10 tools to tackle common problems journalists face

March 1, 2017

Few industries have been as affected by technology as much as journalism. More than just a seismic shift from print to web to mobile devices, news now is gathered with the help of all types of tools, and smart newsrooms are making sure there’s as much room for social teams or podcast studios as for national desks.

To keep up, CJR asked journalists what new tools and technology they use to help them do their jobs. Social media editors, curators, and reporters chimed in to tell us about tools that help them face some familiar challenges.


THE PROBLEM: You have interviews in the can but dread the old approach to transcribing. Ask any journalist how they transcribe, and be prepared to hear a different answer every time. From paying someone else to do it, to using playback devices that slow down the speed, transcription methods are as varied as writing styles. One of the reasons is the annoyance of keeping up with a recording while having to stop every several seconds. Figuring out how to seamlessly stop and play a recording without having to take your hands off the keyboard would do a lot to smooth out the process.

THE SOLUTION: OTranscribe. This web app is a transcriber’s dream; it centralizes everything you need to get interviews into text form. Just upload the audio file (or if you’re taking an interview from YouTube, paste the link) onto the page, and start transcribing into the document underneath. You can then import your transcription to Google Drive or plain text. It saves your progress in your browser every few seconds and, perhaps most importantly, allows you to control the recording from your keyboard.


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THE PROBLEM: You want to crowdsource a story, but you’re wary you’ll get inundated with crappy responses. Google Forms may be the best-known way to disseminate questionnaires or forms for a crowdsourcing project, but there’s a better tool for collecting, organizing, and gauging the quality of submissions.

THE SOLUTION: Screendoor. Terry Parris Jr, engagement editor at ProPublica, prefers Screendoor, an online form-building platform with built-in messaging and analytic tools. For Parris, it’s all about the robust suite of organizing tools: “[Screendoor] allows me to quickly visualize (even in small ways) what we have collected,” says Parris. “This is important because when you deal in the volume of submissions we do when crowdsourcing, we don’t want to lose anything.”


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THE PROBLEM: You fear the social media photo you found might be too good to be true.

Sometimes a picture we see on social is not what it seems. Take for example photos of sharks swimming in the waters of flooded cities. It has become a popular hoax that people either fall for or use to prank others for retweets and likes. When news is breaking, the ability to weed out altered or fake images becomes especially critical. There also can be times where we want to use an image but can’t find the original source to give credit.

THE SOLUTION: TinEye. This image-driven search company is the smarter version of Google Images. Upload or paste the URL of an image on the website, and TinEye will search through its vast database of images (17.7 billion, according to the site), with results that can verify everything you need to know about an image, including whether it has been altered.

THE PROBLEM: Your sources want to ensure their privacy while staying in touch.
Imagine if Bob Woodward had a cellphone and instead of meeting Deep Throat in a parking lot, they texted each other. They would probably still need to take extra precautions to ensure nobody was intercepting messages about the Nixon administration.

THE SOLUTION: Signal. “Face-to-face communication is always the best way to ensure things remain private,” says Kerry Flynn, a business reporter at Mashable who focuses on the tech industry. But she says the next best thing is Signal. “You feel safe there.”


THE PROBLEM: You want to connect with sources who are particularly concerned about anonymity but don’t want to download an app that might suggest they are leaking. Apps such as Signal or Confide might attract suspicion from supervisors trying to find out the source of leaks.

THE SOLUTION: Snapchat. Flynn from Mashable says some sources who want to talk off the record to her will suggest Snapchat. “It’s an extra layer of assurance they have knowing whatever they say to me will go away,” she says. “If they want to send me a picture through Snapchat, they will know if I screenshotted it.”


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THE PROBLEM: You only get 140 characters on Twitter, and threads can get tricky. Veteran Twitter users know how to tie a series of tweets together by replying to their own tweets. This self-engineered hack allows people to share their thoughts at length about particular topics. But now there’s an easier way.

THE SOLUTION: Twitter Moments. Initially available only for Twitter and a limited number of publishers, Twitter opened up its Moments tools to all users in September 2016. Since then, journalists and publishers like The New York Times have used the Moments tool to consolidate Tweets around particular subjects. (Disclosure: I was a curator on the Twitter Moments team).

THE PROBLEM: You want to share documents that support your story, but there’s no good way to embed them.
Let’s say you have are working on a story that involves a massive amount of documents, and instead of rehashing what was found in them, you want to share the actual pages.

THE SOLUTION: Scribd. This is how Scribd came in handy for freelance writer Quibián Salazar-Moreno. “I remember reporting on a court case, and I wanted to embed some of the court papers on our site but also make them accessible for everyone else,” Salazar-Moreno says. “Scribd was the perfect tool to do that.”


THE PROBLEM: You want your Instagram posts both to attract attention and seamlessly integrate a headline, video, and images.

THE SOLUTION: PicPlayPost. As an editor for news curation at BuzzFeed News, Darian Harvin has to meet BuzzFeed readers where they’re at. This means when she’s creating a post on Instagram, it is more than just a photo. “I’m often looking to use both headlines and images to tell stories on a platform like IG,” she says.


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THE PROBLEM: You wanna cut a podcast but don’t have a fancy recording studio. As podcasts grow in popularity, more journalists are realizing you don’t need an expensive setup to churn out quality work.

THE SOLUTION: Voice Memo App for iPhone. James Ramsay, a producer for Morning Edition, says many of his colleagues rely on Apple’s Voice Memo app that is included on all iPhones. “If it’s a 10-second cut, and you know how to hold a phone so it doesn’t sound like a hurricane is hitting it, that works!” Ramsay says. BuzzFeed’s Harvin, who records her own podcast, “Am I Allowed To Like Anything,” is also a fan of the Voice Memo app. “It allows me to quickly record my podcast in a small room or closet, and quickly send it to my email for editing later,” she says.


THE PROBLEM: Too many social media posts to track. Social media editors use a variety of tools, but one in particular has risen above the rest in terms of versatility and reach.

THE SOLUTION: CrowdTangle. CrowdTangle originally was helpful for boosting the signal on Facebook’s viral content, but it has since expanded to include Twitter, Instagram, and Reddit. With these added platforms, social media editors can easily see how their content is performing, and also look out for what content is going viral online.


Editor’s note: Let us know what we missed by emailing

Jozen Cummings is a New York-based journalist who has worked at Vibe Magazine, Huffington Post, The New York Post, and currently works at Bleacher Report as a senior manager. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, and The Wall Street Journal.