Wick Communications

Toss those old notes

In Media law on May 28, 2015 at 5:06 pm

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What do you do with your notes? I mean after you’ve pored over them and written your latest award-winning story. Do you stack all those oddly shaped spiral notebooks on a corner of your desk so that the dust mites have something to cling to? Do you hide them in a drawer somewhere? Throw them away?

I would suggest the latter. While smart people may tell you otherwise, I think the preponderance of experience suggests you are better off systematically getting rid of them. With a caveat.

First, let’s be real: I’ve been a reporter for a long, long time and only very rarely wish I’d had some original notes from longer ago than, say, a month. Now, I’m not Bob Woodward. If I thought I was going to write a book about something I’d been reporting in the newspaper, I would handle notes differently. But I’m not, and you probably aren’t Carl Bernstein either.

I’d like to tell you I keep a clean desk and daily go through my stuff to purge anything not immediately useful. In truth, I let things lie around for about a month then the mess begins to piss me off and I throw stuff away wholesale. It isn’t the most efficient process, but you won’t find anything on my desk from 2005 either. If you’ve already written the story, you probably don’t need those notes.

But there is an even more compelling reason to destroy your notes: They could be subpoenaed one day. You would rather truthfully tell the court that you routinely throw out your notes than try to assert your rights to protect sources and your unpublished materials. …

Think it can’t happen? In 1997, a federal court in Texas doled out a $222 million libel judgment against the Wall Street Journal (the writer herself was ordered to pay $20,000) after perusing nearly 200 pages of the writer’s notes that were used for a story about one bond firm’s business practices. At the time it was four times larger than any other libel case in history.

Here’s the caveat: I think there is general agreement that you should never throw away documents, including notes, after you have become aware of a lawsuit or been warned that one is imminent. That’s destroying evidence.

Care to disagree? Are you a note hoarder? Give it your best shot.

Clay

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