Best tools for investigative journalists – and some that are just useful for everyone.

The journalist needs more than a phone and a notepad. Luckily the internet has made our lives easier giving us investigation tools that take the legwork out of finding the story, Here are some of my favourite journalism tools that have helped me in my work.

Mr Michael Cobb

2021-03-10 7 min read

No journalist can do without a phone. Their introduction sped up the process of bringing in news and getting the story to the printers. But while the phone will be hard to replace as a tool the world has moved on from those old ones with the rotary dial that made a satisfying whir - clunk noise. The internet has turned speedy into lightning fast and added tools that every journalist should use.

There are tools to scrape data, tools to locate tweets and even tools to work out when a photo was taken. Whatever you might want to do, there is a way to do it and most of it for free.

Having used many of these tools in my job I thought I’d share a few of my favourites and those I’ve found the most useful. And no, sometime the two aren’t the same. I’ve included some of the better paid ones too to be a completist. Be warned though the paid ones are aimed at corporations and governments, so they would hit a freelancers pocket pretty hard.

The Basics

As a journalist we inevitably have to do two things. Interview someone and then turn that conversation into interesting copy. To do that its really helpful to have a way of recording your magnificent questioning techniques and then take the pain out of actually getting that onto the page.

There are various ways of recording things and we all have our preferences; our phone, a Dictaphone or even Window’s Game Bar or Apple’s Screen Capture functions. Transcribing it is a different matter.

This site is an easy to use, free, way of getting down the words you so delicately managed to get out the interviewee onto the page. It has easy to use controls allowing you to rewind, pause and skip everything at the tap of just one key and it does it all on the same screen, no flipping between word and the recording. There isn’t much more to say other than it will save you hours doing the most painful dull part of our job.

If you’re a freelancer then you can’t rely on the kindness of strangers. You need to pitch, pitch, pitch. Having an editor’s email is useful, and this is where Hunter.io comes in. Put in the URL of the company they work at and the site will pull up all the emails associated with the company. If it doesn’t find the email you want, it will suggest the email format of the company so you can make a good estimate for the person you are looking for.

If you’ve got so many stories on the go, a tool to keep them in order is essential, after all, no-one wants to tell their Editor they forgot about their story. You need a project management application and Asana is the easiest one I’ve used. Web and phone app based, Asana displays projects in definable lists and tracks you deadlines. The calendar is even set up so you can easily see when you might not have any work, every freelancer’s nightmare. But don’t worry the editor can even request work from you direct to Asana. If you’e that way inclined, Asana can even break down your workload into data to see when you have been busiest. That might help you plan when you can take a holiday. Be honest, that was the project you really wanted to manage.

This app sits in your browser and will analyse what you’re writing and suggest grammar corrections and stylistic changes when you’re posting to LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook or just writing an email. Grammarly works very like the grammar and spell checker on Microsoft’s Word but for almost anything web-based. It will save you looking like an amateur on pitches and blog posts. There is a paid version of Grammarly, but the free version works pretty well.

News gathering tools

Now you can write, spell, organise your stories and build a business, how do you find a story to pitch? A great way to start is listen to what other people are talking about. And social media is one of the best ways to hear those voices.

This makes all the voices shouting into the ether into people whispering just to you. This web only app, now owned by Twitter, allows users to organise the tweets they want to read by user, hashtag or pretty much any search method you want into handy, easy to read columns. Want to follow knife crime in South London or an Alt-right activists rants? You can put them into side-by-side columns right next to the latest news from your favourite yoga school. There is nothing complicated about the site, using simple drop down menus and a side bar to manage everything. You can even add your voice to the ether while using it. It’s the way twitter should have been from the start, and invaluable to journalists of every level.

If Tweetdeck is childs play, Dataminr is the bigger brother that can’t just tell you what he learned in school today, but where he learned it and the teacher’s address. The downside is it’s just not as usable as tweetdeck, but being fair it is mostly though because it is incredibly powerful. Unlike Tweetdeck it uses an algorithm to search for search terms and send you alerts related to them. It can also deliver a lot of information about the original tweeter, like what they usually tweet, how often they tweet, and even where in the world they normally tweet from. And that is just scraping the surface. Used properly Dataminr is a little scary in some ways, but very good for finding breaking stories, check if they are fake news and most importantly back up your pitch. It really isn’t cheap though, but worth it if you can afford it.

