Finding the Right Tools for Organizing Assignments and Reporting

A white board covered in yellow and orange post-it notes.
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Whether you’re a staff reporter or a freelance journalist, having multiple stories underway simultaneously can feel overwhelming. Keeping track of everything can get complicated fast. Numerous apps and software platforms can help journalists shepherd their stories to completion—from storing conversational tidbits that spark ideas, to keeping track of pitches, sources, and assignment details, to compiling interview notes, audio files, and story drafts.

There are lots of tools to choose from—most of them free or inexpensive—including Google Drive, Trello, Scrivener, and many others. However, no one tool or organizing strategy is perfect for everyone—or even right for any given person at all times and across all their projects. You’ll need to experiment to find the combination that works for you, without accidentally spending so much time trying to develop an organizational utopia that you are left with no time for doing the journalism itself.

With the wealth of tools available, and new ones emerging all the time, it would be impossible to review every available option. So, to help writers think about their organizational needs and the best tools and strategies to meet them, we asked a handful of writers to share what works for them as they organize their assignments and reporting.


Embedded in the Google Universe

Some journalists choose to organize all of their work within the many platforms of Google. “My entire life is on Google Drive,” Esther Landhuis, a freelance science journalist based in San Francisco, says with a laugh. “I like having everything on Google Drive because I can always access it from my phone, even if I’m going for a walk or I’m at a coffee shop,” Landhuis says. All aspects of her life—from schedules for work interviews to story deadlines, from doctor’s appointments to family vacations—are already noted on Google Calendar and are often organized through Gmail. “Google Drive is a natural extension,” she says.

She keeps her interview notes, audio files, PDFs of scientific papers, and useful links in nested folders on her Drive. She drafts her stories in Google Docs and either files them that way or converts them to Microsoft Word for editors who prefer it. To store her preliminary thoughts about story ideas she finds on social media, Landhuis uses the free note-taking app Google Keep to save interesting links she finds on Twitter.

Landhuis uses Google Sheets to keep track of her assignments. She has a running list of stories, with columns for outlet, pay rate, story URL, and dates that she sent invoices and received payments. She uses another sheet within the spreadsheet to track her expenses by year.


Spreadsheets: A Multifaceted Tool

Landhuis is not alone in favoring spreadsheets to organize her work. They are versatile and can be used to perform many functions and activities. Like Landhuis, Wudan Yan, a freelance journalist based in Seattle, keeps track of her assignments with Google Sheets. She has tabs labeled “Ideas” (for story ideas), “Unpaid Time” (to track how much time she spends on unpaid tasks every month), “Decision Matrix” (to track prospective opportunities), and “Pipeline” (to track ongoing assignments, which she orders from most to least urgent).

Yan’s Decision Matrix includes a column describing each opportunity, and another containing her rationale for whether she should take the assignment. “It helps me make better decisions,” rather than instinctively saying “yes” to everything as she’s offered it, Yan says.

Her Pipeline tab includes information on clients, deadlines, expenses, payments, and the estimated time in hours it will take to complete each assignment, each in separate columns. She tries not to have more than one writing deadline per week, and the information contained in the Pipeline tab is essential for achieving that goal. “I don’t want two deadlines to cluster too closely together,” she says. “I can see the number of work hours I have and assess whether it makes sense for me to take on more assignments or not.”

Chicago-based investigative science journalist Ashley Belanger uses spreadsheets for another purpose: to stay on top of her reporting. For example, she uses an interview-tracking sheet to keep a list of the sources she’s interviewing for a particular story, storing contact information about her interviewees as well as keywords to help jog her memory about the interviews. “I can quickly browse through my sheet to see who I’ve spoken to and what we discussed,” Belanger says. It’s something she thinks could be helpful for anyone who’s interviewing a lot of people.

Belanger also recognizes the power of the math functions within spreadsheets. For her MIT Knight Science Journalism Fellowship reporting, she collected data on homelessness and non-compliance with state sex offender registries in the U.S., keeping her reporting in a spreadsheet. She used simple formulas to compare the percentage of registrants who were homeless or non-compliant with the total number of registrants in each state. “This helped me compare states to quickly identify where significant issues with compliance and homelessness were throughout the country,” Belanger says. Learning how to do simple calculations, she says, can be a “gateway drug” for deeper data analysis within Excel or Google Sheets.


Playing Your Cards Right with Trello

Trello is another application that is popular with journalists. This platform, which offers both free and paid versions, captures information on “boards.” Users can create separate boards for different projects or can use just one for all their work. A board is a collection of “cards,” each akin to a sticky note on a notice board. The cards are organized into “lists” to which users can attach documents, images, labels, and checklists, and add information about an assignment such as deadlines, fee arrangements, potential sources, or travel plans. A helpful feature of Trello is that it allows users to invite colleagues to collaborate on boards or individual cards. Users can also assign tasks within a Trello card to one another.

After three years of using the free Trello platform, Vishwam Sankaran, an India-based science-and-technology reporter for The Independent, has 40 lists—collections of cards—within their single Trello board. They keep lists that help them manage their sources and keep abreast of developments in their beat. For example, one list contains names and contact details for different departments in Indian universities, one card per department. They also keep a list of web addresses of news sources, which they work through each morning.

