August 24, 2017

What if one tool could tie together other tools you’re using and make everything streamlined? This week, we look at a tool that’s been around for awhile and does exactly that.

Hare: Hi, Ren! Do your eyeballs still work after the eclipse?

LaForme: I’m seeing a few spots, but I am otherwise OK. How about you?

Hare: All good! What are we talking about this week?

LaForme: I’ve been thinking a lot about all of the apps and tools we’ve talked about so far. They’re all pretty darn good. But there’s one app I haven’t touched on yet that sort of connects them all. And it’s been awhile since I’ve seen anybody talk about its uses for journalism. That app is If This Then That, or IFTTT. Have you used it?

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Hare: No, but I know about it, and I’d love to learn how it works. I imagine it as a kind of digital domino game that is set off by one thing, but I could be totally wrong. How does IFTTT work? (And do you say I-F-T-T-T or just IFTTT like a dismissive cartoon cat?)

LaForme: OK, I laughed pretty hard at the cartoon cat idea. I usually just say “If This Then That” because everything else sounds weird. But you got me, and now I’m going to think of the cat. Oh man.

IFTTT is a ridiculously powerful tool that takes advantage of the many integrations and APIs that other apps offer. It lets you connect them with these cause-and-effect recipes. If someone does X, you can set another tool to do Y. Once you set up a recipe, you can use it yourself or share it with the world so that others can use it, too.

Hare: That’s really cool. So if my source tweets at another source, for instance, then I can set another tool to notify me? Is that close?

LaForme: That’s right! You’d connect Twitter with the notification functionality and put the two usernames as the search options on Twitter. Here, I can share a screenshot of what that looks like.


This one will send me a notification through the IFTTT app on my phone every time one of us tweets at the other. That’s not useful for me because I already get notified when someone tweets at me, but it could be useful for someone who’s weirdly into Poynter staffers.

Hare: Hahahahaha. So creepy. What are some other recipes you think might work?

LaForme: That’s a great question. I could probably dig up a hundred recipes that could be useful for journalists. But I’ll stick to just a few for now.

IFTTT is particularly useful for discovering potential news stories. Thanks to ProPublica and a few government agencies, you can set it up to receive a notification when new bills are introduced to Congress or signed by President Trump. You can tell it send you an email digest of tweets sent from a specific person or that were sent from a specific area, the White House or Trump Tower, for instance. You can also get a notification when something is trending on a specific subreddit, which reduces the risk that you’ll get sucked in and forget to write the news.

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It’s great for streamlining workflows, too. You can set it up to save photos taken from your iOS or Android phone to Google Drive. This is great for if you lose your phone or it gets confiscated at a protest you’re covering or something, and also great for getting pictures back to your newsroom quickly. It also offers about a million different Slack integrations. You can do everything from setting up daily reminders to send to specific channels to alert a person or channel when you’ve driven past a specific location in real life.

It’s a powerful tool for journalism professors, too. If a student sends you homework by email, you can use IFTTT to automatically add any attachments into a Google Drive or Dropbox folder. Think of the time that’d save. If you’re teaching social media, you can also set it up to save tweets featuring specific content, like a class hashtag, to a spreadsheet.

Hare: It’s infinite!!! Are there any things you don’t like about it? Anything you’d change?

LaForme: Since IFTTT exists at the mercy of the apps that it uses, recipes drop off and stop working all the time. You could save and store all kinds of information from Twitter and Instagram before they changed their APIs. It’s miserable when something you’ve learned to depend on no longer works. But that’s not IFTTT’s fault.

They’ve made great strides in this, but I also think IFTTT can be super overwhelming if you don’t know what you’re doing. There are so many tools and apps and other things to connect that it can look like a lot to a new user. I’d suggest looking over others’ recipes before you start building your own.

Hare: Maybe we can offer a simple recipe everyone can try just to get them rolling?

LaForme: Sure! I have a terrible habit of using the heck out of my phone and then having to scramble for juice when I’m out and about. I’m sure a lot of other journalists can relate. Here’s a super simple recipe that reminds you to turn off your Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to save battery life every time you leave your home. Just remember to hit that settings cog and add your own address.

This tool tells you when sources try to make quiet changes online

Hare: Excellent! Hey before we go, we should make sure our friends in tools know you have a new newsletter. It’s live! Will you explain your approach?

LaForme: Oh yes. The first issue of my Try This! — Tools for Journalism newsletter went out on Monday! It’s a digest of snackable tools-related news and tips that’ll change a bit every week. I described it as the Price is Right of newsletters because it’s fun and lighthearted and the features are always changing. If you’re interested, you can sign up here.

Hare: Excellent! And if anyone comes up with a cool IFTTT you want to share, let Ren know and he might share it in Try This!

LaForme: For sure. I know a good amount about these tools, but you’re all using them day in and day out and probably do a ton of things I don’t know about. Let’s share those good ideas with the rest of the journalism world.

Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of articles that highlight digital tools for journalists. You can read the others here. Got a tool we should talk about? Let Ren know!

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