November 26, 2018

ALMOST HUMAN: Quick, do the following qualify as artificial intelligence: Siri, your favorite transcription app, Furbies, a Roomba or R2-D2? It’s not just a silly question. We call plenty of things “AI” these days. You might have even been pitched an “AI” product to review or use in your job. But what actually qualifies as intelligence? Karen Hao defines AI as machines that can learn, reason and act for themselves, and provides a handy flowchart for sorting this out. I’ve already used it three times this week. (By the way, the answers are yes, yes, maybe, depends on the model, and no it’s just a man in a costume.)

PROTECT YOURSELF: When I mention using a VPN, people tend to nod in the same way that they do when I talk about brewing beer or why third-wave coffee is worth the added price. But it’s so easy to install one and open it every time I hop onto an unfamiliar Wi-Fi network (like hotels, coffee shops and coworking spaces). It encrypts and secures all of the data you’re sending and receiving, which is a good idea for everyone and imperative for those who work with sensitive subjects and sources. If you’re just getting started, try out ProtonVPN. The first plan is free, though it limits you to a slow connection and only one device. Once you realize VPN isn’t a big, scary monster, upgrade to one of the better plans or try ExpressVPN, my tool of choice. I realize I sound like the guy who used to chide college for scanning his food too fast at my grocery store job, but an ounce of prevention really is worth a terabyte of cure.


  • If 2017 was the year for the meditation app, this year was all about habit tracking. Whether you’re just trying to remember to take your new medicine or you’re attempting to move your theremin skills to the next level, a habit tracking app can serve as the motivator you need. Lifehack has a list of 24 of the best ones.
  • I feel like Lumbergh has just sauntered up to my desk and begun slurping coffee over my shoulder whenever someone uses the phrase “let’s touch base” in an email. WHAT DOES IT MEAN? If you want to pick up 8 more people and head to the field, I’m in. Otherwise, please be more specific about what you’re asking for. Here’s that and five other phrases we need to stop using in emails. Got your own pet peeve? Email me and let me know.

OUT OF THE MOUTHS: My grandpa used to call our family’s answering machine when we knew we were out to leave hilarious and often embarrassing messages. We’d tap the blinking light as soon as we got home, expecting something important, and laugh (or rage, in my dad’s case) as my grandpa shared his latest tawdry joke. When the world switched to cell phones with voicemails, typically only heard by the phone’s owner, that novelty and immediacy were largely lost. That is, until WeChat, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and, most recently, Apple, rolled out voice messages. Somehow less personal than a voicemail but more open to experimentation than a text, teenagers are embracing voice texts for their novelty and ability to command attention.

RESEARCH THIS: Agree or disagree: It’s not as bad as it used to be, but news websites and Twitter accounts are still littered with surveys with all sorts of terrible phrasings and leading questions. I happen to agree. If you’re interested in real public opinion and not some warped results tuned toward whatever benefits you most — first off, good on you! Turn to the Pew Research Center’s video explainer on how to word questions and why it’s important. Doing things like avoiding jargon and limiting the length of explanations before your questions can go a long way.

EMOJI WHIZ: Hey, it’s almost the end of the year. We can have a little fun, right? This tool allows you to Frankenstein your own emoji from the salvaged parts of existing ones. Ever wanted a drooling cat? A sad alien? Build your own 128- by 128-pixel freak show and upload it to your team’s Slack. I made this approximation of what I look like when I’m writing, and then an abomination that the tool has called a “crying drooling confounded clown face with open eyes and hand covering lips.”

new emoji

TOP TOOLS FOR 2018: 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 (maybe you bought Red Dead Redemption 2 on Cyber Monday and can’t seem to stop faceplanting off your horse), don’t worry. I’ll post the complete list to the website at the end of the year.


Try This! is supported by the American Press Institute and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
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…
More by Ren LaForme

More News

Back to News