Victor Hernandez preaches the gospel of newsroom productivity, whether he’s working with his reporters in the Crosscut newsroom in Seattle or training journalists at conferences around the country.
Hernandez’s philosophy is simple: Think trends and not tools when finding digital resources that can make you more productive. Instead of grabbing the “coolest” new tool or app out there, think about what tools have staying power, and whether they will save time or waste time.
Think trends, not tools.
“Tools are often shiny objects that come and go,” said Hernandez, Crosscut’s executive editor who has worked at CNN. “Trends are more compelling and have staying power.”
In other words, don’t pounce on every new toy and immediately adopt it. Instead, find apps and tools you think will be useful, set up a free account and wait to see if it gains traction or is sent to what Hernandez calls the “tech graveyard.”
While this patient approach sounds simple, it can be confusing. What tools and apps should you download? How long do you wait before you incorporate it into your workflow? What’s worthy of your time and effort and what is not? How do you find the tools that work best for you? Where do you go to find them and whom do you trust?
These are questions I address each day when I update SPJ’s Journalists Toolbox, which turns 25 years old in January. The site houses thousands of digital and mobile resources organized by beats and topics of interest to journalists, academics, researchers and others.
Here are my suggestions for useful tools to improve your digital and mobile skills without wasting your valuable time or breaking the bank.
Productivity Tools for Reporting and Editing
Stuck with a tight headline count for print or an SEO digital headline? Use Thsrs to get synonyms that are shorter than the word you type into the search field. The tool has been around for more than a decade, and I use it almost every day for story headlines and graphics. Type in a word such as “terminate” and it will give you shorter words such as “stop” and “end.” A must-bookmark for any copyeditor or web producer.
Anybody who has to transcribe audio on deadline will appreciate this free tool, which is widely considered the best and most accurate on the market. This AI-powered app transcribes Zoom calls, as well, and is free for up to 600 minutes of transcription time per month. You can find more transcription tools here.
Need to estimate a crowd size during a protest? Paint a delimiter on this searchable map, estimate crowd density and you get your approximate crowd size.
Search for millions of datasets by typing in a keyword. Your search results include background information provided by the author to help you vet the dataset. This tool will save you hours of digging for data. You also can use a shortcut in Google Search: For instance, “filetype:csv us mass shootings.” This will give you spreadsheets of data on mass shootings. Just adjust the filetype (doc, ppt, PDF, etc.) and the topic you’re searching.
These Google Chrome plug-ins help you organize your browser tabs into groups and open them on demand. I group mine by classes I teach, projects I’m working on, even conferences I’m attending. It’s excellent for staying organized and not bogging down your browser with too many open tabs.
This free tool from Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press helps you create, send, track and manage Freedom of Information Act requests and appeals. More public records resources can be found on the Journalist’s Toolbox.
I hate PDFs with the power of a thousand suns. Thanks to Tabula, you can scrape tables and text from a PDF, making it an invaluable tool for anyone pulling data from government documents, scientific research, academic material and more.
Audio Recording Apps
I’ve used several and recommend Voice Record, Call Recorder, Recorder, TapeACall Pro and iRig Recorder. Most cost a few bucks, but if you need good-quality audio, it’s worth the price.
This AI-powered Chrome extension helps you summarize emails concisely. It works with Gmail and any passage of text.
Camo (Available in Apple App Store only; coming soon to Windows/Google Play)
Hernandez loves this app, available for iPhone and iOS desktop and laptop, for upgrading your camera quality. Just download it to your phone and laptop, attach the two with a charging cable, and — voila! — you look like a rock star (or as close as you can to one on Zoom).
Cropping photos to fit social media channels like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram can be a drag. This fantastic, free, browser-based tool lets you crop to each social network’s specs for timeline, header, profile pic and more. A must-bookmark for any social media desk.
Hernandez highly recommends this tool, which provides powerful analytics for measuring reach and performance on Twitter and timelines. It’s available for free with paid upgrades.
For a mere 99 cents, this iOS app allows you to add captions to your social media videos. The captions not only help those with hearing difficulties, they also give the producer the option of dropping audio for music or other sound.
