I’ve been meaning to write a post for some time breaking down all the habits and hacks I’ve acquired over the years – so this month’s Carnival of Journalism question on ‘Hacking your journalism workflow’ gave me the perfect nudge.
Picking those habits apart is akin to an act of archaeology. What might on the surface look very complicated is simply the accumulation of small acts over several years. Those acts range from the habits themselves to creating simple shortcuts and automated systems, and learning from experience. So that’s how I’ve broken it down:
Shortcuts are such a basic part of my way of working that it’s easy to forget they’re there: bookmarks in the browser bar, for example. Or using the Chrome browser because its address bar also acts as a search bar for previous pages.
I realise I use Twitter lists as a shortcut of sorts – to zoom in on particular groups of people I’m interested in at a particular time, such as experts in a particular area, or a group of people I’m working with. Likewise, I use folders in Google Reader to periodically check on a particular field – such as data journalism – or group – such as UK journalists.
Getting more specific, when it comes to data journalism tasks I rely on a whole range of tools and shortcuts for cleaning and interrogating datasets: the =TRANSPOSE formula, for example, will swap a spreadsheet’s rows and columns; =VLOOKUP will copy across data from matching cells; and the free tool Google Refine will quickly identify similar entries (which may have been misspelled).
On my desktop I rely on plugins for Firefox and Chrome such as Firebug (check a page’s HTML), OutWit Hub (scrape a page), TinEye (check if an image has been used elsewhere), ErrorZilla (check for cached and older versions of a webpage), and Easy YouTube Downloader (download YouTube videos). Links to these and other useful plugins can be found at http://delicious.com/paulb/firefox
But the most frequently used shortcuts are the bookmarklets that are installed on my mobile phone browser – ‘Read Later’ (Instapaper); ‘Bookmark on Delicious’; ‘Tweet with Echofon’; ‘save on Springpad’ or Evernote; and ‘Blog on Tumblr’. These are made even more powerful through automation.
RSS can be a hugely useful technology when it comes to saving time and automating processes – and Delicious is the king of useful RSS feeds in this respect.
If I want to tweet a useful link as well as bookmark it, for example, I simply add the tag ‘t’ – the RSS feed for which is automatically tweeted to my account by Twitterfeed. If I want to tweet it using the @helpmeinvestig8 account I add the tag ‘hmitwt’. Webpages which I think might be useful to students on the MA in Television and Interactive Content I tag ‘tvi’ – this not only sends them to the @bcumedia_matvic account but also to an email newsletter that students receive (I use Feedburner for this). If I wanted to I could set up a Tumblr blog to automatically pull items from the RSS feed for a particular tag, too. And all of this is triggered by one click, and one tag.
The process works the other way: Packrati.us will bookmark any link you tweet in your Delicious account. And Trunk.ly automatically archives both your Delicious bookmarks and tweeted links, providing a backup search engine.
IFTTT (IF This Then That) is a new service which promises some amazing possibilities for automating processes between (currently) 32 different services, including Delicious, Google Reader, stock performances, times and dates, emails, phone calls and any RSS feed. I’ve been using it to bookmark anything I share on Google Reader, but I’m on the lookout for other uses.
For other tasks the Firefox plugin iMacros can automate web-based actions so you don’t have to repeat them, while Automator on the Mac will do the same for computer-based actions. For links to these and IFTTT see http://www.delicious.com/paulb/automation+tools
For all the above it is ultimately up to you to set balls in motion, and here I think establishing habits is key. In particular, bookmarking is one habit that I find saves me more time than anything else.
Every morning I check my RSS feeds and bookmark items I think may be useful in future. Bookmarking and tagging them builds a resource that I can look to whenever I need to solve a problem, help someone, or write something quickly. So if I decide to write something on data visualisation, I already have an archive of pre-filtered material to refer to. If I need data on health, I already have several health datasets that I’ve bookmarked and tagged. And if I have a Yahoo! Pipes-related problem, I can check my bookmarks first.
Delicious is the main place that I do this – but it’s no longer the only one. My Tumblr blog is essentially a place where I bookmark multimedia and quotes – so if I need some multimedia or a choice quote, that’s where I look first.
And blogging itself is a great habit to have: it makes me remember things better, provides a space where I can re-find them, and helps me (or others) identify gaps.
The final journalism hack is my most recent one – and I think something that more and more online journalists are learning too as they hit information fatigue. It’s self-discipline.
With so many sources of information, so many things to tweet, blog and bookmark, it’s easy to lose a morning in following links, tweets and feeds, and replying to emails. Having a clear idea of what you need to achieve on a particular day, and sometimes switching off other signals in order to complete it, is a hard skill to build – but an important one.
And so I try to only check email three times per day (start, midday and end). At the end of the day emails that require more time to respond go into my ‘Starred items’, and I check those and respond if I can first thing the next day.
I set limits on the time I spend checking RSS feeds, and on the number of blog posts I write.
I email longer webpages, reports and documents to my Kindle address to be read when I’m travelling.
I use the Springpad app to create ‘To Do’ items that I schedule for future days, taking them out of my head so I can focus on the here and now. And at the start of every day I go through these so that nothing is missed.
Then, I make time to switch off, to remove the phone from my hand, the laptop from my desk (it is set to switch itself off at a particular time every night), and sleep.