Being an online journalist is sort of the perfect storm on your wallet. It’s not the most lucrative of professions and you need/want/can’t resist keeping up with the latest cool stuff. But luckily, the Internet takes care of its own. I’ve compiled a list of nine (because 10 was too many) awesome products, some technological, some lifestyle-oriented, that I think make great gifts for online journalists and bloggers.
For the most part, they’re pretty affordable. And the stuff that’s expensive is worth it, in this reporter’s humble opinion. The methodology for gathering the gear? Pretty casual–mostly I asked my working journalist friends, Googled for slick gadgets and lauded gear that I own and use myself (or want desperately but can’t quite afford). Just to be clear, I’m not hyping this stuff for personal gain of any kind–these are actual products I like, use or want. Nobody gave me free stuff or anything. (Which is a bummer, really.)
It’s the Online Journalism Review’s first annual Top 9 Gifts for Online Journalists list! (In reverse order of awesomeness.)
So, happy holidays from OJR, don’t say I never gave you anything.
9. Record sound
It’s not terribly thrilling, but boy is it useful. Belkin’s TuneTalk Stereo allows you to record large amounts of digital audio right to your iPod’s hard drive and then upload to your computer for later transcription. Add a cellular microphone like this one and record your phone interviews. 80 GB of hard drive space–or more–means that you can save every interview you have done and prove that you’ve never misquoted in your whole career. Be sure to get your subject’s consent before you record your conversations, though.
If you’re like me, you listen to a lot of audio. Digital files of interviews, podcasts, the mic feed from DV cameras, YouTube videos, my iPod–you get the point. Pretty soon, it becomes worthwhile to get a really good pair of noise-canceling headphones. Unfortunately, quality is extremely commensurate with price in this department–and you can really spend a bundle. For this list I picked the second-best Bose noise-cancelers out there. The QuietComfort 2 is last year’s top of the line, and at $300, it’s still pricey, but $50 less than the current QuietComfort 3. People love ’em: “Bose’s standard-setting noise-canceling headphones have just upped the ante.” (CNet.com) If you’re going to spend the money, this series is the one to get.
7. Write and draw
I want one of these pretty badly. The Bamboo Fun is a consumer-grade PC drawing and writing tablet. It’s not for expert draftsmen or NASA engineers, but if you want to publish a Web comic, scribble your own handwriting and have it translated to text or decorate your blog with art and script of your own design, this is the tool you want. It’s cheap–100 bucks for the small 5.8″ x 3.7″ writing area one, $200 for the big 8.5″ x 5.3″–and it comes with a bunch of cool paint-type software. The biggest selling point for me is the paper-like textured drawing area and the 512 different pressure setting on the pen nib. (The harder you press, the thicker the line, etc.) Awesome.
6. Find your way
After extensive searching, it became clear that there are so many car GPS systems these days, but one is actually much better reviewed than the rest. They all do the big task pretty well: helping you get to an appointment on time when you are lost in an unfamiliar area. But, many people really like the Tom Tom series. It’s small, easy to use and Bluetooth compatible, though some reviews point out that the list of phones it talks nicely too is a little small. The best all-around unit seems to be the Tom Tom Go 720, which, in addition to the range of expected features, allows you to download celebrity voices to replace the stock U.S.S. Enterprise-style synth voice. I particularly like the idea of being told where to drive by Mr. T. I pity the fool who missed the Fairfax offramp.
5. Carry stuff
If you looked in my messenger bag for clues to my inner self a la Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, you’d find the clues of a techno-frantic lifestyle: phones, chargers, cameras, spare batteries, USB thumb drives, scribbled notes and nicotine gum. A good bag can add a sense of compartmentalized organization and calm to an otherwise hectic interview schedule. I really dig Chrome Bags. They’re super big, have a certain hipster cache with the seatbelt buckle and side-slung profile, and best of all, keep my stuff in the right place. The biggest one, the “Kremlin”, is 3000 cubic inches, which apparently is the actual volume of the Kremlin. (Not really.) These guys make excellent laptop bags as well.
4. Take pictures
Okay, so we all take lots of pictures for our jobs. Oftentimes, as online journalists, we are not necessarily trying to take print-quality pictures sharp enough to grace the cover of Time Magazine. Blogs do not require 10 megapixel resolution. But as a writer and blogger who has shown up to countless conferences with crummy pocket cameras with only 3x zoom, I can attest to the fact that sometimes you need a little more. Plus, having a bulkier SLR slung around your neck gives you a ton of silent credibility–and can get you into places for the story that a fanboy waving a happy-snaps camera cannot.
