The tools the New York Times uses for online investigations, tips to fix Wi-Fi problems and how to deep search Instagram

December 10, 2019
Category: Tech & Tools

This week in digital tools for journalism

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 Tuesday? Sign up here.

Malachy Browne is a journalism cyborg. And now you can use some of his favorite tools. Browne is a senior story producer on the Visual Investigations team The New York Times. His work on topics like the Las Vegas shooting combines all available information — police audio, satellite imagery, body cams, videos and images shared on social — in a way that can feel more like forensic work than journalism. In an article with the Global Investigative Journalism Network, Browne shares some of his favorite tools, like SAM Desk for newsgathering and Montage for advanced YouTube searches.

Is the login page for the Wi-Fi network you’re trying to join not showing up? It turns out that one of the most prolific modern annoyances can probably be solved in five steps or fewer. (Download and keep this somewhere handy!)

Instagram is full of useful information. How do you find and retain it? The OSINT Curious Project has loads of helpful advice. From finding and verifying accounts to downloading photos from another user’s stories, this guide can help you to unlock Instagram’s secrets.

If you are a journalist working with sensitive sources, a whistleblower or a privacy advocate, you should set up a secure phone. Technology veteran David Koff put together a guide on how to do it. It’s not easy: You need to turn off handy features like lock-screen notifications and FaceID and delete every other app from the phone. It might not be cheap: You need to use an iOS device that is separate from your primary phone. But, as Koff points out, the effort and expense could mean life or death in high-stakes cases.

Some color combinations are challenging for your audiences to read clearly. A site called Who Can Use analyzes colors in accordance with 14 types of visual impairments. Give all of your text and background colors a run-through before launching a big project.

The New York Times will stop using tracking pixels from Facebook and Twitter. “Most websites are giving up all of their users’ browsing history to Facebook. The Times no longer does that,” Chris Wiggins, chief data scientist at The New York Times, told Axios. The Times instead built its own internal tool to track interests across social media and then pitch social users with promoted stories that the tool thinks will interest them. I know that doesn’t sound like much of a difference, but it’s pretty profound. Instead of tracking users’ general browser history, the tool looks at narrower and less private metrics like what articles people like or accounts they follow. It’s a small but welcome victory for privacy advocates (or people who prefer faster web experiences).

Mobile internet usage just keeps growing. In 2013, only 21% of Americans said they “often” got news via mobile devices. Now, about six in 10 adults (57%) often get their news through their cellphones, a new Pew Research Center survey found. The percentage of people who say they often access news with desktop or laptop devices has remained stable at about 30%. That growth in mobile readership tracks among younger and older Americans. If your content isn’t available and easily consumable on mobile, you’re missing out on a massive audience.

You probably have data about your audience. Use it to launch targeted newsletters to grow engagement (and subscriptions). Newsday knew its audience enjoyed political corruption coverage. So it launched a narrative pop-up newsletter with unique inside-the-courtroom analysis. More than 5,000 people signed up in 10 days, and the newsletter averaged a 50% open rate throughout its lifespan. Newsday also knew its audience was interested in the lifestyles of the rich and famous in the Hamptons. So it launched a weekly summer newsletter with celebrity sightings and Hamptons recommendations. It averaged a 40% open rate. One thing Newsday missed out on: Offer a paid subscription in these types of newsletters.

A few final things to share: 

  • The Washington Post got ahold of a trove of documents about the war in Afghanistan. In its story about the remarkable findings, the Post linked out to the original documents but also cleverly made the references visible in a popup window when users hover over them (or tap on mobile). It’s a thoughtful and unobtrusive way to increase transparency and, with luck, trust in this type of story.
  • I could link to a new joyous and wonderful way to tell stories from The New York Times every week, and this week is no different. The Times told the tale of New York’s subway system in a wiggling and zigzagging map that probably isn’t necessary to the story but is certainly a lot of fun. If you don’t have a budget like The New York Times (and who does?), you could reasonably replicate some of this functionality with the Knight Lab’s StoryMap.

Ren LaForme is Poynter’s digital tools reporter. He can be reached at ren@poynter.org or on Twitter at @itsren.

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