any.

Newsroom contacts book

In addition to the contacts book which each reporter will have, it is useful for the newsroom itself to have a contacts books.

This will contain all those people who are able and willing to help your news organisation. Many of them will be the same people in the reporters' personal contacts books.

However, it is important that the newspaper, radio or television station has a collective memory, so that each new reporter does not have to start all over again establishing all the contacts.

Reporters will probably not put all their personal contacts into the newsroom contacts book. Sometimes a contact trusts only one particular reporter, not the whole newsroom. This person's name should not be put into the newsroom contacts book, in case another reporter deals with the person badly and makes them decide not to talk to any reporter again.

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Newsdesk diary

No newsroom can run properly without a proper newsdesk diary. Whether it is in a book form or a file on your newsroom computer, it can give a newspaper, radio or television station confidence that it knows what is going on in the society, and that it is reporting the things which matter.

The ideal traditional newsdesk diary is an A4 size (roughly 30cms x 20cms, or 12 inches x 8 inches) diary with one page or two pages per day. This should sit on the desk of the person who decides what each reporter will do each day. It may be the chief of staff, or the news editor, or the city desk, or the editor.

Whenever you hear about a future event, it should be written in on the relevant day of the newsdesk diary. Any announcement about a future event, which you report now, should also be put into the newsdesk diary under the day of the event.

Everything which is going to happen should be entered - sporting events, meetings, court hearings, sittings of Parliament, public holidays.

When you get a new diary at the beginning of each year, mark in the important anniversaries which will occur so that you can do feature articles or follow-up stories on the right day.

You can now plan ahead, keeping an eye on the next week or two so that events do not take you by surprise. Every day, you should know what is happening and be able to cover the most important events.

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Style book

Every journalist is confronted with choices all the time about how to say things.

Should a newspaper use the formal titles - the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China - which the governments of those two countries prefer? Or should it use the informal titles - China and Taiwan - which many people are more familiar with?

Should a radio station stress the first syllable of controversy - CON-tra-ver-see - or the second - con-TROV-er-see?

These are questions of style. It is useful for a newspaper, radio or television station to have a consistent style, so that one story does not refer to "ROC" while another refers to "Taiwan".

Style books also need to deal with spelling (judgement or judgment?), punctuation (U.S.A. or USA?) and other similar matters.

Compiling a style book

It would be a huge job to write a style book, if your news organisation does not already have one. It is better to compile one bit by bit, adding each choice to the style book as you make it.

Your style book can be either in traditional book form or as files on a computer. The best hard copy type is a loose leaf binder - a hard-back folder with a spring clip inside for holding pages which have two holes punched in them. This binder should have 26 sheets of card, one for each letter of the alphabet. If it is also thumb-indexed, that is helpful.

Now, when you have to make a choice of style - let us say to choose between the spellings labour and labor - you will look in the L section. If no style exists, ask the editor what he or she wants. If the editor favours Commonwealth spelling, the answer will be labour.

You can now write or type on a sheet of paper "labour (not labor)" and clip it into the L section in the style book. Any other reporter faced with the same choice in the future will be able to find this page and follow the style. The decision has been made, and the newspaper will be consistent.

Any style may be modified. Although in Commonwealth English labour is the spelling for the word associated with work, the Australian Labour Party spells its title without a ‘u’. Thus your style guide should note:

Labour (not labor)    
except in Australian Labor Party

Radio and television style books should also provide a guide to pronunciation. Although there are many different methods of writing words phonetically (how they sound), the simplest is to split the word into syllables, typed in lower-case letters, but with the stressed syllables in capital letters. So your style book may include:

SAA-moa  (not sa-MO-a)

tu-VA-lu  (not TU-va-LU)

As time goes by, you will find that you have a comprehensive and useful style book. Persuade all the journalists to look at it from time to time, so that everybody writes in the correct style.

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Reference books

It is probably even more important for journalists to know where to find out facts than it is for them to know the facts themselves.

A lot of time is wasted with routine inquiries if reporters do not know which reference works are available and how to use them. Traditionally, a journalist’s main references books kept on newsroom shelves or in libraries. These are still important as quick and ready sources of information. But increasingly journalists are doing research on the Internet, which can be even quicker and more up-to-date.

First we will look at some traditional reference books, then we will look at resources available on the Internet and how to access them.

The following categories of reference book are useful in any newsroom.


