Which is Better for Doing Interviews - Notebooks or Recorders?

Which is Better in Most Situations?

Businessman using digital voice recorder
Seth Joel/Photodisc/Getty Images

It's a question I get every semester in my journalism classes: Which works better when interviewing a source, taking notes the old-fashioned way, with pen and reporter's notebook in hand, or using a cassette or digital voice recorder?

The short answer is, both have their pros and cons, depending on the situation and the type of story you're doing. Let's examine both.

Notebooks

Pros:

A reporter's notebook and a pen or pencil are the time-honored tools of the interviewing trade.

Notebooks are cheap and easy to fit into a back pocket or purse. They're also unobtrusive enough that they generally don't make sources nervous.

A notebook is also reliable - no need to worry about it running out of batteries. And for the reporter working on a tight deadline, notebooks are the fastest way of taking down what a source says, and of accessing his or her quotes when you're writing your story.

Cons:

Unless you're a very speedy note-taker, it's hard to jot down everything a source says, especially if he or she is a fast talker. So you can miss key quotes if you're relying on note-taking.

Also, it can be hard to get quotes that are totally accurate, word-for-word, using just a notebook. That may not matter much if you're doing a quick person-on-the-street interview. But it might be a problem if you're covering an event where getting the quotes exactly right is important - say, a speech by the president.

(One note about pens - they freeze in subzero weather, as I learned when covering a dorm fire at the University of Wisconsin-Madison one winter. So if it's cold out, always bring a pencil just in case.)

Recorders

Pros:

Recorders are worth buying because they enable you to get literally everything someone says, word-for-word.

You don't have to worry about missing or mangling key quotes from your source. Using a recorder can also free you up to jot down things in your notes you might otherwise have missed, such as the way a source acts, their facial expressions, etc.

Cons:

Like any technical device, recorders can malfunction. Practically every reporter who's ever used a recorder has a story about the batteries dying in the middle of an important interview.

Also, recorders are more time-consuming than notebooks because a recorded interview has to be played back later and transcribed in order to access the quotes. On a breaking news story there just isn't enough time to do that.

Finally, recorders can make some sources nervous. And some sources may even prefer that their interviews not be recorded.

Note: There are digital voice recorders on the market that are designed to transcribe everything that's recorded. But according to About.com small business-Canada expert Susan Ward, such recorders are "usable for dictation only and the best results occur with top-quality voice recording via a headset microphone and clearly enunciated, accent-less speech."

In other words, in a real-world interviewing scenario, where there's likely to be lots of background noise, it's probably not a great idea to rely on such devices alone.

The Winner?

There's no clear winner. But there are clear preferences:

Many reporters rely on notebooks for breaking news stories, and use recorders for articles that have longer deadlines, such as features. Overall, notebooks are probably used more often than recorders on a daily basis.

Recorders are good if you're doing a long interview for a story that doesn't have an immediate deadline, such as a profile or feature article. A recorder allows you to better maintain eye contact with your source, thus making the interview feel more like a conversation.

But remember: Even if you're recording an interview, always take notes anyway. Why? It's Murphy's Law: The one time you rely solely on a recorder for an interview will be the one time the recorder malfunctions.

To sum up: Notebooks work best when you're on a tight deadline.

Recorders are good for stories where you have time to transcribe the quotes after the interview.

Follow me on Facebook , Twitter or Google Plus , and sign up for my journalism newsletter.