Luckily for us there are a bunch of really good cameras in the middle zone between entry level and $3000-minimum 10 mp pro grade cameras. I defer to the Digital SLR Guide website, which has a really solid list of SLRs for under $600. Their choice? The Olympus Evolt E-330. It’s 7.5 mp, and, like a consumer grade camera, has live-viewing through the LCD screen (which is unusual for SLRs), allowing you to shoot from the hip if you want. It won a couple awards too, from Popular Science and J.D. Power (those glass-trophy guys who rate stuff). Shop around though, this camera and 14-44mm zoom lens sell for anywhere from $500 to $999 on the official site.
3. Get there
“Go get me a copy of that lawsuit/document/public record/etc.!” your editor yells, probably without those typographical slashes. The dread fills the pit of your stomach. You have to try to park downtown and go to the County Courthouse or City Hall or the Hall of Records or whatever. It will take five hours, cost $30 and surgically extract the joy from your day. Except there’s a solution and I use it every day of my life. It’s called a motorscooter. Instead of crawling through traffic, I zip to the front of each stoplight, beating everyone (including potential journalistic competition) to the destination. Parking? You don’t pay. Here in Los Angeles, there’s a strip of sidewalk in front of the courthouse that has a dozen scooters rowed up at any given time, all belonging to couriers who’ve figured out the secret of modern urban transport.
Full disclosure: I am a rabid Vespa aficionado and I love my ET4 to death. There are tons of quality, utilitarian scooters out there by Honda and Yamaha, but for me, there is no substitute for the sexy lines of Enrico Piaggio’s buzzing “wasp.” The best choice out there now in terms of modern, 4-stroke fuel efficient Vespas is the LX150. It’s got enough pep in the 149cc motor to get you up the hills while keeping emissions low and fuel economy high (around 80 mpg). $4199.
To be honest, I don’t really know where I fall with Amazon’s Kindle wireless reader. I love E-ink technology and find it tremendously readable. But do we need a lightweight replacement for newspapers and books? This is an endless debate for another column, but I will say it might be the half-way solution for those who hate reading newspapers online but can’t haul 20 lbs. of Sunday editions around in their backpacks all day. Who knows. Some part of me says “Bah, people will always want to hold physical novels in their hands…” and some other part of me looks around his room and sees a big blank spot where his shelf of CD jewel cases used to be. So, Kindle is on this list as a heavily qualified late entrant: I’ve never used one, I know it’s going to be controversial: it’s too expensive, battery life may be an issue, Amazon charges you to read free content(!) but Kindle has the potential to change the way we read the news and blogs. This is one to watch and expect more reporting on it from me soon. They’re all sold out, so this may not be an good gift idea, either. Wiki: Kindle.
I debated pretty hard with myself for a good four minutes about whether or not to put the i-word on here. Unless you have been blogging from inside a sensory deprivation chamber, you probably know that there’s a big debate around the iPhone. This is not the time or the place and I am not the guy to explain it to you, but basically, Steve Job’s new cash calf can do all sorts of pretty neat stuff like keypad-less email and web browsing, a manner of phony GPS roving that uses Google maps to tell you where you are (but only when you tell it where you are), and of course, it plays music like a puny iPod only big enough to hold a fraction of your music. You could fill it to the brim with Robert Pollard/GBV back catalog alone.
But the biggest problem (aside from face-grease on the touch screen) is that you are stuck with the lumbering crippled behemoth that is AT&T née Cingular. Most anecdotal reports I’ve heard say that L.A. coverage is hopelessly spotty (read: more hopelessly spotty than other carriers). Worse still, if you unlock the SIM card to get Verizon or shudder, T-Mobile, (why you would want that, I have no idea), you run the risk of your friends in Cupertino nuking your phone from space.
That said, the Apple iPhone is the number-one gift for online journalists in 2007. The ability to live-update blogs with text and pictures effortlessly and from anywhere is indispensable. The sheer ooh-ahh factor is off the charts. Yes, the iPhone is way overpriced, has a wimpy HD, a totalitarian service plan and bogus coverage, but it is so dang cool that this list would be hopelessly remiss if it wasn’t at the top. I don’t have one yet but it is only a matter of time. (Mr. Jobs if you are reading this, I’m only kidding, please send me one. The 8gb preferably.)
Reading this back, I see the ultimate solipsist gift registry, as if I’m marrying myself. Remember when Homer gave Marge a bowling ball with his name pre-engraved on it? It’s better to write about receiving then to give, I suppose. Happy holidays and I hope this list has helped you please the most important online journalist in your life, which may or may not be yourself.