Every newsroom should contain at least one good dictionary in each working language. These can be used to check on meanings and spellings.

Which English language dictionary you choose will depend largely upon whether you use Commonwealth or American spelling.

For English spelling, the main choices are:

  • Concise Oxford English Dictionary (gives definitions of words as they were used in the past, as well as how they are used today).
  • Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary of Current English (written for second language users).
  • Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (also written for second language users).
  • Collins English Dictionary (contains references to proper names as well as to words).
  • Readers Digest Great Illustrated Dictionary (a dictionary and small encyclopedia in two volumes).
  • The Macquarie Dictionary (for the Australasian region)

For American spelling, the main choices are:

  • Webster's Third New International Dictionary (very comprehensive).
  • Random House Dictionary of the English Language (includes a small atlas, brief guide to historical events, four foreign language dictionaries - French, Spanish German and Italian - and other sections).

There are also a number of specialised dictionaries which can be very useful. These can include dictionaries of science and technical terms, medical terms, parliamentary terms and sporting terms. Examples include:

  • Webster's Geographical Dictionary (excellent for the spelling and pronunciation of place names).
  • Butterworth's Medical Dictionary
  • Black's Agricultural Dictionary
  • Harraps Dictionary of Business & Finance

An encyclopedia is a book which gives an outline of information on a wide range of subjects - a little information on a lot of things.

The subjects are arranged in alphabetical order and most encyclopedias have an index, either at the end of each volume or as a separate volume.

Some of the most useful encyclopedias are:

  • Encyclopaedia Britannica (Macropaedia in 19 volumes and Micropaedia, ready reference and index, in ten volumes).
  • Encyclopaedia Americana.
  • Mitchell Beazley Joy of Knowledge Library (excellent colour illustrations).
  • Compton's Pictured Encyclopaedia and Fact Index.
  • Chambers's Encyclopaedia.

Many encyclopedias are now available online, which means they are usually more up-to-date, an important consideration with topical reference works. Most charge an annual fee for using them, though they might have a free trial period when you can see whether they will be worthwhile or not.

Wikipedia is a free web-based encyclopedia put together by contributors throughout the world. It is usually very up-to-date, in different languages and contains references to many things which are too insignificant for professionally-published encyclopedias to include. While the Wikipedia editors say there are systems in place to check entries for accuracy, there have been numerous examples of inaccurate or malicious entries going undetected for quite some time.

Our advice for journalists is to use Wikipedia as you would any other unchecked source - it is a good starting point and guide but you should check critical information yourself before publishing or broadcasting it as fact.

Telephone directories

The telephone directory is one of the most useful reference books in any newsroom. Journalists should not be allowed to take the newsroom telephone directory home, draw in it or tear bits out.

As well as telephone numbers, your telephone directory will usually give spellings of names and addresses, plus fax numbers.

It can also be useful to have a telephone directory for any neighbouring country with which you deal frequently. Internal telephone directories are useful acquisitions, too - for the government, a university, a large business or whatever. They can save you time and trouble going through switchboards, often giving you direct access to the person you seek.


Many books of information are published every year, in order to keep up-to-date. The two main categories are yearbook and almanacs.

Yearbooks generally contain current information on a subject such as government, education, economics or a region. Examples include:

  • A Yearbook of the Commonwealth
  • Statesman's Yearbook
  • Pacific Islands Yearbook

Chambers of commerce also often produce a yearbook or annual business directory, with lots of useful names, contacts and information about business. Organisations like Rotary, Lions Club or Kiwanis may also produce yearbooks.

Almanacs generally contain a great deal of general information, such a populations, economics, world religions and a host of other things, kept up-to-date. They also contain important dates for the year in question. Popular almanacs are:

  • The World Almanac (USA)
  • Whitaker's Almanack (UK)

There is another book which is published each year, which is a fascinating reference book to have in any newsroom it is:

  • The Guinness Book of Records

It contains all known records in all areas of life, from the longest bridge in the world to the smallest ant in the world; from the loudest human voice to the biggest pizza.

All of these books have one thing in common - they get out-of-date very quickly. If you have an old yearbook or almanac in your office, take care in quoting from it. The information might not be true anymore. If there is an Online version, that should be more up-to-date but still check the date of the reference you wish to use.

Atlases and gazetteers

An atlas is a book of maps. A gazetteer is a book of place names. Both are extremely useful reference books to have in a newsroom.

