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April 29, 2013

Six online tools for freelance journalists

By Jon Bernstein

When Google announced the death of Google Reader last month, the most repeated aphorism was this: if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.

And it is one that most freelance journalists (indeed most freelancers) ignore because whether the tools are free, freemium or low cost their practical application either can’t be found elsewhere or only can at great expense. So if one day the benevolent / scheming software companies take them away from us, well we’re willing to take that risk.

A month into my current freelance stint, here are six tools I’m finding invaluable. It’s an utterly subjective list and there are likely to be alternatives to each of the tools I cite below that may even do a better job. Nor is the list comprehensive – so if you have other tools to suggest, leave a comment below.

All that said, I reckon this is a pretty good start:


1. Dropbox

In the past if you wanted to transfer oversized files you had to use fiddly FTP (file transfer protocol) software. Dropbox (and plenty of alternatives out there) is FTP for dummies. You can drag and drop files into the cloud as simply as in-housers drag and drop files onto a corporate network drive. There are Android and iOS apps available which mean you can view those files on multiple devices, update and synchronise them. And you can share folders with temporary colleagues on a temporary basis. And they can return the favour. If you’re likely to need more than 2GB at any one time, then you’ll need to pay. An alternative to this – do-it-yourself cloud computing – is to get an email account with a large amount of storage and email files to yourself. It works but not quite as elegantly.

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Alternatives: Google Drive | Amazon Cloud Drive


2. Google Calendar

I use Google Calendar through inertia: I have a Gmail account so it sort of makes sense. And it does the three key things I want it to do: I can view it on multiple devices; I can update it on multiple devices (my phone when I'm out and about, my laptop when I'm at my desk) so that they all synch automatically; and I can share my calendar with those that need to see it.

Google Calendar:

Alternatives: Business Calendar | Apple Calendar


3. Instapaper

There are other apps that allow you to save web pages for later, such as Pocket (formerly called Read It Later). I use Instapaper to source and store articles on subjects I need to get up to speed on quickly, saving them for a spare hour in the evening, a morning commute or a long train ride. I also use it to save signature articles on subjects I want to return to again and again. Crucially the articles can be read offline, so no WiFi or 3G signal is required.


Alternatives: Pocket | Read Later Fast


4. Google+ Hangouts

If you have a Google+ account that has been lying dormant since you signed up all those months ago, this might be the thing that pulls you back in. Google+ Hangouts, like Skype, allows you to make video calls over the Internet. And it allows you to video conference as well – up to ten of you on the same call if you so wish. Most of the time you don’t really need to see the other people (although there is a document sharing facility if that makes sense for you) but when most conference call numbers are obscure and expensive, and don’t fall into your network operator’s inclusive minutes, this is a very good low cost / no cost alternative. You can even use it to create a bespoke video podcast, broadcast straight to YouTube.

Google+ Hangouts:

Alternatives: Skype | Apple FaceTime


5. SuperNote

People constantly recommend Evernote or OneNote for note-taking, to-do lists, audio recording and a bunch of other stuff but I appear to have landed up with SuperNote for reasons too involved to go into. But it seems to do the trick. Like its rivals it allows you to take notes, store and email them from phone or tablet. If you’re at a press conference, a one-to-one interview or an event you can record the audio while taking notes within the same file.


Alternatives: Evernote | OneNote


6. Feedly

Now Google Reader is on its way out, I use Feedly for my RSS fix. For those unfamiliar with RSS (really simple syndication), it allows you to keep tabs on multiple content sources all in one place by subscribing to the feeds from the source websites in question (look for the orange lozenge such as the one near the top of this page).


Alternatives: The Old Reader | NewsBlur (hat tip: Alex Hern)


So there’s my list. What have I missed?


Jon Bernstein is a freelance digital media consultant. You can read his personal blog here.

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