ASK US WEDNESDAY: “How many journos out there still rely on shorthand or conduct interviews without a recording device?”

by Leo Wiles
01 November 2017

I’m on a contract job where we type/handwrite as we interview – no dictaphones. I have no shorthand experience and, for interest’s sake, am curious how many journos/writers out there know shorthand and/or don’t rely on a dictaphone (or recording device)? Also, any tips would be great! Anon 

When we got your question, we were curious too – so we put it to our Facebook Gold Community in a little straw poll. Not surprisingly, the majority of journos who responded record interviews via an app on their smartphone. The next most popular system was a handheld dictaphone. Typing responses during the interview is often combined with recording – and using shorthand brought up the rear with just a few of our members using it, and again, combining it with other methods (such as recording the interview as well).

Sadly, shorthand is going the way of the Dodobut once upon a time a journo was unemployable without it. In the days before dictaphones, voice recognition software or hiring your own transcriber, it was an essential skill to turn accurate copy around fast. Learning it, however, was a slow process. In my case it took almost a year of Thursday night classes for me to push through the 80 word plateau (eventually it paid off when I could turn in a readable 160 words per minute at my peak).

Because let’s face it, recording what’s being said accurately via shorthand, while listening and forming the next question, is multitasking at its most strenuous. Twenty years on, I now type while interviewing to cut out the transcribing – and also the subject matter is hardly contentious. I can repeat the sound bite if need be or refer to my recording as back up, and I’m not alone. In the UK, there’s been a steady decrease in the number of people taking shorthand courses over the past 10 years, according to the BBC. Though The National Council for the Training of Journalists insists trainees achieve a written speed of 100 words per minute to pass its diploma – and the skill remains ‘indispensable for any court reporter, and a vital skill for journalists in all sectors who need an easily accessible and permanent note of every conversation in their working day’.

It was a belief echoed by Macleay College’s Head of Journalism, Stephen Davis, in 2013. “Every major employer in Australia who I talk to, not only in the print media but ABC, Channel 7 and others, say it’s fantastic that we do shorthand here,” he reportedly said. “A part of our job is in convincing our students that it’s going to be important for them because all the media employers think it is.” (Four years on, former ABC foreign correspondent Monica Attard is now the new Head of Journalism at Macleay and shorthand is no longer being offered.)

But, should you still be interested in pursuing Sir Isaac Pitman’s language from 1837, there are online courses like this one and this one, and even You Tube videos to help you dip a toe into this mysterious world of dots and curves.

Do you use shorthand in your work?

Leo Wiles

Leo Wiles has worked as an editor, journalist and PR for over 20 years before recently retraining as a photographer. These days, she spends her time behind a lens, juggling her own clients with her work at Rachel's List, and her three gorgeous but lively kids.
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3 responses on "ASK US WEDNESDAY: “How many journos out there still rely on shorthand or conduct interviews without a recording device?”"

  1. I don’t know shorthand and rely mostly on written notes backed-up by a dictaphone. I only refer to the recordings if absolutely necessary because of the extra time needed to listen to them. Fortunately, the work I do rarely requires me to use long quotes which I find are often not grammatical anyway. I prefer to paraphrase which wouldn’t do in the courts, but that’s not where I work.

  2. I actually can do shorthand, but I rarely use it nowadays. Because most of my stories are long profiles or in-depth features, I find shorthand to be impractical now. It’s hard to concentrate on building a rapport with the interview subject and take notes at the same time. I prefer to tape interviews on my smartphone and send them to a transcription service. However, if I am at a function where pulling out a phone would be impolite, or I just need a few quotes, I do use it.

    In addition, when I worked in magazines, the subs would fact-check all work and they didn’t like my shorthand – preferring to use a transcript as reference. Of course, now there are hardly any subs left…

    1. Rachel Smith says:

      I never learned it – being a mag journo from the start. And now I am so glad I can leave the taping to my phone / dictaphone and concentrate on the flow of the interview and getting what I need. That is, unless the phone / dictaphone has a spack attack and doesn’t record, which has happened to me on a few nightmarish occasions. #interviewfail

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