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Science journalist Lynne Smit is your guide to the digital research and publishing tools that are changing the working lives of journalists.

The Internet has changed the craft of science journalism dramatically. Although the basics of good reporting remain the same, tools such as Twitter and Storify have opened up new ways of working for sourcing information and publishing our journalism.

But it can be hard to decide which digital tools to use, let alone to keep track of what is out there. To help you choose, in this guide I describe the tools that have changed the way I work and explain why they have become part of my digital toolkit.

Gathering ideas

Journalists need to keep track of what is happening in their areas of interest, and the Internet has given us instant access to information about what's happening the world over, not just locally.

One of the more simple tools to use is Google Alerts, which allows you to keep track of the topics that interest you by specifying words or phrases that appear in news stories and other articles online.

When I am working on a story, I set Google to email me with these updates. For topics in which I have a long-term interest, I schedule a digest of alerts that is delivered once a week. Both of these options can allow you to develop areas of special interest.

But Twitter is by far the best way to find out about most events in the news — and what opinion leaders are saying about them. You can track what is being said by the people or organisations you are following, but perhaps more useful is the ability to track a topic with a hash tag, such as #climatechange. Hash tags are also great for following conferences you cannot attend, such as #AAAS (the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science), as well as tapping into the community of people who are attending or interested in the area.

For breaking news, you will often find lists that contain tweets from reporters or people on the scene, which other Twitter users have created and shared publicly. A recent example is this list, which is keeping track of the situation in Gaza. And, of course, you can create your own lists to help you to organise your sources and interests into groups. You could make a list of people who tweet about a particular aspect of science, or of organisations that tweet breaking news.

There are also some good lists of scientists, such as 100 Amazing Scientists You Should Follow on Twitter.

Topsy, which describes itself as a social media index, is one of the best places I know to find out what people are saying about a topic. You can search it for tweets, photos and videos. Another nice Topsy feature is a free analytics tool that allows you to compare trends and mentions of subjects, which can be useful in identifying what people are interested in and which topics are hitting the news agenda.

A desktop computer, laptop and smartphone

Digital tools can make aspects of journalism easier and faster


Organising your research

So now you know how to keep track of what's happening; but what to do with all this information? Collating it into a usable story can be a problem. Luckily, there are other tools that can help.

First, keep your data safe and accessible. I use Dropbox, a service that allows you to store files remotely 'in the cloud', so I am far more relaxed about my computer being misplaced or breaking down. Because I can access these files from anywhere, I can carry on working wherever I am. There are many other backup services available.

Evernote is a useful tool for planning articles and for organising information. You can use it to store all the photos, audio/video files, web links and notes about an article in one handy 'notebook' during the planning stage, and share these notebooks with others if you are collaborating on a project. You can use it on your computer, smartphone and many other electronic devices, so you can update a notebook wherever you are.

If you are getting confused about how all your data is related, you may find Dipity useful, as it organises your information by date and time.

Pinterest offers those who prefer a visual pinboard a great way to store web pages that you would like to revisit when researching an article. Delicious and Pinboard are also popular bookmarking services — as well as allowing you to save webpages in the way you would in your brower's 'favourites', Delicious and Pinboard allow you to 'tag' bookmarks with keywords. This can be useful as you can tag them in relation to specific articles, or to areas of science that you are monitoring.

If you come across interesting articles but struggle to read them at the time, or would rather read them on a different device such as an e-book reader, Instapaper is great. It's one of my favourite ways of storing journal articles.

Storify also offers a good way to collate the information you are working on until you are ready to use it. You can drag and drop information from various sources into a timeline. You can do this simply for your own use while writing an article (like a form of outlining) and also for publication. This Storify timeline gives an idea of how it can work, and we'll talk more about publishing Storify timelines in the 'New ways of publishing' section.

Finding sources

Nothing beats a conversation with an expert source.

