The light at the end of the pandemic tunnel continues to get brighter. Everyday more and more people get vaccinated, while most of the nastier metrics of COVID-19 continue to decline.
The coronavirus pandemic has been both a boon for journalism and the most disruptive event in more than 100 years. Most newsrooms remain closed, transforming basements and spare bedrooms across the country into temporary news bureaus, ushered in with the sounds of screaming toddlers or yelling neighbors.
To get through this pandemic, I’ve leaned on a handful of time-saving apps and stress-reducing hacks (as well as my noise-canceling headphones). Here are some digital tools and tricks that helped me meet my deadlines over the past year.
I covered a lot of COVID-19 briefings over the past year for the Philadelphia Inquirer and experimented with a number of different recording apps, including Trint and Happy Scribe. I still haven’t found anything that comes close to Otter, a handy app that’s available on both Android and Apple.
Basically, Otter transcribes any audio you’re recording in real time and provides searchable text hyperlinked to the corresponding audio. As a result, my note taking has evolved into quotes, phrases or ideas I can then search for once the meeting is over. Another nice hack I’ve developed over the years is recording a press briefing on my phone while I grab live quotes from the transcription in real time on my laptop.
The basic plan is free up to 600 minutes a month and will transcribe up to 40 minutes with audio in real time (though you can stop and restart as many times as you need). You can also import up to three separate audio files a month to be transcribed, but you have to shell out $9 a month to make it unlimited.
Google Docs hacks
Most newsrooms use Google Docs in some way or form. Sure, there are alternatives—Bear, Ulysses, and Hemmingway among the most notable—but it’s hard to beat the free and easy-to-use tools that Google offers.
Thankfully, I became privy to a number of useful Google Docs hacks this year that I’m thrilled to pass on. The dictation function is handy when I just want to quickly get some ideas down on the run, and it’s surprisingly accurate, even with the sound of my 3-year-old playing in the background. Obviously, any digital recording app would work (another plug for Otter) but this way I already have my text in a new document ready to go.
Speaking of starting a new document, if you type “doc.new” in the address bar, it will automatically create a file, as long as you’re logged into Google. It also works for Google Sheets (sheet.new), Google Calendar (cal.new), and Google Slides (slide.new).
Another function I’m embarrassed to say I only recently learned about is that Google Docs has a word counting feature. Go to Tools > Word Count, and check the box next to “display word count while typing.”
One final hack: You can tell Google Docs to auto-substitute anything you type by navigating to Tools > Preferences and selecting “substitutions.” Personally, I use it to turn two dashes into an em dash, but you can create any swap you’d like (or that your copy editors demand).
Jeremy Caplan, director of teaching and learning for CUNY’s Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, filled some of his pandemic downtime creating a newsletter focusing on digital tools appropriately named “Wonder Tools.”
Out of all the new apps Caplan experimented with and wrote about over the past year, the one that he found most useful was Roam, which he described as a digital filing cabinet for all his ideas, notes, and links.
“Probably the biggest change in my workflow in the past year is using Roam,” Caplan said. “Some people call it a note taking app or an idea management app, but it’s basically a way to connect your ideas and notes together.”
Caplan said Roam’s unique interlinking capabilities allow ideas and notes to be interconnected in ways that other note-taking tools—Evernote, Onenote, Apple Notes—don’t, saving the step of having to copy different notes for multiple stories in a number of different places.
Heading into the pandemic, I was a fan of the Chrome app Toby to organize and manage my open tabs, but thanks to a suggestion from Caplan I’ve jumped ship to OneTab.
Basically, OneTab allows you to click a button and collapse all open tabs into a single list, freeing precious memory and eliminating the stress of having to go through them before a project is finished. This has been a great feature for me while reporting on different stories (I change the default list name to the slug or filename associated with my story). I also use it to pre-launch all the websites I open to start my workday.
The best part? It’s free and available as a plug-in for both Chrome and Firefox.
If you don’t want a new plug-in, here’s a hack for Firefox: right click any open tab, choose “Select All Tabs” followed by “Bookmark Tabs.” This will place all the selected tabs into a new bookmarks folder, though you’ll still need to close them all.
If you’re like me, you’re constantly coming across interesting articles you don’t have time to read in the middle of the day. For help organizing and remembering, I’ve turned to Pocket, which is simple to use and available as an app on Android and Apple as well as a plug-in for Chrome and Firefox.
One handy feature is the ability to listen to an audio version of any story you save, simply by tapping a small headphones icon, though some pages don’t render as nicely as others, causing awkward interruptions with photo captions and other text.
Thanks to the pandemic, I almost always have a tab devoted to Coffitivity, a free website featuring prerecorded background noise from coffee shops around the world… Hunter.io is a fantastic Chrome app that lets you search for staff email addresses associated with any organization’s website… some great alternatives to Zoom are Around.co, Butter.us and Google Meet… speaking of the pandemic’s most used app, Zoom Escaper self-sabotages your audio stream to help get you out of those annoying Zoom meetings (blame Poynter’s Ren LaForme for that suggestion).
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.