Mobile Apps and Multimedia
This $3 app created by Tinrocket helps you layer text and directional arrows on top of a photo right on your phone or tablet without having to download it into Photoshop or Illustrator. Just tap and design using a wide selection of fonts and colors.
Glide is a desktop tool that allows you to make mobile web apps with nothing more than a spreadsheet. It’s a free account with paid upgrades, but I’ve found the free account to be quite robust. You can add data visualizations, categories, listings and even map locations. It would be helpful for listing polling places or COVID-19 testing sites, both things people want access to on their phones. It’s easy to learn, and I’ve created a video walk-through on the process.
Available in app stores, both of these tools provide interfaces for building static data visualizations on your phone. Chartistic is perfect for basic bar graphs and pie charts, while Icongraph offers maps, more sophisticated graphics and social media text cards that highlight a single statistic. These don’t work well for large datasets, but if you need to build a “quick and dirty” graphic on the fly, have these on your phone.
Hernandez describes this as a “killer mobile storytelling app.” Users can produce and share multimedia stories in minutes, with a focus on video, photos and design. It includes rights-free music, audio and graphics to complement your own work.
You can download the Adobe suite of apps to create Tumblr-like scrolltelling photo essay stories (Adobe Spark Page), social media videos (Adobe Spark Video) and text cards to attach to tweets (Adobe Spark Post). With a variety of apps, pricing fluctuates. Text cards are useful for sharing sports scores, posting election results, highlighting a quote from a speech and more. They were used widely during the George Floyd protests coverage.
Video Shooting and Editing Apps
Video apps take up a lot of space on your phone. If you stop using one, delete it. You can find more mobile apps, tools for building them, and research on mobile technology on Journalist’s Toolbox mobile page.
There are many on the market, but here are a few not only recommended by me but also by BBC mojo mobile journalist and trainer Mark Blank-Settle.
Editing video: Videoshop, InShot, Videoleap, Magisto (which lets you edit video, text and colors) and Adobe Premiere Rush (which replaces the beloved Adobe Clip).
Shooting video: FILMIC Pro is the Ferrari of video shooting apps. It offers controls for framing video and recording good audio (make sure to use a microphone and headphones for best quality).
Use this to look at the most recent fact-checks and search by name or topic. It’s useful for tracking false claims in political speeches and more. It’s a must-bookmark for any social media desk.
Load a photo into either tool and track when and where that photo previously appeared. It’s good for finding fake photos or ones that have been misrepresented on social media.
This tool from Amnesty International pulls four frames from a YouTube video link you paste into it. You can then reverse image search those frames to see when and where the video has appeared on pages around the web.
You can paste a video link into this tool to study each individual frame in a video you’re fact-checking. It helps you detect deep fakes, green screens and other details the naked eye would miss.
Data Visualization Tools
I’m sharing a handful of my favorite data journalism tools here. If you want to dig deeper into data scraping, mapping, chart-building and other data visualization tools, you can find them on the Journalist’s Toolbox Data Journalism page.
Build interactive and animated charts and maps with just a spreadsheet. The Google News Initiative Training Center has a short module on how to use the tools.
This is an excellent tool for building static or interactive vertical infographics that draw from multiple sources. It’s similar to tools such as Infogram and Piktochart, but Venngage reigns supreme with its deep collection of stock photos and icons, as well as control over color and layout. You can add videos and interactive charts, and export as an embedded interactive graphic or as a static image. One catch: The free version offers some basic templates but the paid version ($150 one-time fee) offers much more value with templates, timeline, export ease and a deeper image archive. Check out a training video.
This useful tool from Sparkol builds whiteboard sketch videos with ease. It costs $178 and it’s well worth it. They’re very useful for explaining processes such as how a bill moves through Congress. Learn how to use it in 18 minutes with this training video.
Build graphics from data that’s drawn straight from sources such as the U.S. Census, Eurostat, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and more. You also can import your own datasets and choose from line charts, animated bar graphs, bubble maps and scatter plot charts. The graphics can be easily embedded into a web page or you can share a link to the chart on social media.
Mike Reilley is a professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where he teaches data and digital journalism. He’s an SPJ trainer in the Google News Initiative program and has been a staff writer, editor or web producer for the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and WashingtonPost.com. He’s the founder and editor of JournalistsToolbox.org, and is currently working on his first book.