To organize their actual reporting and give them a “top-down view” of everything they’re working on, Sankaran uses a separate Trello card for each story on their slate. On each card, they keep a series of questions to guide their reporting on that story, as well as links to related stories published elsewhere. “It’s basically a one-stop place where I put together questions and answers that will help me build a better story,” says Sankaran.

Another Trello fan, Portland-based science journalist Jyoti Madhusoodanan, has a dozen boards in progress for different work projects—some to track her work as a volunteer and board member at the National Association of Science Writers, and others for keeping track of career-development opportunities and grant applications. She also makes use of the function to set “due dates” within cards for her deadlines. Trello also allows you to set reminders for these deadlines, days, hours or minutes before they are due.

Madhusoodanan also stores information about conferences on Trello, as a way to gather string for stories. “I like to keep track: Even if I don’t attend, I can check the list of speakers to find sources or stash tweets and discussions of talks for future stories,” she says.

Her most active board, however, is for story ideas. It’s where she saves material such as PDFs of scientific papers, random comments from conversations with colleagues, tweets, and names of possible sources for potential stories. Keeping the information on Trello helps her to pull it all back up when starting to flesh out a pitch.


All in One Place with Scrivener and OneNote

In-depth projects like features and books have a large volume of material that needs organizing. Tools that help keep everything in one place can be helpful. Helen Fields, a science writer at Palladian Partners, a communications agency in Washington, DC, uses Scrivener and Microsoft OneNote (a digital note-taking app) to organize her notes, research, and documents.

Scrivener is a paid app ($49 for Mac version and $45 for Windows) that combines a word processor with file and folder organization—in other words, offering a one-stop shop in which to keep information about your projects as well as reporting materials and story drafts.

When Fields starts a new Scrivener project, she creates two main folders in it labeled “research” and “draft.” The research folder contains all the information—emails, interview questions, and contact information for sources—that she needs for her assignment. She also keeps logistical information such as the project’s assigned word count and deadline in her research folder.

The draft folder is where she writes the story, split into different sections across different pages. “I can either look at the whole story [draft] at once or at one section at a time, which can be nice for focusing,” she explains. “When I’m writing, I have a split screen with the draft on the left half and a page from research on the right half. I switch between different research pages as needed.”

For a National Institutes of Health story she wrote recently, she created four pages in her draft folder called “Intro,” “Nut,” “What We Know,” and “End.” The pages were like a rough outline, and she wrote each section of the story in its own page. “This helped me stay organized,” says Fields. Meanwhile, all of the research materials, including details about the assignment (summary of the story approved by the client, length, deadline, audience), notes from her interviews, and research on the topic were in the research folder. “It’s so much easier to concentrate on writing when I have all of my materials in one place—I don’t have to go hunting for them across different programs and files on my computer,” Fields says.

For interviews, Fields uses Microsoft’s free OneNote product. She thinks the best feature of the app is that you can record interviews directly into OneNote, and the app will synchronize the audio with your notes as you type them. So, if you want to go back and review a particular part of the interview—for example, to check a quote—you go to that point in your notes, hit a “play” button in the margin, and listen to that section of the audio. “It’s amazing!” says Fields.

She also uses OneNote to keep records of conversations that aren’t directly related to her reporting. “I supervise four people,” she says, “And that’s where I take notes when we have our weekly meetings.”


Staying Analog

While there is a wide array of digital tools for organizing information and reporting, some journalists stick to more analog methods. These methods tend to be simple and—unlike most digital tools— require just a little or no use of the internet. Every morning, Lu-Hai Liang, a freelance journalist based in Hastings*, U.K., checks the small whiteboard that hangs on his wall. On it, he makes a list of assignments he’s working on, including the deadlines. “I like using the whiteboard because it shows me at a glance what takes priority,” he says, “And I don’t have to worry that I might be missing something.”

Liang says using the whiteboard is easier for him than using digital tools to keep track of assignments. “I find looking at many different screens throughout the day difficult,” he says. “[It is] distracting and hard to focus.” Instead of toggling between documents and organizational apps, he uses a paper notebook to draw up a schedule describing what he will do every day, with time carefully allocated for each activity.

Liang appreciates the tactile nature of writing by hand and says it helps him remember his reporting better. “Studies have shown that writing by hand allows for greater retention of information,” he says. However, a major disadvantage of relying on notebooks is that they can get damaged or lost. And you must remember to take your notebook with you wherever you go. Still, Liang says he travels with his unafraid. “I’ve had so many notebooks in my career as a journalist, but I have never lost one,” he says. In fact, he’s never even so much as spilled coffee on one.

Liang still relies on some digital tools for reporting and writing. He drafts his stories in Word and organizes information for his reporting by copying and pasting parts of research articles into a Word document. “I used to take notes from these articles by hand, and I still do sometimes, but I find the digital way is a lot faster.”



* Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated where Lu-Hai Liang lives. He lives in Hastings, U.K., not London.


Abdullahi Tsanni
Abdullahi Tsanni Vera Mbamalu

Abdullahi Tsanni is a science writer based in Abuja, Nigeria, and is currently a TON early-career fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. He has reported on science, health, agriculture, and biotechnology issues in Nigeria for publications including NatureThe British Medical Journal (BMJ), Nigeria Health Watch, and African Newspage, among others. He works as a volunteer with Science Communication Hub Nigeria and African Science Literacy Network, and has a degree in biochemistry. Follow him on Twitter @abdultsanni.

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