May 14, 2019

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 was away from the newsletter last week to focus on what might be the longest feature story Poynter has ever published.

Maligned in Black and White” is about how newspapers in the South perpetuated racial violence during the Civil Rights era and how some have since apologized. The story ends with an examination of journalism today and explores what we may need to apologize for in the future. It’s a sobering read but, considering 77% of newsroom employees are white, an important one.

Mark I. Pinsky, formerly a staff writer at the Orlando Sentinel, spent hours researching and writing the piece, complete with a list of documentaries for further learning. Most of my time went to design, but I also contributed some light editing and other work to the story. It’s the most ambitious journalism project I’ve had my hands in since I led a magazine in college an unmentionable number of years ago. Here are a few things I learned:

  • Break it up to make it palatable. I spent many hours in a text-only version of this story. Even just glancing at that much copy (it clocks in at more than 7,000 words) was fatiguing. With a story this long, it’s helpful to break it up with images, sub-heads and other elements. Taking a cue from The Bitter Southerner, I made sure that readers bumped into something other than copy with every scroll and a half of their screens.
  • Build early but expect to do it again. I started putting the framework of a page together, complete with as many visual elements as possible, as soon as Mark shared a first draft. Viewing it as the audience would enabled us to make some tough decisions about what was necessary and what was just nice to have. It also helped us to hone in on an overall tone for the piece.
  • Trust the process, even when it kills your darlings. Building early comes with drawbacks. After some outside consultation and tough editing, major parts of the page ended up in the scrapyard. Here’s just one example: Because we wanted to be sensitive with imagery, especially the cards that appear on social media, I spent hours working on a striking typeface-driven header. It ended up in the trash. I’m glad it did, because the one we landed on works a lot better.
  • Sweat the details. It’s tempting, toward the end of a long project, to lean back and bask in the glory of your creation. But a last-minute, detail-driven scavenge turned up a few tiny typos and inconsistencies that would have been disappointing to find later. If you’re going to spend hours and hours on a project, it’s worth spending one more at the end to make sure everything’s tidy.

If you haven’t checked out “Maligned in Black and White” yet, please do! It’s a good one to bookmark for a quiet Friday afternoon or weekend.

Now here’s two weeks’ worth of digital tools, tips and news.

LISTEN UP: People sometimes react with something akin to fear when I show them Descript, a tool that allows you to edit audio files just by editing a text transcript (it’s invaluable for podcasters). But as great as it is, Descript has limits. You can’t, for example, use it to make someone say something they didn’t actually say. But a new tool from Adobe can do just that. Adobe’s new VoCo program is pretty much Photoshop for voices. Adobe hasn’t released a demo yet and is also working on a way to include audio watermarks to the tool, which could theoretically inhibit fake recordings from spreading too far, but it’s a reminder that we live in a world with powerful and terrifying technology.

  • Speaking of podcasts, Chris Richards, The Washington Post’s pop music critic, has a few complaints that aren’t off base. There are only two types of tones in podcasts, he argues: the “soft, inquisitive staccato” made famous by Ira Glass, or the performative tone “that people use at parties when they want to be heard by people that they aren’t necessarily talking to.” Richards’ hope is that podcasts evolve to include “more inventive combinations of speaking, pacing, editing and scoring,” and I’m with him.
  • Trint, one of the most popular automatic transcription tools out there (and one I recommended after an exhaustive series of tests in late 2017) just got an upgrade that makes collaboration easier. Users on the enterprise plan can now edit transcripts at the same time, à la Google Docs. It’s a handy feature for breaking news situations or big, collaborative projects.

NO MORE PASSWORDS: Can you imagine a passwordless world? With a new certification called FIDO2 (which is coincidentally my Twitter password), Google enabled all Android devices running on version 7.0 and higher to log in to supported services without a password. Apple hasn’t adopted the technology yet, but its Apple Watch login feature provides some evidence that the other big phone tech behemoth is moving in a similar direction.

SOOTHSAYING: You can throw a moldy coffee cup (it’s not just me, right?) from where you’re sitting and hit someone who thinks they have something profound to say about the future of journalism. Here a few actually good takes.

  • Taking inspiration from those Instagram ads that seem to pitch you the perfect products, Phillip Smith, a digital project developer and media startup adviser, thinks there’s room for startups that provide “niche, highly targeted, low-overhead, just-in-time journalism.” In place of local news startups, for example, Smith envisions a “swarm” of sites that focus on individual aspects of value to people in that location, such as real estate, community events, government and crime, and more. Smith also offers six solid tactics for anyone up to the challenge.
  • The Washington Post’s Megan McArdle was chastised by her readers when she moved from the paywall-less Bloomberg to the Post. She has since decided that the “battle for the open internet was lost.” She argues that free journalism never really worked online, and that while information wants to be free, writers need to get paid.

DATA + VISUALS: The Pudding is a digital publication that does a stellar job of creating data-driven, visual essays on sundry topics like the vocabulary of rappers, the countries that occupy the United States’ collective consciousness and how pants makers create inferior pockets for women. I don’t throw the word “unique” around a lot, but I’ll use it here. There’s nothing much else like The Pudding online. But let’s change that. Ilia Blinderman from The Pudding created a two-part series about how their data-driven essays are made. The first focuses on working with data, the second on designing that data. Sadly not included: actual pudding.

GET SOCIAL: A few incremental but interesting social media changes rolled out over the past few weeks. Twitter updated its retweet functionality, at least on mobile, to allow users to retweet with the addition of photos, videos or GIFs. Previously, users were limited to retweeting and adding text. You’ve probably already heard, but Instagram is experimenting with hiding likes. That’s a good thing for the world’s collective mental health. Facebook rolled out a mobile redesign. I haven’t seen it because I deleted the Facebook (and Twitter) app last year, but I hear it’s very white and round. It has also started to emphasize privacy and more limited communications.

PRIVACY CHECK: Speaking of Facebook, co-founder Chris Hughes put together a multiplatform op-ed for The New York Times (sidenote: its video opinions should be emulated everywhere) that makes a case for the tech company’s dismemberment. He charges that Mark Zuckerberg’s influence is “staggering,” much greater than any other individual in the private or public sector, and that Facebook’s privacy lapses are a symptom of a lazy monopoly.

FIX YR EMAIL: Email is broken. Or at least my inbox is. I wither when I log into Gmail and see hundreds of unread messages floating in a sea of clutter. Here are two things I’m trying this week to change my course. The first is a plugin, really just a collection of CSS (with no trackers), that simplifies the way Gmail looks. It’s a lot like Google’s dead Inbox tool. The second is a series of tips from New York Magazine writer Madison Malone Kircher that will get me to the fabled inbox zero. Here goes.

OPEN WINDOW: If you’re overwhelmed after this exceedingly long edition of Try This!, consider installing this screensaver (Windows/Mac). Yes, I said screensaver. It’s just like that one on Apple TVs that makes you feel like you’re flying over cities in slow motion, but for your computer. I once advised a journalist who works in an office without a window to start using it for a few minutes of rest every day and you know what? I never followed up to see if it worked. So please try it and let me know how it goes.

I should have followed my own advice and broken up this newsletter with some images. See you next week!

This article was updated to include Mark I. Pinsky’s name, the phenomenal reporter who wrote “Maligned in Black and White.” I’m embarrassed that I omitted to include it the first time around. 

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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