March 26, 2018

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.

I’m taking inspiration from one of my favorite podcasts today to bring you a grab bag of a newsletter.

Judge John Hodgman stars comedian and actor John Hodgman, natch, who you may know from his weekly New York Times Magazine column, the "resident expert" from Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" or as the guy from those old Mac vs. PC commercials who isn’t Justin Long.

In the podcast, the “judge” deliberates on callers’ everyday, often oddball problems. Some personal favorites answer questions like: “Can we live in a house that’s infested with bats?” and “Should my dad, who we call Pig, be required to eat meatless foods every now and then?”

Occasionally, Hodgman holds a special episode where he tackles questions much faster than usual to clear the docket. That’s what I’m doing here. Well, it's more of a clearing of the Chrome tabs.

We’ll be back to your regularly scheduled programming next week.

FREAKOUT: Want to see how much the big tech companies know about you? You sure? It’s a little scary. Check out this Twitter thread to confirm all of your Black Mirror-related fears.

GET SOCIAL: Speaking of Twitter threads … they can be difficult to follow, can’t they? Thread Reader unrolls them into a no-frills, easy-to-read layout. It’s great for sharing interesting Twitter happenings with folks who aren’t into that type of thing. Here’s that scary last item unrolled, for example.

FINALLY: Instagram is taking a few steps toward a more user-friendly future. Namely, they’re getting rid of that annoying thing where your feed updates and throws you back to the top. They also promise that users’ feeds will “feel more fresh.” Cheers to that.

WHY NOT: I keep reading these articles about how this app or that website is the “Spotify for journalism.” There are a lot of reasons why that’s not a great analogy (Spotify doesn’t pay artists a whole lot per listen, for one) but it got me thinking about how we could use Spotify in our actual journalism beyond just posting embeds in music reviews and end-of-year roundups. Maybe your next longform story could have its own playlist?

INTERACTIVE STORYTELLING: The folks at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism put together a no-frills yet handy tool called PathChartr to tell interactive stories. It’s great for helping audiences understand complex decisions and requires no coding experience to use.

MORE INTERACTIVE STORYTELLING: If frills are more your thing, check out Shorthand. It’s a beautiful storytelling platform with a lot more flexibility than its predecessors (you can host stories generated through Shorthand on your own website).

BIG BYTES: Most tech companies make money in only one of three ways. No one institution has the power to reign in all of tech’s abuses. Anil Dash explains 12 things everyone needs to know about technology. I’ve been thinking about number five a whole lot lately.  

SEARCH YOURSELF: Has a colleague asked you an easily Googled question? My colleagues were tickled when I used this passive-aggressive tool to answer their question about why Irish surnames sometimes start with the letter O (it originally had to do with a person’s grandparents).

THE OTHER FRONT PAGE: Reddit is seeing renewed attention as a place for journalists to share stories and engage with audiences. It makes sense; Reddit is the sixth most popular website in the world. But with 12 years of accumulated rules, etiquette (aka reddiquette) and quirks of design, it can be difficult for the uninitiated to break into. Joseph Lichterman at the Lenfest Institute offers a good breakdown of the challenges and potential rewards.

DIGITAL FORENSICS: International Fact-Checking Day is on April 2 and I am excited about all of the things my colleagues at the International Fact-Checking Network have prepared for you. I’m especially excited about a soon-to-be-published article about the digital forensics that citizen investigative journalism outlet Bellingcat uses. (Spoilers: It includes Henk van Ess’ Facebook Graph Search Generator and Stalkscan, in addition to a batch of other useful tools).

OLD SPEECH, NEW SPEECH: John F. Kennedy never got to deliver his speech on Nov. 22, 1963. But he did write it. Using 116,777 “sound units” from 831 of Kennedy’s speeches and radio addresses, a text-to-voice company was able to recreate — or create in this case — a recording of the speech. It’s chilling.

NOTED: Congressman Bobby L. Rush has been pushing the Data Accountability and Trust Act for a while now. But questions about Facebook’s security and the use of personal data, not to mention Mark Zuckerberg’s statement about being open to the idea of regulation, might have fertilized the soil. The law would require personal data collectors to be open about what information they’re collecting and provide a means to review it, among other things.

ALL THE TOOLS: If this grab bag hasn’t quite satiated you, here’s a list of 30 tools that Jeremy Caplan recently presented at NICAR and here’s a series of mobile reporting and data visualization tools from Victor Hernandez. Knock yourself out.

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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…
Ren LaForme

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