While technology continues to wreak havoc with our business (walk down the hallway and talk to your colleagues in sales about digital ad rates), one benefit is the wealth of tools and devices that make reporting stories and covering communities easier and more robust than ever.
The best part of going to conferences such as ONA and South by Southwest isn’t learning about risky business ventures masquerading as digital cure-alls, or hearing the same, tired speeches about the need to deepen engagement with our readers (if we were any more engaged, we’d be planning a wedding). It’s the offhand conversation you strike up with a slightly sauced-up reporter who can’t stop raving about an app or hack that has freed up time to drink at a journalism conference.
I write a column like this once a year, and invariably it leads to journalists from across the country striking up a conversation about a cool new app or interesting tool they can no long do their reporting without. So, for the large majority of readers who don’t have the time or money to trek to one of these tech meccas, here’s a rundown of four cool apps that I lean on every day that might actually benefit you.
Aside from my hand-curated Twitter lists and my obsessively sorted Tweetdeck, CrowdTangle is the most successful tool I’m using to generate interesting leads and potential story ideas. CrowdTangle is an analytics platform owned by Facebook (it’s free, but sign-up is required) that tracks the social media performance of articles being shared in your city or town.
Many use it to see how wildly their own articles have been shared, but I’ve always used it to see the content created by other newsrooms that’s trending on social media in my market created, which gives me good insight on how to figure out unique ways for stories to resonate with my readers. Mark Frankel, a social media editor for BBC News, recently turned me on to the platform’s ability to track the activity on individual pages on Reddit and Facebook Groups, both public and private.
The simplest description possible is you set up a new dashboard, point it to Facebook Groups and subreddits you think are the most compelling and newsworthy for your particular beat, and it does the rest, alerting you when posts are over-performing and have a high interaction rate. It sounds simple, but it’s a powerful deep dive into content you might otherwise have missed.
If CrowdTangle is indispensable to me for generating story ideas, Otter is irreplaceable when it comes to the arduous task of transcribing interviews or phone conversations.
Otter, created by the mobile tech company AISense, not only transcribes any audio file or recording you upload, it creates a searchable and hyperlinked transcript of the conversation for you to refer back to when writing your story. The best part is you can click any word in the searchable text and Otter will playback that portion of your recording.
Obviously, the language recognition software isn’t perfect and won’t transcribe your conversation word-for-word, but it’s remarkably close for a free app (up to 600 minutes a month). On my Android, Otter works in tandem with my phone’s call recorder, allowing me to end an interview, click a button, and have a decent transcript ready within a handful of minutes.
Otter also has a voice recorder feature built in that will transcribe your conversation in real-time and archive it, making it available nearly instantly on your phone and desktop (using your unique login).
I hate tabs, but like most reporters, my web browser becomes littered with them as I chase stories and scrape for information throughout my shift, eventually becoming a nightmare to browse while crippling my computer’s meager resources.
I’m not exaggerating when I say Toby has changed how I work. The free browser extension for Chrome is basically a better organized version of your bookmarks bar, which you can easily categorize and separate into groups for your different work needs. Toby’s interface opens on every new browser tab and saves me hours each week performing simple tasks I never realized were so time consuming, such as opening all the important pages and work apps I use on a daily basis with one click.
Toby is also extremely handy when you are working on a story and have a number of tabs open that you might want to refer back to later, or you come across a story you want to remember to read. Just slide the open page into a new group, label it and minimize it to access later. You can even save an entire session, regardless of how many tabs you have open, in just one click. No more wasting time emailing yourself links.
I have Poynter’s Ren LaForme to thank for introducing me to Toby, which I first learned about in his incredibly helpful newsletter about digital tools called Try This!, easily one of my favorite reads each week.
Sometimes the most tedious aspect of reporting is the simple digging required to find someone’s email address. Instead of blind Google searches or time-consuming LexisNexis deep dives, I’ve had some success using Hunter.io as my starting point.
The free app (sign-up is required) allows you to search all the email addresses attached to a particular domain, such as a government agency or large company. Hunter.io also provides the most common pattern of addresses attached to that domain (firstname.lastname@example.org, for instance), and includes a build-in email verification tool. Like most apps, it doesn’t work all the time, but I’ve been surprised on several occasions when it returned exactly what I was looking for in almost no time at all.
One bummer is LinkedIn shut down Hunter.io’s integration last year, forcing the app to remove what I thought was one of its more powerful features: the addition of a “find their email” button on any person’s LinkedIn profile. The app is still worth playing around with, especially if you cover a large government agency guarded by a protective public spokesperson.
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor for Philly.com. Reach him at email@example.com.