Field Notes just came out with a new reporter’s notebook (see above), and I bought a few even though I have plenty of reporter’s notebooks already.
In our house we pretty much use two types of notebooks: Moleskines and reporter’s notebooks. The Moleskines are the dainty daily-carry tool (though that is changing, too.) Reporter’s notebooks are our tool for grunt-level work. Since Denise and I have both done time as journalists, our office is filled with cast-off reporter’s notebooks.
The first time I was handed a reporter’s notebook, I saw it as a sign of camaraderie and a symbol of the profession I aspired to join. I was a young reporter at the campus newspaper, and that notebook meant I belonged. I couldn’t have been happier.
Whoever designed the first notebook for reporters knew exactly what he was doing. Reporters take notes in the field, on the fly. Their notebook has to give them plenty of surface area to write, must fit in their pockets, must be stiff enough to provide a decent writing surface, and be rugged enough to take a beating and hold together.
I’ve written for newspapers and magazines, and now write books. Some of those books are nonfiction, which means I still do a fair amount of reporting. When I’m heading on the road for research, I toss two or three reporter’ notebooks in my backpack, report with them, and work from them when I return, cherry-picking quotes and details for whatever project I’m writing.
That said, for all their utility, I don’t love conventional reporter’s notebooks. Everything about them smells of trade-offs. The pages are narrow, so you’re constantly flipping pages to get more space to write. That’s fine on the road, but I usually don't love working from them on my desk. I prefer a larger, side-spiral-bound notebook. Reporter's notebooks typically only have 70 pages in them, so they don’t last very long. Again, that's fine for taking notes for one day or for one project, but it does not a long-term tool make. When I’m reporting, I only use one side of each page, too. It’s annoying to be constantly flipping the notebook over to use both sides of each page.
So for me, reporter’s notebooks have become a kind of crappy, one-time-use disposable object. I only carry them when I have to, reserving daily to-dos, and deeper thinking notes for nicer A5 notebooks or pocket notebooks. When the project’s over, I store my used reporter's notebooks somewhere safe for a few years, then toss them.
So along comes the Byline by Field Notes, which falls into an uncanny valley. When they first arrived in the mail, I took one look at the cover and thought they would be way too flimsy to perform in the field. I’m accustomed to holding reporter’s notebooks scrunched in my palm as I write. That’s because they tend to be slightly too wide for my hand. Notice how the cardboard cover, paper and spiral all bend to fit my hand?
I can't do that easily with the Byline. First, I don’t need to. The book is narrower still, so it fits better in my hands. Second, the cover is 120-pound stock, and the interior paper is 70-pound stock. Third, the book is held together by a double spiral that adds rigidity. Together, these elements add up to a sturdy little book.
The interior cover is printed with journalism arcana, such as newspaper slang, a guide to proofreading marks, the definition of background and deep background sources, and the history of the fourth Estate. There’s even an old-style newspaper article tucked into the back cover. It's almost as if Field Notes has created a metonym of a reporter notebook, for people who don’t actually work as reporters.
The real reporters I know would probably find the Byline too precious to be used or even trusted. They would also find it too expensive. At $12.95 a pair, the Byline is really designed for stationery geeks. Some fans have noted that the paper stands up to fountain pen use. If there’s a reporter anywhere in the USA who uses fountain pens in the field, I’d love to meet them so I can shoot, stuff, and mount them behind glass for posterity.
The Byline is too gorgeous, too beautiful to be treated like a disposable object. Mine may never leave the house. And before I write in one, I’ll probably ask myself if the project is indeed Byline-worthy, a concept I could never have contemplated as a cub reporter back in the day.
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2019 Update: The Byline was a limited edition notebook from Field Notes, which was released in 2016 and quickly sold out. But due to popular demand, the company recently reissued the line with small cosmetic changes. I haven’t reviewed these new ones yet, but they sound extremely similar to the limited edition. I quote from the company website:
So what’s changed? Only some cosmetic details. The cover is the same heavy 120#DTC Neenah stock, but in a lighter “Concrete” gray. The innards are the same Cougar 70# text paper, but bright white college-ruled with light gray lines. The Double-O-Binding is black rather than silver. That’s all, really.
I’m excited that they’re back in stock, and look forward to checking them out when I need to restock. If you're interested, buy them here.