Tools of journalism: An ode to the contact book

There was a time when a journalist’s contact book was their most precious asset. Of all the lost arts of journalism it’s probably the one I miss most, because of what it symbolised.

 One of the projects I’ve been working this year is a tech build for Quote This Woman+ (QW+).

QW+ curates a database of experts that journalists can consult for their articles. Not just any experts – specifically women and other marginalised sources, the aim being to increase diversity in the media.

The project was the building of a new tech platform for the database. It seemed simple: take the existing spreadsheet and turn it into a searchable website. But, as always in tech projects, there were many knots to untangle along the way.

One of those knots has been to find a way to balance two things: first, the completely understandable desire of the expert sources not to put their cellphone numbers “out there” and second, journalists’ need to get hold of people quickly.

The answer has been to make the tech platform only accessible to logged in experts and journalists, with both parties being vetted by QW+ staff.

That intersection of a journalist’s need to talk to someone “right now” and people’s general caution about handing out their numbers, sparked a thought path for me.

Remember when there was no Internet?

In 2023, there are many ways to contact someone – and they don’t involve making an actual phone call: an email, a text message, a direct message on a social media platform.

But when I started out as a reporter, a phone call or a physical interview were the only ways to contact someone (unless you were attending an event at which they were also present).

And that meant the maintenance of a journalist’s most precious resource: the contact book, where you kept the numbers of all the people who were prepared to take your phone call. There were also the carefully collated numbers of businesses or institutions that you might call often in the course of your work, and didn’t want to have to look them up in the phone directory every time.

I find one of my old contact books

Dear reader, you will be unsurprised to learn that I still have the contact book that I started when I joined the Cape Times as a general reporter. I’ve been leafing through it and have been amused, amazed and saddened at what I found:

The direct lines or home numbers of important people – in almost every alphabetised section of my battered contact book are the home numbers of Very Important People: captains of retail, managing directors of major banks, members of parliament, judges, the heads of global mining houses, the Receiver of Revenue.

Politicians and political organisations – in the space of three pages, there are numbers for far-right leaders Andries Treurnicht and Eugene Terre’Blanche, and then a cluster of numbers for members of the United Democratic Front, an alliance of left-wing organisations.

Many numbers for people or organisations in the crime/disaster realm– from Muizenberg beach constables to the Commissioner of Police (my note says: “In case of extraordinary emergency”) and from the Mountain Club to the NSRI.

Civic organisations and people in the struggle – the Atlantis Residents’ Association, many numbers for people in the Black Sash, the Mitchells Plain Advice office, an entire page devoted to contacts in Crossroads, Allan Boesak and Bishop Tutu, NUSAS.

Celebrities and sports people– a beauty queen, fashion designers, the mother of a famous singer, singers themselves (one for Johannes Kerkorrel, now sadly no longer with us), cricketers, an opera singer, artists.

Numbers organised in categories – fishing, boats, horse racing, liquor, petrol, ex-Rhodesians (I cannot now remember why I needed those numbers!), rugby, the SABC, Sea Fisheries, UCT, unions.

Many numbers for public relations officers

The numbers of various colleagues

Interesting people – one intriguing number for a man annotated as a “suspect Christian” (I looked him up, he is indeed still a suspect Christian); a nudist; a clown who was also an animal lover; someone who was the father of quins; a magician.

This little book is many things: a memory of a vanished time, a peek into the varied life of a general news reporter and, in its way, a historical record.

But it’s also testament to something that journalism has lost: the way in which trust between people was established by personal contact over time. 

The people in my little black book gave me their numbers because they had met me and they had seen my work and they knew my publication. I know that’s not the world we live in now, but I do mourn those simpler days.

READ: Why you should pay for local journalism

Journalism: Who you gonna trust?

What journalists do (part one): the narrowing of the eyes

What journalists do (part two): the checking of the facts

Main picture: Taken by Anya Cloete

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Contact me if you would like to chat about how I can help with all your communication needs (writing, editing, coaching and training, social media). I also help small businesses and organisations with project and operational management. 

I write a post every week, some about my professional life and work, and some about broader issues. You can get either of those, or both, in your email, by subscribing here.  

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