November 24, 2017

Tools can help us tell better stories, cover our communities and stay on top of digital changes. Also, sometimes, they can just be fun. This week's tool is a great reminder of that. 

Hare: Hi, Ren! How was your tofurkey?

LaForme: So one year, not too long after I stopped eating poultry, my mom did a really nice thing for me by buying and cooking a tofurkey. Sorry if you’re reading this mom, but it was so gross that I haven’t touched anything like it since. I mostly stick to side dishes on T-day these days.

How was your turkey turkey?

Hare: So good. I’m with you on the sides, though. Also I want to laugh at your gross tofurkey story but it hurts too much thanks to a breakfast of leftovers, so I’m going to hold back. What are we talking about this week?

LaForme: Well, I figured since this is sort of a lazy week I thought I’d slow my buttered roll a bit and we could talk about something a little fun. It’s not necessarily a tool for journalism, but it’s a tool of journalism. And I’m about three years behind on this one so please forgive me.

But last week, our colleague Katie Hawkins-Gaar and former colleague Lauren Klinger introduced me to the New York Times crossword app (iOS/Android) and I cannot get enough of the daily mini crossword. Have you used this thing?

Hare: No, but I’m downloading it on my phone as we speak. Continue.

LaForme: The crossword app is a lot like the crossword in the paper. It has the big crosswords, which are totally renowned for mixing weird trivia and pop culture and generally being pretty accessible. You get a free trial of those for like a week or something like that.

But the mini crosswords. These things are so addicting. It’s like, 10 different words in a pretty compact layout. The answers seem to be a bit easier. Actually, there’s a funny Slate article about that, which the Times responded to with a bit of well-placed snark.

I can’t get enough, though. I’ve gotten the last couple of ones in something like 45 seconds. It’s a great mid-day pick-me-up. Do you have it downloaded yet?

Hare: Yes. It’s the main crossword app, right?  Ohhh it will send me push notifications when there are new daily crosswords. It would be so nice not to cringe every time my phone jingles.

LaForme: Yeah! It actually makes them available the night before the paper comes out, too. So you get them early.

And that’s a great point. One of the reasons I wanted to bring this up, even though it’s not really a tool that we can use in our journalism, is that it’s a great reminder that entertainment has always been our schtick. The best apps, tools and even articles provide joy, a sense of delight, something surprising, something different. This app is such a great reminder of that, and it’s a helpful but not time-consuming escape from the thrum of terrible news.

Did you finish your first mini yet? I’m anxious to hear how you did.

Hare: I did! It was SO easy to use. I finished it in one minute and 54 seconds, probably too long, but now I want to beat that score, so well-played NYT.

LaForme: I got it in one minute and three seconds. So nah nah!

You know, people are so quick to call out clickbait. Or post “this isn’t news” when news organizations share arts and life, features or profiles on social media. In some cases, sure, it doesn’t fit the traditional definition of news. But when you look at stuff like this, it’s a good reminder that the news has always had sort of a side hustle. We’ve been doing comics and crosswords for years. So what if we sneak a cat gallery in every now and then? How’s that different?

Hare: I just got my choir robe on because you are preaching to the right person. I can think of some ways local news organizations in particular could riff off of this idea and make something engaging and delightful for their communities. It doesn’t have to be a crossword or even a quiz, but often the top of the funnel for most people is something fun, interesting, engaging, connecting.

LaForme: Right? Organize a fun event and interact with the people in your communities. It’s an easy win.

And that leads me to another thing. This is such a great way to make money. There are a million crossword nuts out there. The Times charges $7 a month or $40 a year for this thing. I don’t even wanna guess how many people are paying that. I bet it’s a lot.

I’m ranting at this point. But can we please kill this stigma that anything entertaining is a distraction? It’s just another piece of the puzzle.

Hare: I am thankful for what you did there.

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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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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