It is useful to have a large map of your country displayed on the wall of the newsroom. Even so, you will need maps of other countries, and larger scale maps of your own country, such as town street maps, or planners' maps.

One of the best world atlases is:

  • The Times Atlas of the World

With more than 200,000 entries, this is a very comprehensive world atlas. You may also wish to have a more detailed atlas of your own region, such as:

  • Atlas of the South Pacific (NZ Government)
  • Atlas of Central America & the Caribbean, The Diagram Group (Macmillan, New York)

It is especially important for radio and television stations to know how to pronounce foreign place names. An excellent gazetteer is:

  • The Columbia Lippincott Gazetteer of the World

It has more than 130,000 entries, giving population, altitude and other details as well as pronunciation.

There are also specialist atlases, which could be useful. These include historical atlases, showing national boundaries as they used to be, and atlases with statistical information. Useful ones might be:

  • Atlas of the Third World, George Kurian, (Mansell, London)
  • Times Atlas of World History

Biographical reference books provide basic, factual information about important people, such as their date and place of birth, education, occupation, publications and other relevant information. There are two basic types of Who's Who - those divided by geography, such as Who's Who in Australia, and those divided by subject area, such as Who's Who in Education.

The following are also useful biographical reference works:

  • Macmillans Dictionary of Biography
  • The International Who's Who
  • Current Biography
  • Who's Who
  • Who's Who in America
  • International Who's Who in Music
  • Journalist Biographies Master Index
  • The Writers Directory

Books of quotations can be useful for identifying a quotation, where it comes from and who originally said it, and checking that you have the wording exactly right; for suggesting quotations about a subject which you are dealing with; and for supplying good examples of the work of an author you are writing about.

Three of the best and most popular books of quotations are:

  • Oxford Dictionary of Quotations
  • Stevenson's Book of Quotations
  • Bartlett's Familiar Quotations

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Specialist material

There may be some special subjects which are important in your country. What are the main industries, the main religions, the main forms of transport? Whatever is important in your country will feature in the news, so you should try to obtain relevant reference books;

The relevant government department or marketing board may be able to advise you which reference book to get on copper, or gold, or tin; on copra, or cardamom, or tea, or coffee; on timber, or rubber.

Your newsroom should have a copy of the important books of any main religion in your country. For Christianity, you should have the Bible - the New International Version is now a popular standard. For Islam, you should have the Koran, in translation for general use or in its original form for an Islamic readership. Other major world religions also have writings which are important to their followers. You should have a copy of whatever is appropriate for your society.

If air transport is important and you cannot get information Online, try to obtain a copy of the ABC World Airways Guide. This contains much information on world air travel in addition to the timetables. You may also like to get Jane's All The World's Aircraft, which gives full details of all aircraft in service. There are other Jane's titles for merchant ships and fighting ships.

Another useful shipping reference book is the Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea. For railways, you may want a book like the Concise Encyclopedia of World Railway Locomotives (Hutchinson, London).

You may wish to contact newspapers, radio or television stations in other countries, to share story ideas or to cooperate in other ways. Useful reference books for these contacts are:

  • Benn's Press Directory: International
  • Radio and Television Handbook

Whatever your area of interest, there are likely to be useful reference books. Sports reporters may wish to have The Rules of the Game, by the Diagram Group, which describes and gives the rules of more than 400 events in 150 sports. Movie buffs will want Halliwell's Film Guide, (Granada, London), which has brief descriptions of hundreds of movies, old and new. There are even books like Type&!.,-:;?", which is a reference book for typographic artists.

Inquire at a library or bookshop for help in finding a good reference book in a specialist area which is important for you.

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Copies of reports are often sent to newspapers, radio and television stations. Sometimes these get thrown away after a story has been written.

Don't throw them away. Keep them, neatly filed, for possible future reference. They won't take up much space, and could come in handy one day.


Get a notebook, use it properly and keep it safe when it is full.

Get a contacts book and gradually fill it with useful names and phone numbers.

Use a newsdesk diary, to make sure events do not take you by surprise.

Develop a style book for your news organisation, and follow it consistently.

Get relevant reference books for your news organisation, and use them, to make your newspaper or bulletin accurate and authoritative.

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>>go to next chapter

Index to Chapter 15
  1. Your notebook
  2. Contacts books
  3. Newsdesk diary
  4. Style book
  5. Reference books
  6. Specialist materials
  7. Reports
  8. To summarise
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