WWD Reader Profile: Christopher Mims, Freelance Journalist

WebWorkerDaily readers are a diverse bunch. Every week, I profile a different reader and ask them to share what they do, how they do it, and some of their favorite hints and tips.

Who are you and what do you do?

My name’s Christopher Mims, and I’m a regular, dinosaur-type freelance journalist. A lot of what I write ends up in magazines such as Scientific American, Wired and Popular Science. I also write a great deal for the web, mostly for Technology Review and ScientificAmerican.com.

There’s been a great deal of hand-wringing of late over the “fate of journalism,” but it’s important, I think, to realize that the media is a very inhomogeneous industry: newspapers are suffering, but a lot of magazines are doing OK, and the advent of the web has meant a whole new demand for daily news and blogging from traditional journalists.

It also helps to have a niche. As a science and technology journalist, there is (I like to imagine) a certain level of expertise separating me from, say, music journalists. Not to impugn their work, but it’s hard to stay in a field where a million bloggers have, in essence, utterly replaced you.

What’s a typical day like for you?

The only thing that makes up for my inability to buy my own health insurance is the fact that I can put off the start of my day until 10 a.m. — after the baby is with his sitter, after I’ve made breakfast, after I’ve listened to a bunch of the podcasts I rely on to keep me abreast of areas that I cover, such as technology, science and the environment, from the BBC, NPR and PRI. The rest of the day could consist of any combination of research, interviews and writing. An unfortunate percentage of my day often consists of simply tracking down experts and getting them to agree to an interview time and date that’s compatible with my deadline.

A good day consists of two or three interviews with incredibly smart scientists and engineers on the cutting edge of their fields, who generally offer up mind-blowing tidbits about future areas of research — if you can get them past the 45-minute mark in an interview.

What gear and software do you use, and why?

Some writers work in coffee shops, but to me this is insanity. I am at least twice as productive with an ergonomically-correct setup anchored by a second (very large) monitor. When I’m writing a piece, I might have every interview I conducted for it open at once, plus an outline, notes, a browser full of tabs and the draft I’m working on, plus my email client open on my second (laptop) monitor.

Everything I do is about speed and simplicity:

  • I use Chrome (s goog) because it’s the fastest browser on OS X, as far as I can tell, and also the least crash-prone. I use the AdBlock extension to make it even more stable.
  • TextEdit is my word processor of choice. It has no auto-save, but that’s irrelevant, because in years and years of using it every day, it has literally never crashed on me.
  • My entire filing and to-do system is accomplished in the Finder, with folders, and is enabled by Spotlight. I throw things in folders, one for each project I’m working on, and I archive them when the piece is done. Everything else is accomplished by my ability to search through my entire drive, including the contents of documents, in an instant.
  • I use MailPlane to access Gmail, and Fluid to access Google Calendar. Google’s cloud apps are great, but I need them to be actual, separate applications and not browser tabs so that I can rapidly jump between them using cmd-tab.
  • All of my applications are bound to keyboard shortcuts using Spark. I know there are other things out there, like LaunchBar and Quicksilver, and I should probably learn them, but for me it’s enough to be able to launch every app without my hands ever leaving the keyboard.
  • Twitter is an invaluable source of breaking news and expertise, and if I’m following you there, it’s because you make me a better and more-informed reporter. I think it is the ultimate tool for journalists, bar none. My Twitter client of choice is Tweetie.
  • For fast image editing for blog posts (simple cropping, resizing, etc.) the super-lightweight ImageWell has replaced Photoshop for me.
  • Pages is a great substitute for (crash-prone, relatively expensive) Microsoft Word (s msft). Many editors love using commenting and track changes in Word and as far as I know, Pages is the only non-Word app that handles both of these perfectly.
  • Instapaper is the only way I ever read anything on the web that’s longer than about 600 words, and it saves me from being distracted during the workday, because anything interesting just gets dumped in my Instapaper queue with a single click. Most of my Instapaper reading is done on an iPhone, which works surprisingly well considering the small screen.
  • For collecting story ideas and research on larger pieces, I use Delicious.
  • For backup, I use Time Machine on an external drive, CrashPlan for remote backup, and I also have my “work” folder automatically backing up to Dropbox. You never know.
  • I use Growl alerts to allow me to scan the subject line and first few sentences of incoming emails without having to click over to my email client – especially useful if I don’t want to be interrupted.

What’s your favorite web working tip?

After I read some of the recent research about how awful multitasking is for productivity, I started a practice I call “mono-tasking.” (Ed: also check out our posts on singletasking here) It’s simple: If I’m working on something and I get to a natural break point or something pops up to distract me, I deliberately ignore it and instead focus on finishing the task at hand. Even if it’s something that could easily be left for later, I’ve come to realize that the time required to later on re-ascertain where I was in the middle of a task, plus the costs of mentally switching from one task to another, are just too great.

If you would like to be profiled on WWD, get in touch with me at simon (at) gigaom (dot) com.

Related GigaOM Pro content (sub. req.): Enabling the Web Work Revolution