Your metrics might be spoiled, top tools from a NYT bureau chief, rummaging through Instagram for useful posts

This week in digital tools for journalism

April 23, 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.

SPOILED NUMBERS: The last time you looked at your organization’s metrics, where was your focus? Pageviews? Unique users? Metrics have an expiration date, writes Matt DeRienzo, a vice president at Hearst Connecticut, and it’s probably time to track something else. DeRienzo argues that the focus should shift every few months based on goals. He also advocates for ruthlessly tracking “key non-performance indicators,” or the things that nobody is engaging with. Once you’ve gotten rid of them, use New York Times deputy off-platform director Claudio E. Cabrera’s tips for finding out what users are looking for. Tools like Google Trends, Kaleida, NewsWhip, Reddit and CrowdTangle — most of which are free — are a good place to start.

TOOLS FROM THE FIELD: Thomas Fuller, the New York Times’ San Francisco bureau chief, has covered California’s wildfires and horrendous mass shootings and learned the best tools to communicate in those situations. Satellite phones are indispensable when disasters knock out cell towers, he says, and Signal is useful when working with sensitive subjects. He also recommends Dataminr for monitoring the internet for breaking news and Audionote for taking and recording notes in the same app. These posts about how Times reporters use tech in their work lives are illuminating and I will never not share them. (h/t Burkhard Luber, a lecturer in international politics and international crisis areas based in Germany)

INSTA SEARCH: A billion people use it monthly. Half a billion use it daily. The best thing is that most of it is searchable by location. Instagram is an underused source of intel for reporters, with countless uses that range from verification to old-fashioned dirt digging. The problem is finding what you’re looking for. Though it sounds like a way to track your granny’s favorite hangouts, GramPlaces is a solid tool for locating a signal in Instagram’s noise. It’s a lot like Instagram’s native search, except it limits searches to geolocations, surfaces addresses and displays images in chronological format.

YAHOO FOR EARTHLINK: “When you see a résumé with a Hotmail address, what do you do?” journalism strategist Sree Sreenivasan wrote on LinkedIn last year. “Treat ’em same as others? Reject ’em right away? Some other response?” I investigated, and it turns out that snubbing job applicants based on their choice of email provider is shortsighted at best, and borderline illegal at worst. But who are the people with AOL and EarthLink addresses in 2019? OneZero, a tech and science publication on Medium, found millennials, programmers and otherwise tech-savvy folks firing off emails from vintage addresses — in other words, not who you’d expect.

RED TALK: A week ago, at about the same time the Pulitzer board announced she was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in national reporting, Carole Cadwalladr was onstage delivering a TED Talk that accused the billionaires of Silicon Valley of destroying democracy. She called out “the Gods of Silicon Valley: Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Jack Dorsey” at a conference that was sponsored by Facebook and Google and at which Dorsey, Twitter’s co-founder, was speaking. It’s bold and humanizing and worth a watch.

THE FONTS: It may seem like a stretch to think of a font as a digital tool. But fonts are the original digital tools. They can shift meaning. Consider a phrase like “Brexit talks fail” in Times New Roman vs. Comic Sans — the former conveys stark meaning, the latter possibly a sarcastic jab at Theresa May. They can convey importance. A bold, blocky typeface works as a headline but would be ridiculous and overbearing as body copy. On a macro level, they’re a significant marker of our values as a culture. Minimalist, balanced fonts like Helvetica have been popular for decades, but times are changing. Who knows if they’ll shift slightly, to a new but familiar font like Helvetica Now, or majorly, to the groovy and curvy fonts of the ’70s? Or, just maybe, the next great font will just be a bunch of wee people.

THE BOTS ARE COMING: A few years back, the race the optimize articles and websites for search engines brought a Great Panic to journalism. It mostly subsided when reporters realized that writing for web crawlers and humans wasn’t an either/or situation (and when social traffic took over, bringing its own wave of problems and hand wringing). But the bots are still out there, still shaping our work with their millions of invisible, cybernetic hands. In a short fiction piece, writer Charlie Jane Anders introduces us to Roy, a reporter at The Daily Argus who battles with a swarm of dystopian Grammarly-type bots as he attempts to write about a gunfight at a water pipeline. TL;DR: Let’s not let Roy be our future.

QUICK FIX: Websites that ask you to allow notifications are the fruit flies of the internet. Disable these annoying requests on Google Chrome by going to Preferences > Advanced (at the bottom) > Content Settings (under the Privacy and Security header) > Notifications to turn them off. Then thank Time senior editor Alex James Fitz for sharing this important tidbit.

REINSTATE WONDER: As the rest of us wondered how we’d quickly read and synthesize Robert Mueller’s report last week, The New York Times and The Washington Post were prepping brilliant infographics and visual articles to put us to shame. The Times quickly built a visual examination of the connections between the Trump campaign and Russians and an overarching look at all of Attorney General William Barr’s redactions. Meanwhile, the Post built a tool that shows all mentions of specific topics, like Facebook or Trump’s family members. Meanwhile, I was still on page three of the 448-page report.

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