Obviously, there are many reasons to attend journalism conferences — networking, an excuse to leave the newsroom, open bars, self-aggrandized posturing, hanging out with friends and former colleagues.
But if I’m being honest, often the best thing I take back to my newsroom after these overly-optimistic get-togethers are cool new tools or clever hacks that seamlessly unwind themselves into my daily workflow. I never would have heard about CrowdTangle had it not been for an Online News Association event in Philadelphia several years ago, and my emails would remain crime scenes against the English language had it not been for a friendly suggestion to check out Grammarly.
So in the interest of paying it forward, and with the selfish knowledge that I’ll hear from a handful of readers about tool or two that make their jobs easier, here’s a rundown on some cool apps, hacks and digital timesavers that I use on the job regularly.
This is my third year in a row writing a column on digital tools, and I swore to myself this would be the year I’d avoid including Otter, the time-saving transcription app that is probably the most important tool I use outside my laptop itself. But recently, a couple of my colleagues at the Philadelphia Inquirer hadn’t heard of the miraculous app, so I felt it would probably be worth mentioning.
Basically, Otter is a digital recorder that automatically transcribes an interview in real time into a searchable database hyperlinked with the audio that’s easy to refer back to when writing your story. The smart phone app synchs with its website, so you can move back-and-forth from phone to desktop with ease using a single login.
If it sounds simple, that’s because it is. Obviously, the transcribed text isn’t cut-and-paste quality, but it gets the job done when you already know the quotes you’re looking to include in your story. Best of all, the app is free to use up to 600 minutes a month, and as an added bonus, Otter works in tandem with the call recording program I use on my Android (sorry, iPhone users).
As a media writer, I rely heavily on Twitter to keep me in the loop on breaking news and the top stores everyone online is yammering about (back in the day, we’d call them “talkers.”) But even my well-curated garden of Twitter lists get overrun with weeds of distracting garbage from time to time.
That’s where Nuzzel comes in. Over the years, I’ve increasingly become addicted to the free aggregation app that essentially creates a social media-fueled news feed. It features the stories that people you follow on Twitter are putting out there, weighted by how many times they’ve been shared.
Think of it as a way to de-clutter Twitter, with the added benefit of giving you the option to see trending articles shared by people outside your social media bubble. One of Nuzzel’s best options is the ability to select a specific timeframe, which comes in handy if you ever manage to put down your phone and get away from Twitter for several hours at a time.
I was a little afraid about Nuzzel’s future earlier this year when it was purchased by Scroll, a new startup backed by the New York Times and a group of large publishers that hopes to charge users $5 a month for an ad-free user experience on news websites. Thankfully, it’s been status-quo for Nuzzel, and as Scroll CEO Tony Haile told VentureBeat back in February, “Our first priority is not to screw that up.”
This Chrome plugin was recently introduced to by Isabella Kwai, an Australian-based reporter for the New York Times, who like me (and many, many other journalists) has an unhealthy addiction to tabs.
OneTab takes all your open tabs and with a simple click, places them in a list consolidated within one single tab and saves them for later use. Whenever you need to access those tabs, you have the option of opening them individually or restoring them all at once.
There are also some cool hacks within OneTab’s preferences. You can pick and choose which open tabs to consolidate together and save tab groups, a function I’ve found extremely helpful when reporting on two separate stories simultaneously. Tab groups can also be locked, so fast-clicking writers like myself don’t accidentally delete them.
Journalists use Google a lot differently than normal people do, and it becomes increasingly annoying to waste time skipping over click mills, low-quality aggregation websites and Pinterest (which oddly infiltrates the results of nearly every search I undertake) in order to do the research required for a story.
That’s where uBlacklist comes in. It’s a Chrome plugin (what isn’t these days?) that adds a “block this site” link next to every Google result the search giant serves.
I’ll admit, it does take some time to set up since each sketchy site has to be added manually. But we all know the main websites adept at infiltrating Google’s search rankings (rhymed with “Dora”), and once they’re added, you’ll find your Google searches to be much more efficient.
Turn Off Notification Requests
When I’m on deadline, nothing quite pushes my buttons than being confronted with a request from a website to allow notifications, as if any self-respecting reader has ever actually hit “yes” on purpose.
Alex James Fitz, a senior editor at Time, recently shared a hack on Twitter to prevent you from being bothered by the notifications in the first place. If you’re in Chrome, simply select Preferences > Advanced > Site settings > Notifications > and select Blocked.
It’s such a simple hack, you’ll wonder why you ever endured years of clicking “no” every time the annoying notifications appeared on your screen.
If you’re a total tools geek like me, the single best thing you could do is subscribe to the “Try This!” newsletter written by Poynter’s Ren LaForme.
Every Tuesday, LaForme offers a round-up of apps, simple tutorials and eye-opening digital hacks that can benefit even the most Luddite journalist. The best part is LaForme is a whiz at avoiding trendy tech distractions to instead focus on items with a tangible benefit to journalists. As he wrote himself in a recent edition of the newsletter, “I’m interested in what’s working or what has clear potential to work.”
You can subscribe at poynter.org/try-newsletter.
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 and writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Reach him at email@example.com.