Using Excel to get organised

Journalists who still use their computers just for writing are missing a lot. Even if they use the internet regularly, they are still only on the brink of the brave new world.

A lot of attention is given to Computer-Assisted Reporting nowadays. And rightly so. Jim Steele, one of the best investigative reporters in the USA, recently said the developments meant ‘journalism has never been so exciting as today”. And he has been around the block for 30-plus years.

The emphasis in CAR today is on searching the internet and on loading and structuring data into spreadsheets and databases such as Excel and Access. Reporters do not seem to pay much attention to databases as useful instruments to organise their workloads, which is strange, since journalists gave chaos its true meaning.

Databases can help organise large investigative projects. What if you could see, after one or two mouse clicks, who you should call today, what questions to ask that person, which documents he has provided you with so far, and what he has told you in previous interviews? The digital file does such wonders.

Years ago, I worked as an editor at a weekly magazine. Like most journalists, I could not devote my time non-stop to investigative reporting. Which was fine, really, because of the nature of the investigative craft: the sources we are looking for are often not readily available and sometimes we simply have to wait until an answer or document comes our way.

Switching between an investigation and my daily routine as a beat reporter was therefore no big deal. My success as an investigative reporter, I discovered, depended not on time, but on time management.

Whenever I had an hour to spare, I turned to my notes on the investigation. I did not want to have to root in different notebooks, loose shreds of paper or misplaced files on my computer. I needed structure.

I knew investigative reporters who were using FileMaker. And my wife, an archivist and historian, showed herself very adept in using Access for her scientific work. But neither of these programs looked appealing to me as a journalist: they allow you to store your notes but it takes too many actions to get them back on screen. I wanted something that provided a better overview. So I turned to the simplest of all spreadsheets: Excel.

With the advice of some of the journalism students I teach, and sympathetic colleagues, I built a structure in Excel that provides a reporter with the overview and tools needed to conduct an investigation.

Excel still has the aura of an incomprehensible toy for bean-counters. But since crossing the threshold between Word and Excel I’ve hardly used Word. Maybe now you gather all your notes in Word. But there are two things it cannot do: filtering and sorting. That is the domain of its brighter brother, Excel.

My spreadsheet file makes clever use of these tools. It has a phone book that functions as a to-do list and log at the same time. It allows you to make a full list of documents (including interview notes), that you can sort by date or source and link directly to the original documents elsewhere on your hard disk.

It also contains a list of questions (what to ask to whom?) that you can quickly refer to while on the phone. And finally the file provides a ‘factsheet’that links all notes to sources and allows you to search key words or phrases and filter by source or date.

You are welcome to try the spreadsheet I’ve created. Email info@luuksengers.nl or visit www.luuksengers.nl/digitalfile

Luuk Sengers is a freelance journalist

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