Eleven tools for working smarter

I’m not really an app person, but I’m loyal to a few things that work well. Here are 11 tools that help me as a journalist.

For better reading:

1. Pocket for iPhone. I use this to save links. It’s fast, free and straightforward.

2. IFTTT. (“If this, then that.”) This is a little tool for setting up cause-and-effect relationships on the Internet. I used to check some websites every day — things like government meeting agendas and court rulings. Now IFTT sends me an email whenever those pages are updated. I followed this blog post by Colin Schimmelfing to set up my IFTTT recipe.

3. Circa for iPhone. Come for the beautiful design, stay for the solid news judgment.

4. OneTab for Google Chrome. For when your browser has been overtaken by a thousand and one feral Internet tabs. You will, of course, get around to reading them all someday.

5. Feedly. The way to follow RSS feeds after the demise of Google Reader (rest in peace).

For better reporting:

6. AudioNote. If I could, I would hire my own personal intern just to transcribe interviews for me. Short of that, my current favorite app for recording interviews and meetings is AudioNote. You can take notes while recording (for example, to make note of an important quote). Then, during playback, tap any word in the notes to return to that part of the audio file. This saves transcription time.

7. Gmail’s Canned Responses.
For when you find yourself sending the same type of email over and over. Save your fingers some typing.

8. Evernote and/or Google Drive.

9. Open States (website or iPhone app).
Keep tabs on what’s happening in state government, track bills and find legislators. Built by Sunlight Foundation.

For better writing:

10. Any online timer. Sure, this isn’t rocket science, but it’s a lifesaver on deadline. If I’m really desperate, I’ll go to Write or Die and set it on Kamikaze Mode. That usually does the trick.

11. Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 5. Not all writing tools are electronic.

There, now you know my secrets. Use them responsibly.

Update 2.5.15: I’m a bit giddy to see that journalismtools.io recently asked 30 journalism experts about this same topic. Check out their responses.


A writing coach without a red pen

“Writing is learned by imitation; we all need models,” William Zinsser once wrote. He has been one of mine.

Like many writers, I claim Zinsser’s classic On Writing Well as the first book about writing that captured my heart and imagination. I picked it up at the recommendation of a high school English teacher, and Zinsser taught me how to rinse my writing of clutter and make it shine.

This weekend, The New York Times profiled Zinsser, now a 90-year-old man with glaucoma who is still helping writers with their craft. He cannot read the words on the page, so he listens to them read aloud:

“Much that I no longer see,” he says, “I don’t have to see.”

I love what the Times writer shows us about Zinsser, gracious and wise. I hope that when I am 90, I still care about words the way he does:

People come to him in stages of typed-out paralysis, stalled, uncertain whether they have written too much or too little. He tries to help them organize their thoughts by condensing, reducing — learning what not to include.

“By talking to them, by finding out who they are, I bring out their own personality,” he says. “And ease their mind, for God’s sake.”

The whole article is worth reading. When you’ve finished, pick up On Writing Well for the first or hundredth time.

Vermont in 1961: Quaint, stubborn and Republican

If you’ve known me for more than say, a few days, you know that I’m quite proud of my home state of Vermont. My parents shipped me maple syrup in care packages during college. I own a Vermont-shaped cookie cutter, and I use it.  My roommate a couple of years ago was born and raised in Texas, and we had a kind of ongoing state-pride showdown.

I recently found this 1961 issue of The Saturday Evening Post at a thrift shop in Alexandria, Va., and you might guess why I bought it.

Sandwiched between a fiction piece called “Too Many Suitors” (“She had a tough time deciding among three. And now there were four.” —  !) and a feature on an electronic telephone switchboard (“automatically transfers calls anywhere”!), I found “Vermont: Last Stand of the Yankees.” Here’s the lede:

“Like a Puritan beset by the temptations of the flesh, Vermont is painfully examining its own soul in a struggle to decide whether being the last of the Yankee states is worth the sacrifice it entails. The alternative is to give up on its independent ways, an emotional wrench to a generation weaned on the dill-pickle philosophy of a distinguished native, the late Calvin Coolidge.”

The article describes the state’s sometimes uneasy shift from a farming and agricultural economy as it opened more to tourism, ski resort development and employers like IBM. It’s a time capsule from the year when — according to the writer — Vermont’s human population had just barely surpassed its dairy cow population. The state’s portion of the Interstate Highway System had just begun to be constructed, and Vermonters were weighing its implications to their way of life.

The politics were different in 1961, too — Vermont had elected Republican governors and supported Republican presidential candidates in every election since the 1850s. The Post writer adds an important caveat:

“Since the state votes Republican 99.9 per cent of the time, this has made it the mistaken darling of a good many right-wing outsiders, who equate fiscal with political conservatism. The state’s politics in fact are liberal, tending on radical.”

This was just before the influx of newcomers from out of state in the 1960s and 1970s, as the New York Times’ Nate Silver recounts in a blog post about Vermont’s political leanings. Today, of course, Vermont leans strongly to the left in presidential elections.

The Saturday Evening Post writer is clearly enchanted by the state, noting with pleasure that Vermonters could approach the governor on the streets of Montpelier to ask about milk prices, for example. And his love for the Vermont landscape — and adjectives to describe it — seem inexhaustible:

“For indeed Vermont is charming, a Yankee Glocca Morra compounded of green meadows, forested hills and craggy mountains with villages nestling beneath them. The state is laced with shadowy valleys into which new generations of explorers are constantly advancing with happy cries of discovery….

