September 18, 2017

This article originally appeared in Try This! — Tools for Journalism, our newsletter about digital tools. Want bite-sized news, tutorials and ideas about the best digital tools for journalism in your inbox every Monday? Sign up here.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in the shininess of new technology and forget the stuff that has borne the weight of decades. When the cell networks were overrun by thousands of returning evacuees stuck in cars on Interstate 75 last week, Zello failed. I would have given anything for a $20 pair of walkie-talkies to tell my friends in the car ahead of us that I wanted to stop for a sandwich. So it goes. 

BAD NEWS: Whether it was highway-turned-parking-lots in Florida or the possibility of your favorite file storage site shutting down, panic seemed to be the theme last week. I’m happy to report that I-75 is now clear and the concerns about Google Drive were much ado about nothing. All of your files are safe in the cloud. The desktop apps for Mac and Windows are being retired, though, so you’ll have to switch to using Backup and Sync.

ON MY RADAR: Apple held its annual iPhone spectacle last week and unveiled a whole bunch of great new junk that none of us can afford but we’ll buy anyway. Journalists should know that the iPhone 8 (they skipped 7s, what gives?) and the poverty invitation that is the iPhone X are now both water and dust proof and packed with better screens and higher resolution cameras. Keep an eye on the iPhone 8s and the iPhone X’s “portrait lighting mode,” which looks cool but carries a whole lot of ethical baggage for journalists.

SQUAD: It’s been awhile since we last checked in on MuckRock’s Slack channel for FOIA requests. It remains full of active members who ask great questions and provide even better answers. Even if you don’t regularly contribute (I don’t think I’ve sent a single message), it’s smart to keep what is essentially a vault of public records experts on retainer.  

BAD ADVICE: A few weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal suggested choosing passwords that are sprinkled with random characters. 

screen shot of Wall Street Journal tweet about passwords

Turns out that’s bad advice. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (does that sound vaguely Orwellian to anybody else?) announced in August that passwords should be long phrases or sentences that users can easily remember. On the other hand, I use LastPass to manage my passwords, and I protect my LastPass vault with a stupidly long sentence. You should do whatever works best for you.

WEIRD AND WONDERFUL: I covered this a little bit in last week’s newsletter, but let’s spend another minute talking about Snapchat’s map feature, which seemed to grow up during hurricanes Harvey and Irma. The map, which is accessible by pinching from Snapchat’s camera screen, shows all public Snapchat story posts with a heat map. It’s a great way to monitor how people are reacting to disasters, events or other breaking stories across the country. 

TOOL TIP: It turns out that CrowdTangle, the social monitoring tool, is also really great for digging up tried-and-true posts from your archives. Here’s how I do it: 

  1. Set up a Facebook or Twitter list with only your organization on it.
  2. Go to the list and set the filters for “Overperforming” and “One Year Ago” (or a custom timeframe of your choosing. That one is just easy because it’s built in.).
  3. Ta-da! You’ve got a list of all of your posts that performed well on social on that date. We look for the evergreen ones and share them during downtimes, like nights and weekends.

Of course, I’d make sure to combine this with other methods of digging through your archives since you’re pulling ones that performed well based on social media indicators and not necessarily your own site. If your company doesn’t have CrowdTangle, request access now. It’s free! 

LAST WEEK: The Tampa Bay Times and Palm Beach Post both created Facebook groups during Hurricane Irma that became great spaces for their communities to ask questions and for the news organizations to provide answers. Kristen Hare and I talked about how they did it in our weekly tools chat.

Also, did you know there’s a great (free for journalists) search engine for public records? It’s especially helpful for reporters who cover business or courts. Check out my latest article for more about Sqoop.

Learn more about journalism tools with Try This! — Tools for Journalism. Try This! is powered by Google News Lab. It is also supported by the American Press Institute and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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Ren LaForme is the Managing Editor of He was previously Poynter's digital tools reporter, chronicling tools and technology for journalists, and a producer for…
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