I love this app. You will too, if you can afford it. There are a lot of sites that suggest Echosec as a tool but conveniently miss out that it’s a little on the expensive side. Once you have it though Echosec is simple to use, just draw a circle around an area you’re interested in and it will show you a lot, if not all, of the social media activity there. Dataminr has this facility too but its version is less user friendly and doesn’t cover as many social media apps. Use Echosec and all of its features fully and it reveals a lot about the users it captures letting you sort the fake news from the breaking news. Echosec is great for getting deeper into the international stories as well as the local stories. During lockdown it can also let you cover your beat without leaving your house.

Investigative tools

For me there is nothing as exciting as finding the basics of a story and uncovering something that turns the interesting story into the fascinating one that can make a real difference. Investigative journalism doesn’t need to mean flying to exotic locations and digging through files, nice though that would be, a lot of the time everything you need is online.

If you do go down the route of investigative journalism, it may be a good idea to have a look at what online and phone security measures you have taken. One of the aspects of the ‘net that people forget is that, often, if you can see them they can see you. If you don’t want to leave a trail or just want to feel safer while looking up some of the more interesting corners of the internet check out what this site has to say. The people who put the site together really know their stuff.

Archive.org is an ambitious project to archive every website it has around 500 billion saved pages. Yes, 500 billion. This means that if you want to find an article, web page or image that the person or company you’re investigating has since deleted, going to Archive.org and its Wayback Machine means that there is every chance that you will be able to find it. There are obviously some sites that don’t get captured very often, or can be captured at all but what is there is pretty comprehensive though and nothing is deleted. Its free, but maybe give them a donation. It is worth it.

Way Back Machine's capture of one of Amazon's first pages

If you ever wanted to know where you’ve seen that picture before or are just a bit suspicious that the profile picture you’ve been sent is real then a reverse image search is the tool to use and Yandex is the best. A lot of sites recommend TinEye, but TinEye tends to search copyrighted images mainly, which means it tends to get limited results if what you’re looking for is a bit more along the lines of stalkery guys on the internet or, less fun, a terrorist standing in a field somewhere. Yandex is a Russian site and finds pretty much every version of the image you’ve looked for. It has excellent face recognition abilities and can spot an altered image pretty well, both much better than Google’s reverse image search. Yandex is Russia’s version of google, so some searches return in Cyrillic, but that’s a really small problem considering how good it is as finding images.

So you’ve found your image on Tweetdeck, you’ve checked it’s real on Yandex, but other than being a pretty picture to act as a banner to your article what does it tell you? Even without metadata it can tell you where it was taken, when it was taken and even what time of the day. The where might take a bit of investigation, but that’s why you became a journalist right? Once you know, SunCalc is one of the best tools to tell you when. It takes a bit of practise at first but playing with the site’s date and location settings to match that with the image’s shadows and you can find out when a photo was taken with quite amazing accuracy.

There are a lot of mapping sites that allow you to create interactive elements and find out all sorts of demographic and geographic information through the use of layers. ArcGIS is the best of these hands down, but sometimes you just need a map and Wikimapia is the most useful of the free ones. Wikimapia is an interactive mapping site like Google maps where people have tagged secret military sites and other sites that Google decided not to tag. Or just their garden shed.

I know, its an obvious one, but the obvious ones are often the easiest ones to forget. The site delivers information on the directors of companies, the company’s registered address and by default, who those directors are associated with. It may not tell you who the ultimate owner of a company is but the chances are the name on that site has some relationship to the person who does. Even if they are just a legal clerk in a London office it’s a start, and you are an investigator remember.

There are so many tools out there and even finding them is an experience in itself. Bellingcat are the masters of investigative journalism and their website has many interesting pointers and tips. I’m also here to help so message me on if you have any questions or suggestions.

Mike Cobb

Mike Cobb Copywriter

Cobb Communications Ltd.

Vat registered: 372 6181 91

South Woodford- London - United Kingdom - E18