New digital tools for journalists: 10 to learn

As the managing editor at a big city newspaper, I learned about journalism psychology. I could call reporters in the middle of the night, tell them something was on fire and no matter how senior they were, they would drop everything and go. A little cursing, maybe, but no argument. News happens. That’s just the way it is. You deal with it.

Picture that same veteran reporter coming in after the fire. If I told him I needed him to give up his desk and sit on the other side of the newsroom to write the story, there would be hell to pay. “This is MY spot,” he would growl. A lot of cursing, maybe.

That’s journalism psychology. It is fine for news to change every single second. It is not fine to change the way we do the news. News changes, craft doesn’t.

Deadlines can do this to people. Look at hospital emergency rooms or military combat units. Stick to the basics, or things turn ugly. In newspapers in particular, being a workplace fundamentalist worked. A notebook, a pencil, a manual typewriter. That’s all a reporter needed in 1870. That’s all we needed in 1970.

Change came in the form of electric typewriters, mainframes, dummy terminals, personal computers, smart phones. We had to learn new ways to put the story onto the news assembly line. But that was nothing. Now, important new tools are coming monthly. This has made some of the older folks a little crazy. They rail against “fads” and “gizmos.”

Most of us don’t have that luxury. So American Press Institute, Poynter Institute and Knight Foundation have launched a series of tutorial webinars to help media people learn to use new tools as fast as they’re coming out. DocumentCloud was the first: the tutorial showed how to set up an account and immediately start using the tool. Hundreds of attendees logged in. They learned how the tool tames simple documents from any journalistic beat. They learned advanced uses, like the USA Today “Ghost Factories” investigation showing toxic wastes at abandoned factories across America. The next tutorial is on the AP’s cool document mining tool, Overview.

I asked Knight’s Michael Maness and the Journalism and Media Innovation team what tools journalists should be learning. In time, the tool tutorials will get to all of them. Here’s Maness’ list:

  1. DocumentCloud: Six hundred newsrooms use it to manage, annotate and publish documents. It lets reporters share information across newsrooms, which, if you have thousands of Sarah Palin emails to go through, is really useful.
  2. Panda: An easy way to use databases that doesn’t require any special knowledge. You can use Microsoft Excel with it. It’s geared toward public information.
  3. Poderpedia: Allows you to analyze relationships among civic, political and business leaders in a country, or a city, or a company or any organized collection of people. Visualizes relationships within these power and influence networks.
  4. Timeline.js:  Creates timelines about any story you can link to or embed. Great for developing graphic skills.
  5. Scraper Wiki: A more advanced tool. You can write computer code to get, clean and analyze data sets. Or you can request the Scraper Wiki community of data scientists to do it.
  6. TileMile/Map Box: This is a simple way to make your own maps, use maps for making apps.
  7. Frontline SMS: Used all over the world, this mobile texting tool lets you communicate with large numbers of people in an organized way.
  8. Zeega: A mixed media packaging tool that allows you to make interactive documentaries in new formats with sound, videos, pictures and text.
  9. Amara: A volunteer-driven translation system that can turn any video in any language into a captioned, understandable piece.
  10. Ushahidi: Perhaps the most popular of them all, Ushahidi is a powerful yet simple crowdsourcing system that allows any group of people using cell phones to “map” just about anything.

These are specialized tools, especially useful to journalists. They’re the most popular recent ones. They’ve been used by news organizations of all sizes, including the largest. There are many more than we’ve listed here. A couple I like: video notebook, which allows you to annotate audio and video content and sync video with tweets (a Knight Chair project at Duke). Or Storify, a tool that helps you collect and republish social media (co-founded by a Stanford Knight Fellow).

Power tools are coming faster. Younger journalists will live to see essential new tools showing up every single day. News will change constantly. So will the tools. Journalists will be as creative and enterprising about how they do the news as they can be about the news itself. It won’t drive them to be crazy.

If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably been keeping up with the big, general new tools – PCs, the web, your phone, social media. Know it or not, you now can wade into the steady stream of specialized tools.  I don’t even remember the last time I saw a manual typewriter.  I am writing this on a tablet for a blog to be read on phones and, I hope, Googled, Tweeted, Facebooked and debated. The new way. This is the real world, as growing, changing and boundless as the human need to know.  The “fad” – if there is one – is the lingering nostalgic fantasy that somehow the digital age doesn’t really matter.

By Eric Newton, senior adviser to the President at Knight Foundation