When it comes to finding and contacting sources, Twitter wins out. It is often easier to get a quick response from a scientist or organisation by sending them a Twitter message rather than an email. It is a good way to introduce yourself and let them know you are interested in their work. Topsy can also help you to find experts on a topic.

Typing on a keyboard

The rise of blogging tools mean that journalists have been set free from editors


The search function in Twitter is excellent, but for me it is more useful to combine the power of several tools to find the sources I need: I often use Facebook and Topsy expert search to find people, and then use Google to find their email addresses and phone numbers.

You can also use tweets to look for experts, and you may find that others retweet your requests so that you reach a much wider group of people than you would have otherwise. I wouldn't do this every time you need a contact though — you don't want to be seen as someone who does not know how to do their own research.

Skype, Google+ Hangouts, Google Voice and even Facebook offer good messaging systems that you can use to cut down the cost of contacting your sources. You can also record your Skype and other VOIP (voice over Internet protocol) calls using a voice recorder, some of which are free. Many, such as Evaer, cost less than US$20, and may offer free recording for short clips.

Skype links to voice recording apps via its shop, where you can read user reviews of app quality. 

New ways of publishing

A game changer for journalists is the blog, as it has given us a simple way to publish our own copy. Google Blogger and Wordpress are the easiest and most popular platforms. Africa Files is an example of a good mix of blogging and story writing. Others are Life in Optical and Uganda ScieGirl.

There is rarely much money in blogging, but you may find that you enjoy being free from editors — remember though that you have sole responsibility for fact-checking and considering libel issues.

When it comes to 'microblogging', Twitter rules once again. See this article by Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian newspaper, for his 15 reasons why journalists should use Twitter.

Twitter also provides a new role for journalists, as many people follow us because we can be 'curators' of content, directing readers towards the important news of the day and other information.  

This is also where tools such as Storify and Dipity come in — as well as using them in writing articles, you can also produce a Storify timeline using social media mentions and Dipity timelines of your material, essentially curating the content for your audience.

For example, Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science produced a wonderful Dipity timeline on reprogrammed stem cells, and here's a great example of a Storify post about the decision to build most of the Square Kilometre Array in South Africa.

SciDev.Net's twitterfeed on phone screen

Twitter can help you keep track of news, contact sources and curate content


Using audio, video and photos

You can also self-publish much more than written words now too. Smartphones have made recording voice and video, and taking photographs, much easier; you can use them to produce content that's more than good enough for your own blog. And news outlets are increasingly carrying such multimedia reporting, so you can offer them externally too.

Free tools include Soundcloud, for creating podcasts, and Audioboo, which makes recording and sharing soundclips much easier. There are also a number of free picture-editing tools: Instagram and Pixlr are just two of many. You can then embed these multimedia elements into web stories or blog posts.

Checking your facts

The web may have changed the way we do journalism, but fact-checking is just as important, and the old maxim of 'check everything, believe nothing' still applies.

A new tool for checking facts in Africa is Africa Check. This non-partisan fact-checking website is based at the journalism department of the University of the Witwatersrand and uses journalistic skills and crowd-sourced information to hold leaders to account by investigating specific claims. It also provides some great tips on how you can check the facts yourself in the stories you are working on. You might also find this list from the Journalist's Toolbox useful if you're looking for resources that will help you check facts.

A nice tool for checking whether images are genuine are the reverse search engines TinEye and PicSearch. They will tell you where uploaded images can be found on the web, to help you determine whether images floating around social media are what people say they are.

It's also important to remember that while digital tools have opened many doors, they may also compromise your personal safety, particularly if you are reporting on controversial topics. This guide from the media nongovernmental organisation Internews has tips to help protect yourself from 'digital eavesdroppers'.

So, this is what I use in my day-to-day work as a journalist, but I'm sure that I have missed out many great resources. I would be really interested to hear about other digital tools you find useful in your journalism.

Lynne Smit is a science journalist and communicator based in South Africa. She is also a mentor in the World Federation of Science Journalists SjCOOP (Science Journalism Cooperation) project.