10 digital tools journalists can use to improve their reporting, storytelling

Digital tools help produce quality content online, but it can be tough figuring out where to start. Here are 10 online tools that can help improve journalists’ reporting and storytelling, and engage readers in multimedia.

Reporting resources: These tools can help with research and sourcing.

FOIA Machine | (@FOIAMachine)

Requesting government documents can be a lengthy process. FOIA Machine, a free service now in testing and run with help from a Knight Foundation grant and the Center on Investigative Reporting, is a website journalists can use to file FOIA requests and other global transparency requests. The organization makes sure requests are filed properly and tracks requests filed through the website.

Public Insight Network | (@publicinsight)

Searching for sources can be easy — or it can bring reporting to a full stop. The Public Insight Network, run by American Public Media, is a database of first-person accounts and a network of people willing to be public sources.

Newsrooms can use PIN to find sources for community-level stories, or for stories that have a very specific audience in mind — such as Marketplace Money’s report on people who have been unemployed longer than six months. Over PIN’s decade-long existence, it has amassed 130,000 registered sources and recently created its own newsroom to report on stories using sources who have joined but haven’t been contacted by other organizations.

Ushahidi | (@ushahidi)

It looks like crowdsourcing for news is here to stay; reporters can turn to crowdsourcing sites such as PIN and Ushahidi for first-person accounts of events. Ushahidi was created in the aftermath of the 2007 Kenyan election; it mapped (via Google maps) reports sent in via text and email from people on the ground during the crisis.

Ushahidi still is used for “crowdmapping,” or putting pedestrian reports on online maps. The site runs Crowdmap, which “allows you to set up your own deployment of the Ushahidi Platform without having to install it on your own Web server” and creates some interesting visuals. Ushahidi was used during bombings in Mumbai in 2011 to determine where help was needed. It’s a tool for managing crises as much as reporting on them.

Data compilation and resources: Datasets and social media backlogs can be intimidating for any reporter; these resources help share, gather and handle large shares of information.

The PANDA Project | (@pandaproject)

The PANDA Project allows journalists to share data within their newsroom or organization. The project serves as a Google Drive-like database by allowing publications to share data online and work with the data within the program, with search and archive functions. While there aren’t tools to publish the data from within the program, it can still be a valuable reporting tool to encourage collaboration.

Census.IRE | (@IRE_NICAR)

Partly funded by a Knight Foundation grant, Census.IRE is a tool to help organize and view data from the 2010 Census. It can help journalists separate data by location and then segment that data further through metrics such as age, race, gender and more. Using census data in stories can add depth to analysis, and the data can sometimes be a story unto itself. Here’s a Poynter.org piece about how journalists can mine census data for stories about their changing communities.

iWitness | (@AdaptivePath)

Created by Adaptive Path through a Knight News Challenge grant, iWitness helps curate relevant social media based on date and geographic parameters. Specify a time and location on the website, and iWitness will pull relevant posts from sites such as Twitter.

The program makes it easier to examine backlogs in social media and lets you set limits by the minute. The tool is especially helpful when reporting on breaking news stories and can be used in concert with Storify, particularly when looking for specific social media elements from a national news story.

Data presentation: These tools can help process and design otherwise-cumbersome data sets in a way that makes them easily accessible for stories.

TileMill | (@TileMill)

Graphics and images can help readers understand concepts and stories better than text alone. Journalists can use TileMill to create interactive maps that show how data are spread over a particular area. It’s an especially useful tool for stories that have a strong geographic component.

Popular apps such as Foursquare use parent company MapBox’s maps to visualize check-ins and collect data. USA Today also used MapBox to chart election returns in the 2012 elections. Quartz used TileMill to graph how local commerce increased in New Orleans during the Super Bowl, and InfoAmazonia uses TileMill to map out deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.

Tableau Public | (@tableau)

Charts and infographics help make data-heavy stories easier to comprehend and analyze. While programs such as TileMill require knowledge of computer coding, Tableau Public uses a drag-and-drop method to help compile graphs, charts and other data visualizations.

Journalists can use Tableau Public to create straightforward graphs, such as Wisconsin Watch’s chart of milk productivity in cows in a story about Wisconsin’s milk industry. It can also be used to create less-traditional data presentations, such as this map of college football recruitment.

Social Media and storytelling: Putting together a final project of text, images and data can be a lengthy task; these sites help with compiling and promoting stories.

Popcorn Maker | (@mozilla)

Designed by Mozilla, Popcorn Maker adds interactive features to videos, such as click-through links, maps, social media and articles from other websites. PBS NewsHour announced a partnership with Popcorn Maker in 2012 to create interactive content. Journalists can use Popcorn Maker in online videos to link to related content on their own websites, or to outside content such as a source’s Twitter feed or website.

Atavist | (@theatavist)

Using Atavist, you can compile various elements, such as text, video, audio and animation, in an in-depth enterprise story. You can also group related stories, photos and resources in a single app, e-book or magazine. TED uses Atavist for its TED Books App, as does the Paris Review. Publications such as The Wall Street Journal use the site for reports, such as this one on prescription painkillers.

Related training: News University will host a digital tools Webinar with Meograph CEO and founder Misha Leybovich this Thursday, May 2. You can sign up here, and see a full list of digital tools here.

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  • Brian Reece

    Great article Taylor. I am sure a lot of journalists
    will appreciate you for sharing this. With everything online today, engaging
    their online audience and getting them to stay on and read is achieving a lot.
    Great online tools for just that.

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