The Lost Art of Clipping

(This is a copy of my Loose Wire Sevice column, produced for newspapers and other print publications.)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

One of the lingering peculiarities of the web is that it’s not easy to save any of it.

This is somewhat weird. You’d think we’d have figured out that this was something people wanted to do quite a lot: If you like something you see or read, surely it’s a natural enough thing to do to want to keep a copy of it somewhere?

Back in the days of newspapers, we’d be clipping things all the time. We had a whole department at the BBC doing just that; if I needed background on Laos, say, I’d call up our secretary who would call up someone else who would magically deliver me a buff folder containing all the newspaper clippings on Laos. I felt like I was in MI5.

Nowadays we’ve got Google. Or if we’ve got the budget, Lexis Nexis or Factiva. But what about if we want to do the clipping ourselves?

Well, there are options. None is perfect.

First off, there’s Evernote, which you’ve heard me talk about before. For Windows and Mac users, it does an excellent job of saving anything you ask it to, whether it’s text or a screenshot.

(Tip for Windows users: Don’t bother with the new beta version of the software, which is not good. Go with the old one until they get their act together.)

But Evernote is by no means perfect. You’ve still got to select the text, or the bit of screen you want to save. And this can be fiddly, because most web pages now are optimized for ads, not reading, so the chances are that just dragging a mouse over the text in question will include all sorts of detritus you don’t want.

In which case, try a browser bookmark called Readability (free from lab.arc90.com/experiments/readability/). When you visit a page you want to save—or part of which you want to save—click on the Readability button and all the detritus will disappear, leaving just the main article on the page. It’s great for saving stuff, but also worth using if you’re having problems reading web pages cluttered with ads and other bits of nonsense.

(It does a remarkably good job of this, but it does sometimes leave out important bits, such as the date of the articles, material which I find useful to save.)

Another weakness of Evernote is that it assumes you want to save all this material to one big database. Most times we do, but sometimes I find I am just saving bits and pieces for a specific task or project and would rather keep them all in one place separately.

Another weakness of Evernote is that it assumes that what you’re clipping stuff only from the web. While it will let you drag other material into Evernote using the mouse, or the clipper application, Evernote is aimed primarily at users of the browser.

But if we’re gathering material we’re probably gathering them from other sources too, such as Acrobat PDF files, or Word or Excel files.

If that’s your game, then I’d recommend a new tool called Topicgrazer. From the makers of Topicscape, a 3D mind mapping-file organizing application, Topicgrazer simply grabs everything you choose to copy to the Windows clipboard, and stuff it in one text file, with links to the files or wepages the material came from.

It’s a simple but powerful tool, and works remarkably well. Even things that are notoriously difficult to copy, such as spreadsheet cells, handle well. It’s not the most beautiful of apps, nor the most customizable, but it’s surprisingly good. Topicgrazer costs $10 from Topicscape.com.

Another tool I really like for its simplicity is something called CintaNotes. CintaNotes does something similar to Topicgrazer—one keystroke saving whatever you have selected in whatever application–but instead of copying it into one document, it creates separate entries, where the title is the name of the file, or the webpage.

CintaNotes also saves the source of the material as a link. CintaNotes is free from cintanotes.com, and was put together by a 29-year old native of Siberia’s Krasnoyarsk called Alex Jenter.

Where it differs from Topicgrazer, and where it comes closer to Evernote, is that it saves all these entries in a chronological roll, one after the other. And like Evernote it lets you add tags. In fact, it’s a bit like Evernote’s younger sibling.

But maybe that’s its strength. Evernote is intended to capture everything you might ever want to capture. CintaNotes, though powerful, is perhaps best used as a specialiist cabinet, where you just keep stuff that is specific to one project. It loads faster than Evernote, and doesn’t take up much space, so you might find it more to your liking if you’re not a serial clipper.

There are other tools out there. Some folk just copy and email themselves stuff they like the look of, and there are add-ons for Firefox and Chrome to help you do this. The Opera browser has its own note-taking application, which works well—so long as you only want to save stuff from the web.

I don’t think any of these applications help in one regard: highlighting and annotating text. Perhaps it exists, but I’ve not yet found an application that lets you add highlight to text you find, and add your own notes in a seamless (and easily retrievable) way. After all, that’s what we’d do with those newspaper clippings of old: We’d highlight the bits that were relevant, and could rarely resist scrawling our own comments in the margin.

There are other bits of our clipping past I’d like to recreate: The feel, the smell, the atmosphere of those little scissored flakes of newsprint, carefully layered in those buff folders. Even if the clip was only a few weeks old, you couldn’t help feel you were somehow handling a slice of history. The mere act of cutting out the article, stamping it with the date, and adding it to a folder lent it importance, reverence, that Evernote and its ilk don’t quite capture.

Maybe it’s too much to ask, but I’d love to get a bit of that back.

18. May 2010 by jeremy
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