“[The Northeast Kingdom] is a land that time forgot and the colonials shunned, with dense spruce forests, gleaming lakes like those of Minnesota, and tiny villages with no pretense at neatness and no money to make it possible.”

But my favorite passage in this article might be the section about the village of Derby Line, at the U.S.-Canada border:

“Derby Line and Rock Island, Quebec, are one long village street. The Canadian side is indistinguishable from the American. The customhouses sit back from the road, and many an innocent tourist has shot through, only to be whistled down. The Rotary Club for both towns is in Rock Island; the fire department in Derby Line. The international boundary runs through half a dozen houses and the barbershop, where customers wait on the American side and are shaven and shorn on the Canadian side.”

The laxness at the Canadian border, by the way, began to change after Sept. 11; the New York Times published an article about increasing border security in Derby Line in 2007.

This is the kind of thing I read in my spare time, and it was certainly worth $2 at the thrift shop. I’m looking forward to returning to the Burlington area next week — which, for all its franchise stores, outlet malls and traffic, has managed to retain some of the independent heart and country charm that makes this 1961 article feel so familiar. I’m homeward bound!

Better know the District, part 3

We’re accelerating into spring here — slowly, after a few false starts. Here’s what D.C. has looked like from my perspective during the last dregs of winter:


Near Benning Road NE


Union Market, Northeast DC


Recycled water bottle chandelier in Union Market.


A foretaste of spring at Union Market.

Mar31Capitol view from L’Enfant Plaza.

Peace Fellowship Church in Northeast D.C.

The Bumper Jacksons, a ragtime-jazz-folk band, performing at the Our City Film Festival.

The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on Palm Sunday.

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The Frederick Douglass house, Anacostia.

Anacostia — I just liked these garage doors.

Rooftop view at sunset on Captiol Hill. 

Better know the District, part 2


National Baptist Memorial Church and  All Souls Church, 16th Street NW

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A barber shop east of the Anacostia River.

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All the doors are different here.

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View from a Metro station.

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Yard art in Capitol Hill.


I guess this is where all those inauguration tote bags and sweatshirts end up. Florida Avenue NE. 


Long tunnels make me grateful for functioning Metro escalators.


St. Mary Mother of God Church (built in 1890), Chinatown.


Ai Weiwei exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Hirshorn Museum.


Dupont Circle — but these signs have been changed all over the city. I hope they stay that way.

Related: See my first Better know the District post.

Better know the District

I am learning to love this beautiful, powerful, lonely place. Here are a few glimpses of my first month in Washington, DC:

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Crossing into the National Mall on Inauguration Day.

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I walk as much as I can; these old, beautiful row houses are their own entertainment.

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Jazz at HR-57 on H Street. Our late-night snack from the bar: waffles and nutella.

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Rush Hour at Union Station. But really, most hours seem to be rush hours in DC.

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Mayor Vincent Gray speaks at a media event to launch the new 1776 startup accelerator campus in downtown DC.

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Freedom Plaza.

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St. Monica and St. James Episcopal Church.

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The ordered chaos of Capitol Hill Books.

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A church on River Road NW.

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Capitol Hill, at peace.

(Note: I stole the title of this post, of course, from The Colbert Report‘s “Better Know a District” series.)

New Forbes.com post: Redefining hospitality

Child psychologist David Anderson couldn’t sleep. He was haunted by stories—stories of child abuse and neglect that he’d heard from children at a Chicago hospital, and stories of parents who couldn’t find anyone to take care of their children when their families were going through crisis situations, including illness, unemployment, drug or alcohol rehabilitation, or incarceration.

Later, when Anderson was working as the director of a child welfare organization in Chicago, mothers came to him and asked him to take care of their kids. He couldn’t help them, except to refer them to government agencies in cases of abuse, and even then, he knew that families had a low chance of being reunited after children entered foster care.

The welfare system designed to intervene wasn’t doing enough, and families were falling through the cracks.

“I remember losing sleep and just thinking, there’s got to be a different way,” said Anderson. “The way the system is set up is that the state can’t intervene unless something bad has happened. … Why in the world don’t we figure out how do we support that parent so that nothing happens?”

Read more in my new Forbes.com post, “Can Churches Do What Government Can’t?”

I wrote this post for Ashoka, a social entrepreneurship organization that took me on as a communication intern last summer. It was fun to return to the Forbes blog with a new story to tell.

This post was originally a 2,500-word article that I wrote for a creative writing class, and there’s much more to the story that I wasn’t able to include in the blog. I intentionally sought out David Anderson — and his organization Safe Families for Children — because I wanted to see what it looked like when a social entrepreneur is motivated by his or her faith.

Anderson runs his program through churches around the country and the world, but the influence of his Christian faith runs deeper than the logistical level. He and I talked a lot about rediscovering biblical hospitality, which he says defines the church’s role in society. Instead of merely giving charitably, Anderson wants Christians to “make room” in their lives and homes for children.


You can find more of my work, including more Forbes.com blog posts like this, on my Work and Recognition page.

I’d also encourage you to read more from Ashoka’s blog, which always posts interesting content about social entrepreneurship.