Picking the right tool for the journalism job

If you’re not familiar with the monthly Carnival of Journalism, it’s worth knowing about because it plugs you into a conversation amongst other journalists. The topic for October’s Carnival was about how to choose the digital tools and platforms. (I’m just getting in under the wire, but my travel schedule and moving flat took up more time than we actually had.)

Dave Cohn aka digidave asked:

How do you decide to dedicate time to a new tool/platform/gadget? What is the process you go through mentally? And then later – how do you convince others to go through that process? And, last: How do you ensure that the tools you do adopt are used once the “newness” factor fades?

This really struck a cord with me. My last position at The Guardian was digital research editor. Don’t worry if you need an explanation of what the role was so did most of my colleagues, and I’m not entirely sure that we had the working definition hammered out before I left. Operationally, I moved from desk to desk on a several month basis and helped that desk with their digital projects. For instance, my last desk was politics to help them as they prepared for 2010 UK general election. My job was also to keep abreast of new digital developments and see how we could use them for The Guardian’s award-winning journalism.

Although the job was to be aware of digital tools and platforms, I always approached it in terms of editorial challenges that I needed to meet. The challenge might be to find simple mapping services that journalists could use without having to call on developers, whose time was in great demand, or it might be simple tools to analyse and visualise data. I almost always started out from the point of view of the editorial problem we were trying to solve rather than the tool or platform. Sure, sometimes when a platform got a lot of traction, I would try it out to see how we could engage the audience using that platform, but even then, I looked at things from the point of view of how what they could do for our journalists and our audience. Increasingly, as the cuts took hold at The Guardian, I also thought about the business side of the tools.

Simply put, I asked of tools and platforms:

  • Does it make a journalists job faster and easier?
  • Does it help us make money or save money?
  • Does it help bring audiences to our journalism or our journalism to audiences?
  • Does it allow us to tell stories better, more easily or more engagingly?
  • Does it build audience loyalty and keep people engaged with our journalism longer?

It’s a very similar checklist to Jack Lail’s. As he says, if the tools don’t meet strategic goals, “Learn to say “no” to the rest”. These were my criteria, my personal strategic goals, but it’s more important that the organisation has those goals in mind rather than a particular set of goals. For the next full-time job that I take (and I am starting to look for a more permanent home), I’m more than open to a different set of goals, but I think it’s important for organisations to have a set of criteria.

Moreover, we need metrics. We need to measure against these goals.

My former colleague at the BBC, Alf Hermida, flagged up the Forrester Research’s POST methodology to evaluate new technology. Broadly Alf says, and I agree:

The starting point for this discussion is the public, not the tools. Talking about tools is the last thing we should be doing.

I also think that sometimes it’s about the journalists, helping us cope with all of the demands of the job as staffs shrink. However, very few people in this world use a tool just to use a tool. They use a tool because it’s the best way to solve a problem or achieve a goal. It’s important to know all of the digital tools you can bring to bear on modern journalism problems, but it’s important to keep the goal in mind, lest we become tools of our tools.