Once novelty, now necessity: Journalism alumni share their favorite technology and apps that got them through the pandemic

 Headshots of UConn Journalism alumni
UConn Journalism alumni tell us about the tech that helped them get through the pandemic. On the left, Eric Ferreri and Zac Boyer; center, Purbita Saha; on the right, Jeremy Kohler and Grant Welker.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought out new forms of resilience in journalists. While the world retreated to houses and apartments, public life closed, and traditional ways of finding people disappeared, reporters found that technology provided a crucial line of communication to sources and coworkers. It made the difference between getting work done and not getting it done, in many cases.We asked UConn Journalism alumni and faculty to name their favorite app, program, or technological gadget that allowed them to keep working through the pandemic. The answers range from methods to do reporting to methods that save or transmit documents and data.

Prof. Maureen Croteau, the outgoing department chair, said her favorite tool is Scanner Pro, a scanning app that allows sending documents electronically. What once might have seemed like an alternative method of sending something evolved into a necessity during the pandemic.

For Grant Welker ’06, a projects reporter for the Boston Business Journal, the technology he could not do without was Google Sheets. “Especially as a business reporter and particularly during the pandemic, there have been lots of cases of coming across huge spreadsheets that needed to be quickly combed for data or simplified and cleaned up for use with a story,” he said.

He learned how to use Google Sheets from a class taught through the New England First Amendment Coalition. A few weeks ago, Welker said he “relatively very quickly went through a national database to find more than 2,500 restaurants in Massachusetts that received federal pandemic aid.” He had done a similar exercise in his previous job at the Worcester Business Journal in a series that covered Paycheck Protection Program loans and grants in Central Massachusetts, and an earlier story tracking prescription opioids.

Pandemic or no pandemic, 2008 graduate Zac Boyer, NFL editor at The Athletic, said his favorite technology has always been his digital recorder—his Sony, not his smart phone. “Call me old-fashioned,” Boyer said. “I just don’t think it’s professional enough.” He added, “Having the ability to convey what someone says accurately is a pillar of our industry, and there’s no better way to do that than with a tape recorder. That may be basic, but I’ve found that allows me to have a better conversation with a subject or a source than it would if I was just jotting down notes that I might get wrong, too.”

Zoom, Microsoft Teams, scanning apps, Google Sheets, Blue Yeti Microphone and Otter.ai transcription software, were among the favorite tools of UConn Journalism alumni and faculty during the pandemic.

With newsrooms and studios closed everywhere, journalists’ homes became recording studios for podcasts and interviews. Purbita Saha ’12, a senior editor at Popular Science, said her favorite tool during the pandemic was hardware. “Popular Science gave me a Blue Yeti Mic before the pandemic for occasional guest spots on our podcast, ‘The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week.’ But now with the microphone, I can turn my drafty apartment into a makeshift audio studio for podcast recording, Zoom webinars, social media, and more.”

Saha said her web cam is terrible but her voice always sounds good for interviewing and connecting with colleagues and online readers.

Reporters have for more than a century relied on telephone calls, but apps that allow calls over computers may have truly come into their own in 2020 and 2021. ProPublica reporter Jeremy Kohler, who graduated in 1994, said iOS TapeACall and Otter.ai, a transcription app, “have been life changing. Being able to quickly transcribe interviews, news conferences and livestreams, has been a huge timesaver and has allowed me to get great quotes, relying less on notes and memory.”

Kohler believes that when he can record interviews, that frees him to do do a better job interviewing. “Worrying less about note taking lets you use all of your brain to ask better questions and control the flow of the interview,” he said. “I’m not sure how I survived this long without them.

Associate Professor Scott Wallace, who reports on indigenous people in South America, said he too puts a phone app first on his list of crucial technology. “This probably sounds kind of antiquated,” Wallace said, “but I’d say without a doubt that for my current project in Brazil, I am using WhatsApp more than anything else.” He said that groups in Brazil keep track of indigenous and environmental issues in Brazil using WhatsApp. “I use it to communicate with Brazilian contacts quickly by text, audio messaging or voice calls.”

Connecticut freelance journalist Jamiah Bennett ‘20, author of a recent piece about the first Black anchor in Connecticut, said she relies the most on her laptop computer. It might seem to go without saying, but imagine living through a pandemic without this basic piece of equipment.  “In terms of technology, I rely on my cell phone and laptop the most. On my phone, I use Instagram, Facebook, and Spotify the most,” Bennett said. “On my laptop, I rely on Google Chrome the most. My favorite piece of technology is my laptop.”

Eric Ferreri, who graduated in 1995, said Zoom for virtual meetings and Microsoft Teams for sharing documents were “crucial” in his work as senior writer for Duke University Communications. Those two programs “became everyday tools to communicate with my team from afar. Zoom isn’t flawless, but it’s easy to learn and use. Teams can be overwhelming because it does so much, so you use it for what you need.”

Ferreri added that he became hooked to the apps that allow ordering food online and picking it up without interacting with anyone.

Reported and written by Christine Woodside, Visiting Assistant Professor in Residence.

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