Looking back on the biggest mistakes of my career: Bad record-keeping

Note: This blog post also ran in the Society of Professional Journalism’s “Journalism and the World” blog. Click here to see the original post.

Since I’m in the process of easing out of being a journalist, and easing into being a business owner, and this is a blog about international journalism, not about entrepreneurship, I’m going to use this forum to look back on my 15-plus years in the field.

Today’s mistake: Bad record-keeping

This isn’t the biggest mistake I ever made as a journalist. (I’ll save the ones that got people killed for a little later on.)

But it is a mistake that bothers me more and more as times goes on. It doesn’t bother me a huge amount, but just enough.

For example, I don’t know where most of my old sources are now. I kept records on various little scraps of paper, on computer disks that are no longer compatible with computers (and are probably unreadable by now, anyway), and in memo books that are mouldering in miscellaneous attics.

Nobody working today should be making this mistake: keep all your sources in an easy-to-use electronic format, and move them all over whenever you upgrade software. The guy you interviewed ten years ago may have become the CEO of the company – and if you’d kept in touch with him once in a while, you would know that.

And not just sources are lost — so are former colleagues.

I have a bad memory for names, and have forgotten those of many of the people I’ve worked with, and who have been influential in my life. I’ve forgotten the name of the Chicago Tribune international editor who suggested that I go overseas on my own rather than waiting for someone to send me. I forgot the name of the sports editor I worked next to for months in Moscow who has since married and moved to Cleveland. I forgot the last name of Jose, who wrote that fantastic piece about learning to deal with Russian bureaucrats — not by crying (as a columnist at a competing newspaper suggested) but by learning to vomit at will. Jose, where are you now?

Okay, I went and Googled — his full name is Jose Alanis. But I still can’t figure out where he is now.
But there’s even more stuff that I’ve forgotten. For example, I haven’t kept clips of all my published articles and photographs — some of them have probably disappeared forever. Or stored in a dark archive somewhere forgotten by all.

Some of these are historic photographs, too — such as the one I took of Manana Gamsakhurdia wailing over the grave of her husband, the first democratically elected president of Georgia (who later became a tyrant, was deposed, launched a civil war, and, before he died under mysterious circumstances, gave me the last media interview of his life).

And I’ve also lost details of important events in my life. Details that I didn’t bother writing about when I was living them that now I really wish I had access to. Someday, I might write a book about my times in the war zones — or, at the very least, blog posts. I’ll have to rely on my memory, and my memory stinks.

Please, young journalists, learn from my mistakes: keep good records. Keep a journal. Take plenty of pictures and store them in formats that will adapt as technology progresses.

Signing off in Shanghai,