May 15, 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.

Give yourself a high five. If you’ve been in the journalism industry for more than a minute, you’ve evolved at a pace that would startle Charles Darwin.

You’ve augmented your reporting with computational help. You’ve taken your own photos and video and recorded audio with your phone. You’ve started distributing your stories yourself online, connecting with audiences and learning more about the people who enjoy your work. Maybe you’ve even made use of a few of the tools I’ve shared here.

But it’s less likely that you’ve talked about what to let go of, right?

Many news organizations I’ve been in seem hellbent on ignoring the reality that time is finite. Rather than having conversations about what things we might stop doing, we spend more time in the newsroom, saddle ourselves (or get saddled) with more duties, outsource more work to unpaid interns or underpaid part-timers or — possibly worst of all — we let tasks slide without ever talking about it.

Pressure from finances and layoffs and the question of whether we’ll ever find sustainable business models drive much of the problem. But we also do a lot of it ourselves because so much of what we do feels essential.

There’s a popular business theory called Parkinson’s law that has been applied to economics, computing and a whole lot of other realms. It states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

It’s why three-hour long meetings always last exactly three hours. You might also recognize this in your own finances. How many times have you gotten a higher-paying job or a raise, only to find that the increase in salary seems to quickly disappear as you adjust to a slightly better quality of life?

Roughly applied to newsroom tasks: While we take on new things, we’ll likely maintain many of the things we’re already doing. We’re doing important stuff, darn it! How could we let any of it go?

But the truth is that we have to. Adapting to digital isn't just about learning new things. It's about deciding which old things to let go. I’ve seen few better ways to decide what to let go than the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s “stop doing” list.

As part of the Table Stakes program (disclosure: Poynter is part of it) the Journal Sentinel laid out its strategy and, through the lens of that strategy, took a look at everything it was doing. Anything that didn’t lead to one of its four goals was added to the list. Surprisingly, many of the tasks to be cut were digital, like manually tweeting on several accounts or posting to low-trafficked Facebook pages.

The Journal Sentinel’s advice is a reminder that as we learn, we should constantly assess our work and not be afraid to let go of anything that no longer serves a purpose.

40 BETTER HOURS: Staring at phone screens too long is probably bad for our eyes, probably bad for our productivity and definitely bad for our conversational skills. The first step of fixing a problem is knowing you have a problem. Turn to an app called Moment for that information. It tracks just how long you spend looking at your phone each day. How much is too much? Americans spent an average of five hours per day on their phones in 2016. My goal is half that.

+ I have 54 tabs open across three browser windows. Don’t be like me. But if you are, check out Great Suspender. It suspends unused browser tabs so that they don’t eat up your computer’s resources. (h/t Jessica Young)

+ OK, just one more. Since we’re so bad at dropping tasks, we might as well make ourselves more productive. I know a lot of people who throw on some headphones and open up Coffitivity to simulate coffee shop noises. The tool cites research that shows ambient noise is good for productivity. Me? I’m just looking to block out my colleague Alexios. (h/t Joy Mayer)

BAD ROBOT, GOOD ROBOT: Got an Amazon Alexa or a device with Google’s Assistant or Apple’s Siri? It might be time to buy some tiny earmuffs. Researchers from China and the United States have shown that they can send commands to those devices that are inaudible to the human ear to do things like dial numbers and open websites. Alexa, if you can somehow hear this, I need a new pair of noise-canceling headphones.

+ Google (one of the funders for this newsletter) just unveiled a shockingly effective voice assistant called Duplex. In a demo, Duplex phoned a hairdresser and, in a complex conversation in which it employed “ums” and “uhhs” to sound more human, scheduled an appointment. It seemed like the hairdresser had no idea she was talking to a bot. This raises a number of interesting questions, but one big journalism-related one: Since Duplex records the call, how do recording consent laws apply?

+ BuzzFeed developed a new chatbot named JoJo to help solve a nagging problem with podcasts: finding an intuitive way to get links and additional information to audiences. Before JoJo, you either had to Google those things yourself or find your way to the podcast’s landing page, which is something many of us never see since many podcasts come straight through from tools like Stitcher or Apple’s podcast app.

GET SOCIAL: Journalism’s Henny Pennies came out in force in January when Facebook announced it would slightly deprioritize news in users’ feeds in favor of “meaningful interactions.” Four months later, it looks like mainstream publications are doing just fine. Folks who peddle inflammatory or misleading information? Not so much. Gateway Pundit and Breitbart saw some big drops.  

LE CHAT: From Quartz’s vaunted app to the Los Angeles Times’ 24/7 food critic, chatbots have found a place in journalism. Until now, most of them have existed in apps or away from our websites in spaces like Facebook Messenger or SMS. With a new tool called InterviewJS (developed by Al Jazeera and the Digital News Innovation Fund), chatbots can now be embedded right in any website. The tool’s developers are big on simulated chats with subjects of note, like this one with Edward Snowden.

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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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