This tool illuminates the hidden hands of special interest groups in legislation across the U.S.

January 8, 2020
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.

A proposed bill that allows the sale of used cars with unfixed but disclosed recalls lands on a legislator’s desk in Tennessee.

For reporters, and Tennessee residents, such a bill probably warrants a look. But with fewer journalists covering statehouses across the country, the odds that it gets the scrutiny it deserves are low.

But what if a similar bill with nearly the exact same language concurrently lands on legislators’ desks in California, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Virginia?

The knowledge that the bill likely wasn’t written by a local politician, and instead came from someone with pockets deep enough to extend to 11 states, elevates the story to something more important. Who is pushing this and why?

A model legislation tracking tool called “Copy, Paste, Legislate” from the Center for Public Integrity seeks to make it easy to locate widespread lobbying efforts across the United States so that journalists and citizens can solve the latter for themselves.

The tool regularly pulls in new legislation from across the country and parses the text for similar language, making it easy to identify model legislation fast enough when it’s still being debated, said Pratheek Rebala, news developer at CPI, in an interview with Poynter. Once the tool determines that a bill is model legislation, reporters can dig in to find the bill’s source with shoe-leather reporting.

In the case of the recalled cars, CPI (along with USA Today and the Arizona Republic) leveraged the tool to discover that the bills were written by Automotive Trade Association Executives, a group that represents regional auto dealer associations. With deeper reporting, they found that the group was pushing a “cynical ploy” to require a bare minimum of responsibility from dealers of recalled cars while purposefully leaving out a requirement to fix them.

“This tool is not a silver bullet and not going to do the work for you,” Rebala said. “But it can enrich traditional reporting.”

Google News is ditching digital magazines. Digital print-replica versions of magazines have been available in some form — though typically a PDF — through Google since 2012. No longer. Some will disagree because we all have our preferences, but this was past due. Consider 2012: The iPad was still new and still slated to “save” the magazine industry. News Corp. was still publishing an expensive tablet-only product with a limited subscriber base. We can debate about how much publishers have learned about how people want to consume news online since then, but one thing is clear: Mimicking print ain’t it.

There’s a big world of keyboard shortcuts out there. This wiki-style database is collecting them all. They’re more helpful than you might think. Sure, typing CMD+C or CTRL+C saves half a second of clicking to copy some text, but over time that adds up to … what? Hours? Days? Months? The site offers countless time-saving shortcuts for hundreds of individual Windows, Mac, Linux and web-based apps, from the popular (Adobe’s Creative Suite, Microsoft Office) to the obscure and obsolete (I’m looking at you, Windows Zune player).

Get your organization’s online style guide in order. If you’re anything like us, you regularly stand up and lean over your coworker’s cubicle walls to ask whether subheds should be h1s or h2s. Or what the hex value is for that weird green color we use everywhere. Or what font you should use in the new email template you’re building. Zeroheight is an easy-to-build and easier-to-navigate style guide maker that allows your team to put all of that information in one constantly accessible place. Go get standardized.

A proposed rule in the United States requires drones to be remotely identifiable. The 87-page rule from the Federal Aviation Administration and Department of Transportation would require all commercial drones, recreational drones over .55 pounds and foreign-registered drones to be identifiable through a to-be-determined remote system to “address safety, national security, and law enforcement concerns.” The little buggers have gotten a bad rap after closing some of the world’s busiest airports, crash landing on the White House lawn and menacing the skies of Colorado. This rule would clear up any confusion about the bigger ones (and ostensibly give law enforcement some justification to knock others out of the sky).

Here’s a bunch of canned emails you can use in one click. Because sometimes you just can’t find the words on your own. “It’s been a long time. Let’s catch up.” “I’m applying for the position of…” “I need advice.” Just pick one of the canned email prompts, edit the message a bit to suit your style and purpose and send it along. Or, if you’re “the writer” among your friends and family, send them the whole site the next time they ask for help with drafting an email. (I swear, if one of you sends me the unsubscribe aggressively message…)

It has been a long couple of years in the news industry. This year sure isn’t shaping up to be any quieter. Whether you’re reporting on the new-normal hectic pace of national politics, weary of being harangued by those with negative opinions about our profession or just burnt out from watching as the world is burnt, make sure you’re taking care of yourself. One of the best ways to do that is to download and print my friend Katie Hawkins-Gaar’s workbook for self-care. Don’t mistake this for another one of those listicles with advice to meditate and take a walk — not that there’s anything wrong with those activities! This one forces you to think about what’s good for you. Yes, you. Fill it out now so it’s ready when you need it.

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.