This tool is going to shape the future of podcasting — and possibly misinformation

October 1, 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 Tuesday? Sign up here.

Um. Uhh. *dead silence* Oops.

Anyone who has edited a podcast knows the great plagues of human speech patterns and the surgical editing required to correct them. Load up the audio. Listen. Drag. Delete. Listen again. Restore the original audio. Hone. Delete again. Relisten.

It’s exhausting. And that’s just for the little things. There’s a better way.

I’ve touted Descript as the perfect tool for podcasting for a few years now. Descript creates a text transcript of audio files, and as users delete or rearrange the resulting transcript, the tool edits the audio file to match. It feels like something between utopian technology and magic. And it just got better.

Descript used to charge per transcription. Now, after a monthly fee ($10 if paid annually or $14 monthly), all transcripts are free. The free plan previously didn’t allow users to export audio files to their tool of choice for further production. Now it does.

But you might not even need to do that anymore. The new version of Descript adds a number of essential podcasting tools, like multitrack editing, recording, live collaboration and volume automation.

Wildest of all? Descript recently acquired Lyrebird, a text-to-speech tool that the internet lost its mind over in 2017. By integrating Lyrebird, users will soon be able to type text into the tool and have audio generated automatically — that is, Descript will literally allow you to clone someone’s voice. 😱

Great if you’re a podcaster and you forgot a word or two. A little scary for those of us who battle mis- and disinformation. But you’ll use it for good, right?

Descript seems to understand the potential for misuse. Its website contains an ethics statement specifically about this aspect of the tool: “[W]e are committed to modeling a responsible implementation of these technologies, unlocking the benefits of generative media while safeguarding against malicious use,” it reads. And though this feature is currently in private beta, Descript says it uses “a process for training speech models that depends on real-time verbal feedback, ensuring that individuals can only create a text-to-speech model of their own voice.”

The unofficial tagline for this newsletter has always been “someday we’ll have the technology we deserve.” With Descript, at least for podcast editors, that day is officially here.

TRENDING DEMS: You probably don’t need a tool to tell you that Joe Biden is the Democratic candidate topping the most headlines these days. But a week or two from now? It could be anybody! Parse.ly, the analytics platform, released a tool to show “which Democratic candidates are getting the most attention, who is being written about the most, and who do readers want more content for.” It’s sortable by region, date, referral site, candidate and just about any other metric you can think of.

PROTECT YOURSELF: I’m constantly beating the drum about online security. My focus here is, for obvious reasons, on tools that you can use to protect yourself. But perhaps we should be having another conversation. For OneZero, Colin Horgan writes about how tech isn’t vulnerable, you are. “Every discussion of privacy has to begin there: We have no control,” he writes. “We are powerless and alone.” In other words, once we accept that we are at the mercy of a digital world in which most of the big issues are out of our hands, we can begin to take steps to protect ourselves more aggressively.

UNSUBSCRIBE: Here’s your first test on that front. You probably get a fair amount of spam. Or maybe you’re a newsletter fiend like me, but you’re a little overwhelmed. It’d be great if an app could pull up all of those subscriptions in a big list and allow you to unsubscribe with one click. In fact, there’s a well-known one that does. It’s called Unroll.me and it has some massive privacy issues — namely, it scans your inbox for information it can sell. Another app, called Leave Me Alone, looks a lot better. Instead of selling user data, it’s funded through a monthly subscription. Its website claims it doesn’t store anything about you at all. Decisions about apps like these, and a little bit of research, can make or break your online security.

WHAT’S THE WORD: If the dictionary is the Bible for writers, I just found the annotated version. OneLook is an online thesaurus that includes a “why didn’t I know that existed until now” feature called the reverse dictionary. Enter a definition and it’ll tell you the word it thinks you’re looking for. Enter a word and it’ll give you related words and concepts — “soccer” will give you “association football,” “FIFA” and “footy,” for example. Enter a category, like “marsupials,” and it gives you a list of mammals that carry their young in a pouch. It’s a dream tool for the writer with a wracked brain.

DATA BUDDY: If every picture is worth a thousand words, every database is probably worth a million. The problem is making sense of all those columns and numbers. There are plenty of tools for finding stories in data, but even the best of them fail to stack up against an experienced data journalist. If you’re in a newsroom, you can now buddy up with one, thanks to a project from Open News. Just tell Open News about your database and what you’re hoping to do with it and they’ll pair you up with a reporter who has worked on a similar story. It’s like pen pals but for future Public Service Pulitzer winners.

ADLESS: Imagine an internet without advertisements. What would we put on the right rail? Would our organization’s logo actually appear at the top of the page instead of below an ad for Allbirds or T-shirts with giant animal faces? And maybe we could actually cruise the web without being tracked everywhere we go? Mozilla and Creative Commons are putting forward $100 million to make that dream a reality. The aim is to identify creative new ways to keep websites financially afloat, like reimagined micropayments. I’d happily chip in $10 just to never see an ad for trendy men’s health vitamins again.

NWS IN BRF: 

  • Wait, don’t put your imagination away yet. Put your noodle to use thinking about this question: What if Wi-Fi was never invented? Wired has a fascinating story about how Wi-Fi almost didn’t happen.
  • Are you a student? Or maybe you just play one on TV? Notion — an all-in-one workplace with notetaking features, a to-do list and more — is now free for you.
  • Grammarly, the grammar and spell-checking plugin, now has a tone detection filter. Mine mostly shows this emoji: 🤓. WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
  • The Washington Post put together its first graphics-driven editorial and it’s about as great as you’d expect.
  • Ever wondered what it’s like to be one of those trolls who sows misinformation across social media for profit? No? Just me? Well, try it out anyway with a browser game called Troll Factory.

Clarification: This article has been updated to include the steps that Descript’s team has taken to limit the tool’s use to spread mis- and disinformation. 

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.