December 3, 2018

Allow me a moment to reminisce about a handful of journalism’s challenges as we’ve gone digital. I promise there’s a point.

Paywalls. Pop-ups. Overtaxed servers. Clickbait. The classifieds collapse. Banner ads. Excessive banner ads. Inappropriate banner ads. Sponsored content. The wobbling influences of search engines and social media. Analytics that show readers don’t care about things we’ve always done. Instantaneous public feedback from the best and worst of those readers. The fact that we still can’t correct a flippin’ tweet.

Got it? Now read this: A Pew Research Center survey, published today, found that most Americans still prefer to watch the news over reading or listening to it. That number hasn’t changed since 2016. A third prefer to read the news and a fifth prefer to listen to it.

Given all the work most of us have done on the digital front, it sure is a heaping dose of perspective. Your neighbor or cashier or parent probably prefers to turn on the tube rather than visit your website, watch your video online or fire up your podcast.

Why is that? Convenience? It’s not hard to turn on a TV and let it roll. Familiarity? There are only a handful of channels to remember. Habit?

There are no clear answers, but there is plenty to be gained if you’re a digital news organization that can figure out how to draw in TV news viewers. In the meantime, I’ll be calling up my family members and spelling out “Poynter dot org” to them for the thousandth time.

A few other takeaways of note:

  • Those who prefer to read news as a print product decreased, from a measly 11 percent in 2016 to 7 percent this year.
  • Just over a third of Americans prefer to access news online. That’s up from 28 percent in 2016.
  • Most Americans who prefer to watch the news prefer to watch via television (75 percent). Only 20 percent prefer to watch new via the internet. Statistical evidence that “pivoting to video” is a bad idea?
  • If you’ve read through this and are in open despair about the blood, sweat and tears you’ve poured into digital, keep in mind that almost all Americans get some news through digital means. It’s apparently just not their first choice.

GET SOCIAL: It’s been a while since we’ve seen a successful new social network. Vine flew too close to the sun and Twitter shut it down. Peach never quite made it off the branch. Many of the rest were scooped up by the big social networks or made redundant after those networks stole their features. Does a newish player, Tik Tok, stand a chance? Dubbed “a quirky hybrid of Snapchat, the defunct video app Vine and the TV segment ‘Carpool Karaoke’” by Kevin Roose in The New York Times, Tik Tok has over 200 million mostly under-18 users. It can’t hurt to download the app, snag your username (and your organization’s) and follow a few interesting people. Just in case.

WRITE RIGHT: The modern world is full of distractions — social media (hellooooo, Tik Tok), cellphones and televisions built into every dang appliance. Why exacerbate that with a word processor with a flabby number of features? Though Google Docs remains my main tool, I’ve been testing Hemingway and Ulysses on the side (Editor’s note: Ren, are you sure you want to out your infidelities here?). Both feature barebones writing interfaces, but I value Hemingway for its handy text analysis and Ulysses for its built-in organization features. They might even be good enough to get Ernest himself and James Joyce to use them.

UNOBSTRUCTED PIKE: Investigative reporting isn’t cheap. ProPublica’s two-year investigation into acetaminophen infamously cost $750,000. At a time when even some major newsrooms struggle to justify the costs of thorough investigations, how can freelancers justify their work? Samantha Sunne, a fellow digital tools newsletterer and freelance journalist, has developed a three-tiered approach to pitching investigative stories. It’s all about minimizing risk and maximizing chances, with the actual work not beginning until the third tier.

40 BETTER HOURS: Farhad Manjoo offered three pieces of advice when he began his technology column in The New York Times five years ago: “Buy hardware from Apple. Use online services made by Google. And get digital media from Amazon.” Now, at the end of his column, his advice has shifted dramatically. Focus on the business model over the product. Give those three big companies as little of your money as possible. And slow down your adoption of new technology. “Yes, tech could make everything better,” Manjoo writes. “But we should be on guard for the ways it could make things worse.”

EVERGREEN: Some of the best news interactives make use of maps. Some of the best news stories teach us something about history. You don’t often see both used effectively together. Take inspiration from Cambridge’s Violence Research Centre, which combined a 500-year-old map with “coroners’ rolls” from late medieval London to show the locations of 142 historical homicides cases. The best part: Users can sort by murder weapon type. “Sword” is one of the choices.

TOP TOOLS FOR 2018: From now until the end of the year, I’m sharing my top 10 tools for 2018 in this newsletter. These tools will only appear in the email edition of this newsletter. Sign up to get Try This! — Tools for Journalism (and my top 10 tools) in your inbox every Monday. If you’re unable or unwilling to sign up for some reason (oops, perhaps you’re feeling a little toxic after celebrating Britney Spears’ 37th birthday yesterday), don’t worry. I’ll post the complete list to the website at the end of the year.  


  • Posting your news to YouTube? Make sure your videos are long enough. Smartphone viewers spend 54 percent of their time on videos that are longer than 20 minutes. (I may or may not bump up the average by watching a 10-hour video of a fireplace burning all holiday season.)
  • I’ve seen my audience data and, based on it, am going to guess that a lot of you probably watch “The Great British Baking Show.” Ever wonder who makes those illustrations of the baked goods? Wonder no longer. (h/t Hannah Ulm) (P.S. Did you know presenter Noel Fielding portrayed Old Gregg in that famously weird cult video?)
  • Happy Scribe, a transcription tool that performed admirably in my tests last year, just added an automatic subtitle generator. No more hand transcribing SRT files. It’s a brave, or at least less tedious, new world.

Try This! is 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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