Tips to do great journalism from your home

Bart Pfankuch

Jul 1, 2020

In the COVID-19 era, many more journalists are working from home, some enjoying the freedom, a few discovering the difficulties and most hopefully avoiding the traps.

As someone who has worked from home for nearly three years and who spent five years lightly supervised in a capital news bureau in Florida, I have significant experience working from a remote office. Working successfully from home as a full-time journalist requires four critical concepts: self-discipline, regimentation, adhering to boundaries and maintaining production.

Here are some tips I have picked up over those many months; some are techniques born of necessity, and others were learned the hard way.

• Create a designated workspace. Make sure others in the home respect boundaries so you can work uninterrupted.

• Make a work schedule. Create a daily schedule with break times and lunch, and stick to it. Work time is for work-work, not housework or yard work.

• Turn off the TV, stereo, video games or personal social media platforms while on the job.

• The work space is for work. Don’t eat or do other non-work activities at your desk, which can dilute the sanctity of your work space. Know that home-based workers are prone to weight gain.

• Work like your boss is watching. Keep in mind that production of material is an irrefutable outcome of time well spent. If production slips, your boss and readers will know.

• Be always at the ready. A home-based reporter must be ready to report at any time. If you have a cell phone with speaker function and a voice-recorder, there is never a time you cannot do an interview, either at home or while out and about or on nights or weekends. Do not miss that important call, and don’t fall into the “Let’s talk later” trap.

• Maintain professionalism. Working from home doesn’t equate to casualness in interactions with your bosses, sources or the public.

• No PJs. Get up, shower, get dressed and go to work. Working in pajamas or a robe sets the wrong mental tone, makes work seem less important and can burn you on sudden Zoom or FaceTime calls.

• Always ask for art. Before concluding interviews, ask for a headshot, photos that illustrate the topic or direction to a website where you can skim photos, videos or charts. Remember to ask for IDs and descriptions of submitted images.

• Send a follow-up email every time. After every interview, get the email address of the source and send them an email thanking them but also arranging to make contact later to clarify anything or get more information or art. Email is accessible everywhere, and making that connection can pay off later.

• Get cellphone numbers. This is a tip I cannot repeat enough. Get the cell number of anyone you speak to by phone or in person to create a deep source list but also for follow-up questions.

• Over-prepare for interviews. With no staff meetings or BS sessions in the lunchroom to drain away your time, there’s no excuse for not doing research about your source and their topic of expertise prior to interviews.

• Jump on sourcing immediately. In this topsy-turvy pandemic, do not wait to contact sources. Send emails and make calls immediately to sources when an assignment lands. Make specific arrangements for when they are free.

• Be your own editor. Stay in touch with your editor and use phone time wisely to talk through reporting, angles and organization of the piece. Read stories aloud and fix trouble spots. Copy edit your work at least twice. Keep your game tight on the facts, style and grammar, photos and captions, and only turn in your best work. Do this once the pandemic subsides, too.

• Keep kids and pets controlled. On a recent unexpected call, my talking parrot became lonely and began to screech while I interviewed a tribal police chief. It wasn’t quaint or funny to explain that it wasn’t a child being abused, but rather my unruly pet bird. Kids or dogs who photobomb Zoom calls are no longer funny, either.

• No alcohol on the job. This is a big “Duh!” but still worth mentioning.

• Work when inspiration strikes. If you wake up with an idea for a great lead or a new source to contact, pop out of bed and write it down. Weekends are fair game for writing stories that coalesce in your head during the work week.

• Delay gratification: Motivation takes many forms, but so do distractions. Force yourself to finish data collection, interviews or writing before you have lunch outside, go for a walk or call it a day. You’ll get more done and enjoy your free time with impunity.

• Find joy in hard work. Get to work on time, stay on task, be smart, run a tight ship, produce good material, seek greatness, do more than expected and be a good reporter and employee. Do all this and you will enjoy what you do, find the joy in working from home and serve the public well.

Bart Pfankuch is the content director for South Dakota News Watch, an online public-service journalism group. He can be reached at