Working remotely in the COVID era has led to a host of unexpected benefits for journalists. More time with the family. More flexibility with work schedules. Something that approaches a normal work-life balance.
But one of the major downsides has been spending less time with colleagues talking shop. I learned about every reporting hack or timesaver I use today from a random conversation over the coffee pot in the breakroom or at the bar getting drinks after work.
So, I thought I would use this space this month to discuss some of the fun tools I’ve been using recently in my reporting. Here are a handful of apps and tools I hope you find useful, possibly even making an assignment or two that much easier.
My new favorite tool is so new that it wasn’t named until I began writing this column. Despite being an early version that’s still undergoing testing, I can already see how useful it will be when it comes to brainstorming headlines.
Many news organizations, like The Washington Post, require reporters to create multiple headlines for their stories. This tool, developed by the team at Newsifier, uses a bit of AI-powered might to automatically suggest headlines based on the story text you provide.
In my testing, the five results (you can choose more or less) weren’t always perfect, but it’s a quick way to brainstorm headline ideas when you can’t come up with anything good. You can set the headline length up to 100 words, include or exclude specific words and even set it to offer headlines in the form of a question.
If you want to play around with it, visit: www.headlinehero.io
There are other apps that perform similar tasks, but this is a free, dip-your-toes-in method to explore how AI can help your stories.
Working remotely and want a quick assist on your copy? Hemingway is a free web-based app that looks at your writing and offers suggestions to make it bolder and clearer.
Hemingway, created by brothers Adam and Ben Long, grades your copy on its readability, lets you know if sections are too passive, and points out hard-to-read sentences. It even offers suggestions when phrases have simpler alternatives or when a word could be more forceful (though it sometimes offers grammatically-incorrect alternatives).
“The Hemingway app is fun to experiment with, and it’s useful in that it calls out in your writing places of friction — allowing you to decide whether they are necessary or merely sloppy. No one is above clarity,” wrote the New Yorker’s Ian Crouch.
It also couldn’t be easier to use — just go to Hemingway’s website, drop in your text, and see what the app has to say. There’s also a desktop version for both Mac and PC for times you don’t have an internet connection, but it’ll set you back $19.99.
Just about everyone uses Gmail for work these days. At The Philadelphia Inquirer, we switched to Gmail a few years ago. While it was a major improvement over the keyboard-pounding anger caused by Microsoft Access, the interface can be extremely clunky and distractingly busy.
As a result, I began experimenting with Simplify, a browser plugin developed by Michael Leggett, the lead designer on Gmail, from 2008 to 2012. It strips all the unnecessary clutter from Gmail’s sidebars and toolbars to offer a much more minimalist vibe to your inbox.
There are several options to play with, including a true dark mode and extra keyboard shortcuts that turn out to be very intuitive. For those of you who stress out about unread emails, Simplify gives you the simple option of hiding the number you have waiting in your inbox.
There’s a free 15-day trial. After that, it’ll cost you just $2 a month, a small price to pay for a little less clutter.
Every year I write a tool guide, and I end up recommending Otter, which I still find the best real-time transcription tool you can use. It allows you to transcribe 300 minutes for free, up to 30 minutes per conversation, with options to open up more time for just under $100 a year.
But there have been privacy concerns raised about Otter after POLITICO reporter Phelim Kine wrote about the service contacting him after using it to transcribe a conversation with Mustafa Aksu, a Uyghur human rights activist who could be a target of the Chinese government.
Otter said it would not share data without a valid United States legal subpoena, but the incident is a strong reminder that when we upload data to the cloud, it’s being stored somewhere. Just about all the best voice-to-text tools out there — Trint, Rev, Descript, Temi — use cloud-based services, and just Otter and Rev offer two-factor authentication.
Which is why I’m a big fan of Google Recorder. It’s currently only available on Pixel phones, but it records and transcribes conversations on your device — no cloud storage or internet connection required. Like Otter, it provides a searchable transcription that takes you to the important parts.
If you’re on an iPhone, you can use Ada Dictation. There’s also Picovoice, which also transcribes locally on your device without sending your audio to the cloud. Unfortunately, the free version caps out at 100 hours per month, and after that, it’s prohibitively expensive for most journalists.
Hunter and Lusha
An oldie but goodie. This handy Chrome plugin lets you search for email addresses and contacts from almost any website.
Say you’re looking for an email address for a large company in your town. Simply navigate to the company’s website, open Hunter, type the name you’re searching for, and Hunter will either return that person’s email address or the most likely structure used by others at the same organization. It also comes in handy when you’re looking to verify that you have the correct address.
The free version allows up to 25 searches a month, which has always been plenty for me. The next price point is steep — $49 a month — but allows 500 monthly searches and unlocks all the results from a specific web domain.
Lusha is another Chrome plugin very similar to Hunter, only it helps find email addresses and contact info using Linkedin profiles. It uses a credit system to perform functions, which you can earn by recommending the app or joining its community. To unlock more searches and other features, the least-expensive membership is $74 a month, so it’s not exactly cheap.
Northwestern University’s Knight Lab offers several open-source tools that could be especially helpful to journalists at smaller news outlets. My favorite is Juxtapose, which can be used to create interactive before-and-after photos. ... I haven’t had the chance to play around with many AI writing tools, but Craft seems to offer a good mix of simple-to-use features. Rytr is an inexpensive AI writing assistant if you’re looking to experiment. ... Wonder Tools is a terrific newsletter written by Jeremy Caplan, the director of teaching and learning for CUNY’s Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. You’ll find a lot of neat stuff and waste a good deal of time playing with the gadgets and tools he reviews. ... You should also check out Journalist's Toolbox, another great tools newsletter written by Mike Reilley, who teaches data and journalism at the University of Illinois Chicago.
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.
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