The contacts book is one of the essential tools of a journalist’s trade. Some journalists are head-hunted, purely because of the strength of their contacts. And the golden rule is: keep a record of everyone you deal with – even if you think you will never need them again. You never know when you might need to refer to a contact again years after you first spoke to them.

There was one occasion when I interviewed a rock promoter who had just taken over an old theatre and was doing it up to hold rock concerts. After a while he sold it and I didn’t think I would ever speak to him again. But I recorded his name anyway.

Twelve years later, the theatre was the subject of a big court case, and the man who knew all the background information was this chap I had spoken to all those years earlier. Luckily I still had his number – and I was the only journalist to get the information needed to break a really good story.

Here are some tips about how to maintain a useful contacts book:

1. Use a loose-leaf book If you buy an ordinary address book, you will soon fill it up and have to transfer all the information into a bigger one. But if you buy a loose-leaf book, you can add pages as you go.

2. Don’t rely entirely on electronincs Many people maintain contacts books on their PC, laptop or palmtop. This is fine – but what happens if you lose it, or if the information gets wiped? If you are using an electronic book, make sure it is regularly and thoroughly backed up.

3. Note all numbers that you encounter Always assume that you WILL need a person’s number again. That way, you will never get caught out.

4. List thorough details Take every detail you can from each contact, so you can be sure of being able to contact them whenever you need to: their home number, work number, mobile, address, fax, pager, e-mail – everything.

5. Cross reference Mr Smith is an expert on railways. So you should enter him under S for Smith and R for railways. This can help you when you are trying to find experts to speak to on a specific subject.

6. Create subject pages Start a page for each topical issue, and record every contact you make connected with it. For instance, you may have a page under D for drugs. It will contain the name and details of everyone you have spoken to on drug-related issues. Then next time you want to write a feature on drugs, the contacts you need will be there on a plate.

7. Develop an entry style and stick to it Some entries can be listed in several different ways. For instance: the Portsmouth branch of the NSPCC – are you going to enter it under P for Portsmouth or N for NSPCC, or both? Establish your way of recording things when you first start your book, and stick to it. This makes the book easier to use.

8. Insert entries in pencil You will find that details change all the time, so if you write them in pencil you can rub them out and change them.

Entries in pen are difficult and untidy to change.

9. Make time to update the book regularly Try to update one letter of your contact book every week – call everybody on the A-page one week, then the Bs the next week, and so on. This way you will keep up-to-date with people.

10. Put your name, address and phone number on the inside cover of the notebook This way, all is not lost if you lose your book – maybe someone will return it to you.

11. Protect important numbers It is best not to list important or famous people in your contacts book, in case it falls into the wrong hands. It is best to memorise numbers like these, or keep them in a separate book, locked away.

Cleland Thom runs Journalism Training Services. Contact or visit

by Cleland Thom

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