Thursday, January 26, 2012

Top 5 digital tools & techniques journalists need to know right now

One of the best discussion threads among the ranks of the Journal Register Company IdeaLab right now is on the topic of which digital tools and techniques are imperative for newsrooms to know and use, right now. While there are countless tools of awesomeness to tout and explore in the name of journalism, here are the five - in my humbly disruptive opinion - that every person in your newsroom needs to know right now.

Know Your Newsroom's Digital First Workflow
Every newsroom for every medium ever has always functioned on one guiding principal: a workflow. This may sound like a cop out answer, but it's a necessity for every person in every newsroom to know the steps in the workflow for their organization, and know that it's radically different than it was 10 years ago. For newspapers, this used to mean everything in our daily workflow built towards getting papers on driveways every morning by the crack of dawn. Now, it means getting the news of right now in everyone's hands the way they want it, right now. That includes computer screens, laptops, tablets, phones, inboxes, social media streams, headphones, speakers, video, and yes, physical newspapers. The only way you are going to get your story told and delivered to those mediums as appropriate is by working together as a solid team with a well-honed strategy. Your newsroom needs a singular workflow for it to work. And everyone in your newsrooms needs to know how everyone else fits together in that work flow.

Google Docs Suite
One of the strengths of the digital age for journalism is the ease with which we can collaborate and engage. With readers. With co-workers. With other organizations and newsrooms. With anyone. If you're trying to transition your newsroom's workflow from "print-focused" to "digital first," you need to know Google Docs. The amount of tasks you can accomplish and the amount of time Google Docs can save you is reason enough. Of course, because it's a collaborative tool, it's usefullness is dependent upon everyone in your newsroom using it, and using it properly. That's why this tool is a necessity to explore and know, for every single person in your newsroom. At our Journal Register Connecticut newsrooms, we have been using Google Docs to:
  • Manage story budgets throughout the day, so all editors and reporters can access and update from anywhere during the day. It's a constantly evolving document. The New Haven Register takes it a step further and keeps this news budget live on our website every hour of every day, so readers can reach out to our reporters if they have any tips or suggestions for a story on the budget.
  • Poll or survey readers. Not only is Google Doc's Google Forms function a smart and easy-to-use poll creation tool, but it organizes all responses from your readers into useable data on a Google spreadsheet. Use it to gather and organize data for all sorts of projects. It even creates useable charts for the responses. Examples: There was the time I polled New Haven Register readers on how they would moderate a set of selected comments on race. Or the time I polled our state legislators on a proposed bill from the New Haven mayor. Or the time Angi Carter polled readers on what issues they want us to report on for this year's local elections. Or the time we quizzed our entire staff on plagiarism after a recent plagiarism violation was revealed at one of papers. (Take the quiz if you like, we've already tracked all staff responses.)
  • Project planning and management. Especially since we have a number of projects in development at all times these days, it's not easy to get everyone in the same room at the same time to discuss a project in the works. Crafting a project plan and listing out responsibilities and ideas to build off of in a shareable and collaborative Google Doc makes it easier to work and think together when you can't get together.
  • Store help documents, how-tos, and cheat sheets. You can upload Word documents, PDF's, etc to store all your help documents for your newsroom, so they can be accessed by all, no matter where they are - in the newsroom, at home, or in the field on a laptop.
SeeClickFix is another especially useful collaborative tool that bears its fruits the more you use it. There are a number of journalists (especially in Journal Register Company) familiar with what SCF is by now, but I'm finding very few are aware of how useful SeeClickFix can be for crowdsourcing or discovering story ideas and sources. It's an extremely valuable tool that will extend a reporter's eyes and ears into the community they cover the more they embrace it. See for yourself and check out the workshop we held earlier this week. And for communities that don't use the service much - who better than the local newspaper to embrace it as a discussion point for problems and issues in the community. If a newspaper calls attention to issues reported on SeeClickFix, and those issues are resolved because of it, more people will use it. Believe that. Use SeeClickFix to:
  • Extend awareness of your beat. Set up a customized Watch Area tailored to your story beat.
  • Find story ideas.
  • Find sources for stories you're working on.
  • Engage with the community.
  • Crowdsource big impact events. You can easily create custom widgets to encourage readers to report specific issues such as unplowed streets after a blizzard, downed limbs and power lines after a hurricane, polling problems on election day, pinpoint areas with little or no cell phone service, etc. 
Facebook should be the starting point for every journalist discovering social media. The Steve Buttrys of the world exercise a strong emphasis on the value of Twitter for journalists. Especially as it relates to breaking news. And rightfully so. But I fear some newsrooms and journalists overlook the sheer power Facebook presents them with. Whereas Twitter is a great tool for journalists to use in their reporting, Facebook is more like a content medium with it's own set of tools and opportunities for community and reader engagement. Every person in every newsroom should have a basic comfort with Facebook. Not knowing how to engage or participate with others on Facebook is, in a way, on par with not knowing how to ask the right questions in a face-to-face interview. Understanding the basics of Facebook is part of understanding the way American society digests and discusses news today.

Basic data management skills
Data and numbers tends to frighten journos. But we are news and information gatherers, and the amount of people in journalism without a basic knowledge of spreadsheets and Excel management has to change. This skill set is necessary to help you manage and pour through massive amounts of data for investigative stories. And it can help you manage and organize time and projects too. One thing we're experimenting with at our JRC Connecticut newsrooms right now is a Google Spreadsheet as a statewide newsroom planner that shows what stories and projects everyone is working on throughout the week. With the reporters, it serves as a first draft for the items and story blurbs that make it to our daily news budgets.

What about you? What do you think are the 5 tools and techniques that every journalist, editor, photographer, copy editor, etc. needs to be equipped with in today's digital journalism age? Take the discussion into the comments.


  1. Wow! I like how informative it is! Applying it would be significant for those who works in media.

  2. This is an excellent post and should be disseminated better among our DFM properties. Lots of value for newsrooms here.