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Jan. 20, 2009, 9:48 a.m.

Building your own electronic clip file

Danny Sanchez and Joe Murphy both wrote recently about the need — in an era when your employer may not be around tomorrow — for reporters to keep copies of their clips. They focus on keeping your online-only clips, which are more likely to disappear without notice, but the same advice applies for regular ol’ newspaper stories. (Kids, gather ’round and I’ll tell you of the days of yore, when ambitious journalists actually dragged piles of physical newspaper clippings from apartment to apartment, from Manitowoc to Sheboygan to Kenosha to the big gig in Milwaukee.)

I got on this bandwagon almost seven years ago when I started clipfile.org, which is the site where I have the full text of every newspaper story I’ve ever written. It’s nothing beautiful or profound; I haven’t touched the design in several years. But I’ve had enough people comment on the basic idea behind it that I figure some might be interested in starting their own electronic clip file. Here’s how:

— Assuming your newspaper has an in-house electronic library service, check if it has an export function that can handle multiple stories at once. (Most will.) Do a search for your byline and save all your stories as a text file.

If you do nothing else, repeat this step every once and a while and you’ll have the raw text of your stories. Keep that file in a safe place. (And back it up — you do back up your computer, right?)

— If you want a clipfile.org-style site, start a blog. A blog, fundamentally, is nothing more than a database of chunks of text, organized by date. That’s exactly what you want: a database of your stories, organized by their dates of publication.

The easiest way is to sign up for one on one of the major blog-hosting services, like WordPress.com or Blogger. That will give you a site with an address like myclips.wordpress.com or myclips.blogspot.com. (For a fee, you can buy a real domain name — like johndoeclips.com — within either platform.) Since this is just a database of your stories for your own promotion, you’ll probably want to turn off readers’ ability to leave comments on the blog.

— When you find yourself with a weekend afternoon with a few hours free, start converting those stories in that text file into blog posts. For my site, I copied every headline into the post’s title field and the body of the story into the body of the post. I also added the page number at the top of each post and the byline, noting if it was a joint byline with someone else.

Then — and don’t forget this step — change the date of the blog post to the date the story ran. That way that old story from 2002 shows up as if it was posted in 2002. If you don’t do this, every story will appear as if it was published on the day you entered it into the blog.

If you’d like, you can use the category and tag functions within each blogging platform to further divvy up your posts. On my site, I created categories for things like Blade | City government (from my days as a city hall reporter at The Toledo Blade) and DMN | Olympics (for when I covered the 2002 Salt Lake City games for The Dallas Morning News). You can be as broad or as detailed as you’d like.

This sounds like a bigger hassle than it is. It requires a fair amount of mindless repetition — using copy/paste a few hundred times. But it is mindless; I did a fair amount of mine while watching college football over a few fall Saturdays.

(If you’re a supernerd, you could get around this by writing a script to automatically convert your massive text file into a format importable into WordPress. Google’s recently releasted Blog Converters might be a start, code-wise. Or you could chunk it up into discrete tasks for Mechanical Turk. But that’s for supernerds only.)

— Once you’ve got the backlog filled to your liking, maintenance is easy. Every time you have a new story published, just copy and paste it from your electronic library (or straight from your newspaper web site) into the blog as a new entry. Takes 30 seconds, max. Even if you forget to update for a few weeks, updating will only take a few minutes.

— Every once in a while, export all those blog posts back into a text file, and keep a copy of it. That’ll protect you in case something happens to the web server where your blog is stored.

Extra credit: If I were starting clipfile.org now and feeling extra nerdy, I’d probably add a few extras:

— I’d use WordPress’ custom-fields feature to pull the metadata-ish things (like page number and byline) out of the main body of the post and into a format that can better segregate them from the story proper.

— I’d also create PDFs of each story and upload them into a directory on my site where they could be linked to the ID number of each story within the blogging platform. That would allow them to be easily linked to each post. You might already have access to your newspaper’s internal database of PDF page images. (In Dallas, ours was called PageTracker.)

— I’d be aggressive about tagging — using the same sort of tags that many newspaper libraries do to tell more about what the story’s subject. That would make later searching — like finding every story about a particular issue before city council — easier.

But no matter how geeked out you want to get — even if you never get past step one — it’s a good idea to keep track of your writing when your employer might have a shorter half-life than you’d like. Not only is a comfort to know you have your work in a safe place — it’s also a great way to search all your past stories, quickly and easily.

One last note: Typically, for American newspapers, your employer owns the copyright on your stories. Theoretically, that means that copying your own stories could be a copyright violation. For the record, I am not a lawyer. It would appear that photocopying your articles for your next employer would appear to be just as much of a copyright violation as putting it on your blog, and newspapers have long tolerated that. But caveat emptor. I certainly wouldn’t do anything like sell ads on a site like this, for fear of rousing my employer. There are also various ways to make your blog invisible to Google or protected behind a password, if you so choose.

(Photo by Flickr user theogeo, licensed under a Creative Commons license.)

POSTED     Jan. 20, 2009, 9:48 a.m.
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