August 6, 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.

HERE’S A TIP: It used to be an envelope without a return address or a shadowy man with a suggestive name in a parking garage. Now it’s Signal, SecureDrop and WhatsApp. As the times have changed, so too have the ways news organizations accept tips from would-be whistleblowers. The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, NPR and NBC News, among plenty of others, have published standalone tip pages that every news organization (and others who work with vulnerable populations) should seek to emulate. It’s not just a good thing to do, it’s the ethical thing to do.

ONLINE INSECURITY: On the flip side, the very technologies that allow news organizations to accept confidential tips are under scrutiny. U.S. Attorney General William Barr gave a speech at a cybersecurity conference July 23 in which he characterized encryption as unsafe. “By enabling dangerous criminals to cloak their communications and activities behind an essentially impenetrable digital shield, the deployment of warrant-proof encryption is already imposing huge costs on society,” Barr said. Since many of these companies are based in the United States, restrictions that come down from the Trump administration could affect the whole world.

FLIGHTLESS BLUE BIRD: Twitter is a vast collection of human (and robotic) communication, often distributed to the world without much of a filter or second thought. Its usefulness to journalists, researchers and others varies — as a whole, the signal is difficult to find in the middle of a sea of noise. Tools like Twitter’s built-in advanced search features and especially the third-party CrowdTangle have made it easier to separate the tweet from the chaff, but it looks like the latter won’t be available much longer. On July 29, CrowdTangle announced that Twitter would no longer be available on its dashboard starting Sept. 29 due to CrowdTangle’s “unique needs and changes to Twitter’s API.” Currently, the tool allows users to build lists of Twitter accounts or specific saved searches and navigate tweets within them based on a variety of metrics. Though CrowdTangle is losing Twitter, it will still work for Facebook, Instagram and Reddit, and its Chrome plugin will still provide some Twitter insights. Still, it’s a sad announcement for anyone who needs to make sense of that vast cacophony.

UNRELEASED AND UGLY: Designers across the world are constantly edging pixels back and forth to create spellbinding new fonts all hours of the day. But hard work deserves remuneration, so many of those fonts are expensive. Sure, if you’re an unethical sort, I’m sure you can find them for free somewhere online. You could also use a cheapo font from a bargain bin website for your next presentation or print layout. Or you could support the incredible font makers of the world while also paying for their talents with FutureFonts, a website that allows you to buy early versions of new fonts (with free updates!) for dirt cheap (as low as five bucks!) while the fonts are still in development. That, or you could just use this incredibly ugly (no judgment here; it’s the whole point!) font made up of some of the most gerrymandered congressional districts in the United States.

BEFORE YOU POD: In 2012, when I was still I grad school, I started up a podcast network that was doomed to fail (it was called “Do This Thing!” — I must love exclamation points!). Why? I didn’t do a whole lot of planning beforehand. One show featured media recommendations for nerds, which already existed in about 500 permutations. Another was a “comedy” podcast with me and two male friends, as if the world needed to hear three more unfunny male voices. Don’t take my lead. Instead, take Jenna Spinelle’s. Spinelle hosts a podcast for The McCourtney Institute for Democracy and has five questions to ask before starting a podcast at your organization including, critically, “Does somebody else already do this?”

OPEN OFFICES: Working in an open floor space is all free-flowing and communicative until your colleagues start getting a little rowdy (ahem, MediaWise) or start treating your time like it’s free. The folks at Dropbox have a few ideas about how to succeed in the cubicle-less, wall-less utopias we’ve built as our workspaces. You’re probably already donning those headphones when you don’t want to be bothered, but you’re probably not using your calendar in the most effective way.

REINSTATE WONDER: A couple of projects that rendered me slack-jawed this week:

  • The San Francisco Chronicle documented 24 hours of homelessness in its namesake city. No media format is left unturned in this investigation — stunning video and photography, text, graphics, maps and a brilliant timer at the top that tracks the day. It’s a tough issue to look at, but the Chronicle makes it hard not to.
  • The New York Times created detailed maps of the donors behind the 2020 Democratic campaigns. Senator Bernie Sanders’ domination of small donations from across the country is stunning when rendered in map format.
  • It’s not new, but that almost makes it worse. After El Paso and Dayton, FiveThirtyEight is resharing its interactive look at gun deaths in America.

LOSE IT: You don’t have to do what Felipe Araujo did — fly to Thailand on a whim, lose two separate cell phones while riding a scooter and not replace them for three months — to break habits that might be decreasing your quality of work and life. Remove the apps that have you scrolling mindlessly from your phone. Put away your laptop on weekends. Turn on airplane mode to focus for an hour or two. Take it from me: You’ll be surprised how quickly you break those habits and realize you’re not missing much. Perhaps Araujo said it best: “Humans may be tool-using animals, but there are some tools we simply don’t need.”

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…
Ren LaForme

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