There’s a danger lurking within every phone book, and a way to mitigate it

This week in digital tools for journalism

August 21, 2019
Category: Tech & Tools

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.

PROTECT YOURSELF: All U. S. citizens and other permanent and temporary residents are issued a Social Security card. Its purpose is, like it sounds, to track people for social welfare and insurance purposes. Or at least it used to be. These days, U.S. residents can expect to punch in their social security numbers any time they want to apply for a credit card, open a savings account or have the power turned on in an apartment. The number is meant to be private and, if it reaches the wrong hands, can be used to steal someone’s identity. Here’s the twist — what if a person’s phone number had the same, or even more, power? In The New York Times, Brian X. Chen details all the creepy things that happened when he gave security researchers the digits we so willingly give out to strangers.

More on that: One of the methods the researchers leveraged to so quickly accrue Chen’s personal information was White Pages Premium (a wholly different company than the folks who used to dump those books on your front porch). The database, among plenty of others online, collects data about individuals and offers it up in an easy-to-access package. BoingBoing has advice about how to mitigate the data available about you on these databases.

UNDERGROUND URSINE: Your cell reception is on the shortest bar, or you pull off the highway to tackle a work emergency, or you’re rotting at the airport and want to download something from Netflix. We’ve all been there, and we’ve all made the decision to connect to a public Wi-Fi network. The problem: With a little work, just about anyone can snag your data. But this problem has an easy solution — a virtual private network (or VPN). Wirecutter recommends a VPN service I’ve loved for years, TunnelBear. A few clicks (and a few bucks a month) encrypts the data coming from your phone and laptop, and it does it all in an adorable Smokey-meets-Mario package.

DATA EQUITY: Whether you’re a journalist or a marketer or a snowplow driver, you’re likely using data to inform some aspect of your work. But what if that data is fundamentally flawed? A recent episode of “99% Invisible” explored the gender biases inherent in the data we use and the real-world implications those biases can have.

Dan Oshinsky runs the email consultancy Inbox Collective and writes Not a Newsletter, a monthly guide to sending better emails. Here’s a quick tip from Dan.

TUESDAYS AT 7: When’s the perfect time to send a newsletter? The short answer: There isn’t one. Newsletter success is less about timing, and more about consistency. If you start a newsletter and decide you’re going to send it once a week, make sure you always send it at the same time every week. (And when readers sign up, tell them in your welcome email when to look for that newsletter!) Be consistent, and help readers get into the habit of looking for your email on the same time and day. Those habits will ultimately lead to the engagement you’re looking for.

JUICED UP: The easiest way to damage your phone — the miniature touchscreen supercomputer you keep in your pocket and use extensively for work and pleasure — is to smash the screen. But that’s a relatively easy fix. The second easiest way is to ruin the battery, which is significantly more difficult (and if you have a popular phone, impossible) to fix. Every battery is on an inevitable march to obsoletion (same, honestly), but there are things you can do to extend their lifespans. For Medium, Lauren Stephen offers 13, including not charging to 100% and switching to dark mode — a current Android and soon-to-launch iOS feature.

PAID DATE: If you told me when I started this newsletter two years ago that I’d be sharing something from Patch as an example of a great idea, I’m not sure I would have believed you. Nothing against the collection of hyperlocal news sites — some friends have worked there and produced valuable work — but it seemed as though their time had come and gone. And yet. The site has been independent for five years, has become profitable and is doubling down on paid local calendars. For free or a small fee, locals can advertise events via Patch to other locals. It’s a valuable service to communities and a money-maker for Patch.


“Your audience isn’t a monolithic crowd, so avoid treating them like one.” Thus begins Atlantic57’s excellent beginner’s guide to the four types of visitors to any site and how to hook them (signup required).

The first step to regaining inspiration and motivation in your work is acknowledging that you’re feeling uninspired and unmotivated, Tim Herrerra writes for The New York Times. Then break your bigger projects into smaller tasks and check them off to kickstart motivation.

Speaking of inspiration, Site Inspire offers a massive visual showcase of great website design, sortable by categories like minimal, big type or retro. Give it a gander the next time you do a redesign or build a big project.

You know that thing where you’re a subscriber to a news site and you’re signed in on your browser and you also have the app but when you see a great link to them on Twitter or Facebook and you click that link, you’re forced to sign in AGAIN even though you know you already are? Yeah, that’s annoying. Vox has the story about why it happens.

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