Before the internet, most beats in journalism embodied the phrase "it's not what you know, it's who you know". The best reporters were the best connected, picking up tips and stories from insider sources before anyone else.
This is still true. But there are also a lot of online tools and resources which can help reporters keep on top of their beat, especially when the range of stories and information available around the world is so much more accessible. Finding them is the key.
Here we present a list of platforms that journalists can use to keep an eye on their specific area of interest more effectively and efficiently. It is by no means definitive or exhaustive so if you have any recommendations please feel free to add them in the comments section below.
But before we begin, a word to the wise from Storyful's Joe Galvin, speaking to Journalism.co.uk for a podcast earlier in the year.
"My general principle is that the more things you go to to monitor, the less useful they start to become," he said, "so I would always argue to try to keep it as limited as possible.
"If you're hopping from one website to the next, to the next, to the next, then you're really starting to lose what you set out to achieve in the first place – of just speed and efficiency. I generally keep it to five or six platforms or sites, keep it focussed. Find out what works for you."
If all of these tools and more are relevant and effective then great, but Galvin's advice is worth remembering in terms of finding the most useful tools for your needs. Now, let's get started.
We all know Twitter has become one of the most important tools for journalists, in picking up on important issues and finding sources close to breaking news events.
But what shortcuts exist to keep an eye on the 500 million plus tweets that are sent each day?
Twitter lists should be the first stop, allowing you to group chosen accounts and follow their updates, even if you don't follow the accounts themselves. Picking out some key influencers or other journalists in your beat and subscribing to their lists is highly recommended as well.
Once you know what lists you want to follow, grouping them in Tweetdeck is a must, organising Twitter feeds into columns. As well as the lists, you can keep an eye on your own accounts, mentions and messages, and more importantly, search for keywords around your beat.
Screenshot from Tweetdeck showing different columns
As we discussed in a recent screencast, there are a number of more advanced search tips to help narrow the scope of your keyword searches and get more accurate results.
So if you were covering the recent Labour annual party conference you could search for '#lab14 OR Labour'. If you wanted tweets with questions, including a question mark would do the trick: '#lab14 OR Labour AND ?'.
If you want to look for positive or negative attitudes you can add :) or :( symbols to the search, in the same place as the question mark.
Looking for a certain geographic area? For wider conference information search for 'Manchester OR (near:"Manchester, England" within:10mi)'. Adding other words to the chain will work up to a degree, as long as the search isn't overloaded.
So just in case life imitates art, as in the disastrous Labour conference from satirical TV show 'The Thick Of It', it may be worth searching for:
'(fight OR nose) AND (#lab14 OR Labour) AND (Manchester OR near:"Manchester, England" within:10mi)'
So far, no such luck.
While Facebook might not hold as much sway among journalists for breaking news as Twitter, it boasts over one billion users so is still a worthwhile source of information.
Facebook's 'interest lists' function in much the same way as Twitter lists, allowing users to organise accounts into a customised news feed.
Click the "add interests..." tab at the bottom of the left-hand side bar and choose from a selection of lists made by others or build your own.
You don't need to 'like' a page to add it to a list but individual people need to have enabled the 'follow' function to be a viable addition.
If you can't find a page but you know it exists you may have to search for its unique Facebook ID, usually found at the end of the page's web address in the URL bar in your browser.
Screenshot of a search in Facebook's Graph Search
'Graph search' is another handy function from Facebook for finding people or images. Technically more of a search tool than a monitoring tool, we'll include it here anyway because it's so useful.
Facebook has a full blog post introducing graph search but some key searches to remember are "recent photos taken in [location]" or "people who work at [business]", both of which could help you quickly turn up pictures or sources in breaking news situations.
Introduced back in 1999, RSS feeds are the great-grandaddy of newsfeeds in internet terms, but are still vital in keeping up to date with the variety of sources out there.
A personal favourite is Feedly, where you can search for feeds and blogs by URL, title or topic and then organise them into categories around certain subjects.Information overload is always something you have to avoidRobin Wauters, Tech.eu
Look for the small orange RSS symbol on any web page, like a wifi symbol on its side, and get the code to add to your preferred RSS reader.
No symbol? No bother. The handy Chrome plug-in Page2RSS will convert any web page into an RSS feed.
Robin Wauters, founding editor of Tech.eu, advised journalists using RSS to categorise the different feeds properly to make the most of them.
"It's our job to monitor that stuff on a daily basis or even an hourly basis," he said. "If you mix in a lot of different sources that tend to post very frequently and some personal stuff then it can quickly get very overwhelming.
"Information overload is always something you have to avoid and RSS is ideal for that as it makes it easy to get overwhelmed."
Organising around post frequency, geography or type of source will often help here, he said, such as bloggers or official channels and agencies.
Most national agencies or organisations that collect and distribute large amounts of data offer an RSS feed for different sections for when new datasets are published.
In the UK, Data.gov.uk and the Office for National Statistics are two such organisations.
If RSS is the great-grandaddy of newsfeeds then email is cavorting around in dress shirts and stockings, but it is still the foundation for an online identity and digital communication.
In terms of automated monitoring services for email there are two free options which stand out.
Is It Updated? and ChangeDetection both send automated emails whenever a web page or URL is changed, useful for council websites or other official channels which may not have RSS feeds.
Ping.it is an alert system that bypasses the need to know where the source of information is, as with RSS, and instead searches the web for keywords, returning relevant stories.
The key to Ping.it is the ability to refine the search by creating 'probes' with a number of keywords, blocking other words, blocking domains, looking for recent stories and more.
Screengrab from Ping.it
Ping.it started life as an RSS Reader but the creators have taken the concept further, adding context and suggesting other sources.
Since 2010, social newswire Storyful has been offering journalists and newsrooms access to their thousands of lists, sources and verified multimedia.
As a paid-for service it is more for newsrooms than individual journalists, but the new interface launched at the start of September allows users to pick out different beats, regions or stories and monitor the social media activity around that.
Screengrab from Storyful's newswire service
The Storyful editorial team populates the lists from verified and trusted accounts, and has its own array of back-end software to find out when news stories break, who the most reliable sources are and whether a post is accurate or not.
While we're on the subject, Storyful has a free browser plug-in called Multisearch for finding social media posts, pictures, and videos around specific keywords.
Banjo and Geofeedia
The free iOS and Android app Banjo and powerful paid-for platform Geofeedia both offer journalists the ability to monitor social media by location rather than around specific beats, using the geo-tagged meta data inherent to may networks.
As well as monitoring specific areas to show what is trending or looking for spikes in activity (in a similar way to Storyful), these tools can help you find images or video around stories that may be useful.
At Trinity Mirror Regionals, head of social media Gayle Tomlinson has been encouraging newsrooms to use Geofeedia for breaking news.
"Manchester Evening News use it if there's been a fire," she told Journalism.co.uk, "going in and seeing what people are saying to verify it is happening but also to get comment as well.
"It's a fantastic tool and there's probably lots of other ways to use it as well which we might not have thought of yet," she said.
Although Reddit can occasionally harbour some of the darker citizens of the internet, as a community and source of stories it is rich in information.
Subreddits, areas of the site around specific topics, can range from the mainstream to the bizarre.
At Storyful, Galvin keeps an eye on a range of subreddits, like /r/syriancivilwar and /r/ukraineconflict, to find new information or sources in his beat.
"We find those very useful to find out what's trending in a specific area," he said, "what videos are making people talk.
"So Reddit is something we use quite regularly. A lot of the content thrown up by Reddit is more viral-related rather than news-related but some of the groups have been very effective in alerting us to specific content related to specific stories, particularly the Syrian and Ukraine groups. So I use Reddit quite a lot."
If This Then That
When used correctly If This Then That (IFTTT) is a powerful tool for connecting different platforms and social networks that, to a degree, can do a lot of the jobs of the previous tools mentioned here.
Remarkably simple in concept, IFTTT connects different feeds or channels – RSS, SMS, Twitter, Facebook, Gmail, Google Drive, Flickr, Soundcloud, Dropbox, to name a few – allowing the user to set up custom alerts.
If you really, really need those updates directly you can set up SMS alerts for RSS feeds, say around natural disasters. Or receive an email for when a subreddit is updated. Or have Instagram photos tagged around a specific topic added to a Google Doc.
There are thousands of IFTTT 'recipes' already available to use but have a look through the 130 channels and see if you can create a new recipe specific to your needs.
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