30 invaluable free web tools for online journalists

The explosion of the web may have caught out newspapers and a lot of journalists, but early adopters have been able to thrive in an environment where one man’s threat is another’s opportunity.

Certainly the web has caused a lot of problems for media and journalists, but the tools to adapt to this changing market have been provided for us.

What’s more, the vast majority of the most important ones for bloggers, journalists, editors and even PRs and marketers are freely available, easy to use and – perhaps most importantly – free.

Some of these tools are suited to building traffic, some for measuring traffic, some for sharing or collecting information and others to add value to traditional content.

Some will suit you, others will not. A couple may even be irrelevant and I will make no claims for what they will do for your traffic, brand, revenues or social life.

Web journalism

But these are all tools that I use, in some cases vital tools, and if you accept the metaphor of modern journalist as media Swiss Army Knife you need to constantly develop your skills and make use of the largely free tools you have at your disposal.

There are, literally, thousands of them out there and it can be confusing as to which may be of help and which – in all likelihood – will not.

These are the tools and applications I find most useful and I’ve tried to keep the apps, and descriptions of them, fairly basic. There may be some obvious ones I miss out, which just means I haven’t got round to making use of them or I don’t consider them worth flagging up for starters.

There seems to be a lot of suspicion surrounding social media and Web 2.0 apps. All I have to say to that is this: They are tools. How, and whether, you use them is up to you.

The only criteria are that they’re predominantly free and they are basic, widely-available online tools or apps.

Anyway, without further ado here’s the selection. Dive in.

Twitter and related

Twitter is, to my mind, so important now for online media types that it’s got a category of its own.


The Web 2.0 Telegraph is the most fitting description I’ve seen of Twitter. Twitter is simply the platform of choice for important communicators interacting with one another: promoting links, sharing information, asking for help or shooting the breeze.

If you’ve built up good contacts in relevant fields on Twitter it’s the most important tool you will use.

• See: Twitter
• See also: Robin on Twitter


One picture is worth a thousand words, or 140 characters. Show Twitter followers what’s got your attention by connecting up your phone to Twitpic.

You can set up Twitpic so it directly and instantly feeds to Twitter, even old mobiles can do it.

• See: Twitpic
• See also: Robin on Twitpic


If you have multiple blogs and multiple Twitter personas you need to make sure the correct blogs are feeding to the correct Twitters. Doing it manually can be pain in the backside, so automating a feed to post to Twitter is worth investigating.

There’s some debate as to whether automated posting goes against the grain a bit on Twitter. As with anything, moderation and common sense are key.

If you’re using Twitterfeed you don’t want more than a couple of automated posts a day. A deluge of links will get you unfollowed. And Twitterfeed is no substitute for proper engagement on Twitter.

• See: Twitterfeed
• See also: Twitterfeed on Twitter


If you manage multiple accounts it’s simpler to manage them from the same place, rather than logging in and out and juggling usernames and passwords.

I initially used Tweetdeck but it’s awkward and buggy. Hootsuite is easier to use as it’s on a webpage; simpler; customisable; and has useful add-ons like stats, URL shortening and scheduled posting.

• See: Hootsuite


Essentially anointed by Twitter as the link-shortener of choice, Bit.ly is probably the best too. It will take your long link and make it into a 20-char link that won’t eat up your 140 chars in a tweet.

A simple interface and some basic metric-tracking and sharing tools are the cherries on the cake.

• See: Bit.ly


Looking a bit rough around the edges now but this is the tool I used to build a following on Twitter by finding people in similar places or with similar interests to me.

It’s always easier finding people who will reciprocate if you have something in common, an area where a lot of people trying to build a group of followers fall down.

• See: Twitterholic
• See also: Journalists on Twitterholic

Social bookmarking sites

Using social bookmarking sites simply to try and drive traffic can be fruitless and potentially damaging. All have unique communities and all are different, even if they don’t initially appear to be.

If you’re representing a brand you may want to think twice before submitting ill-fitting links to Digg, Reddit and Fark. If you’re not going to engage or observe how things work, don’t bother.

Also be aware that chasing traffic, as an end in itself, can be somewhat self-defeating. Choose your bookmarking carefully.


Using Digg to its maximum potential – in terms of traffic – takes time, effort and patience. As with Twitter, it’s about building a community and using that community to promote your links.

I think Digg has a fairly narrow band of opportunities for editors or journalists. Funny, techy or sporty stuff seems to do best as Digg users tend to use it to share distracting, fun stuff.

The obscene amounts of traffic The Onion and Cracked get from Digg seems to bear this out.

Occasionally I happen to write something I think will do well on Digg, and I make sure I write a header and description that will appeal to Diggers.

A well-placed story on Digg will send you hefty amounts of traffic, and it’s good for in-bound links too. Also bear in mind the reason it’s there – it’s fun.

• See: Digg


Of very little use for generating traffic in the way Digg and Reddit are, Delicious has probably grown into the most pure social bookmarking application.

It’s beautifully simple and, because it’s searchable, is a great repository for valuable information.

It tends to be used by people working in media, PR, programming and marketing so it’s a gold mine of peer-approved guides and information in these areas.

• See: Delicious


Not a million miles away from Digg, Reddit has an arguably broader focus and is easier to get into for newcomers.

Reddit’s community is not to be messed with however. Get a link submission wrong and you’ll know about it.

• See: Reddit


Digg on speed, or maybe acid. Fark consists of ‘not news’ chosen by a community and as such a very difficult tool to wield with any success.

In fairness Fark is not a tool at all, but can be used as such. Many international media have successfully harnessed Fark as a tool to drive vast amounts of traffic.

A story on the front page will deliver tens of thousands of hits over a very short space of time, which often leads to servers being ‘farked’ – brought down by the deluge of traffic.

A very good understanding of the community is required, and there’s a good opportunity to sharpen up your headline-writing skills. Only the very best stories and write-ups are greenlit, but the resulting traffic can be huge.

• See: Fark

RSS, alerts and readers

Tracking the websites that are important to you, and sharing your own content with readers is an important element of the online Swiss Army Knife.


I say Netvibes because it’s the one I use and I think it’s smart, but any reader or personalised home page will do – they’re essentially much of a muchness.

If you’re in media or PR you need to keep up with events on a daily basis. That means browsing potentially hundreds of feeds a day.

Grabbing an RSS feed and displaying it in your reader alongside 50 others is a lot easier than going to those individual sites.

Add-ons like widgets, increased sharing abilities and clever use of APIs from other apps like Facebook and Twitter means you can potentially browse, and interact with, all the relevant bits of the web from one page.

Most have a public setting too. As a result I have a public homepage on Netvibes that displays all my various online real estate around the web.

• See: Netvibes
• See also Robin’s public page on Netvibes


Takes your feeds and displays them in a newspaper format. A bit clunky, and there are a few similar tools out there, but handy if you get square eyes looking at a normal reader.

Can also be used as a promotional tool to round up your output on a regular basis.

• See: Tabbloid
• See also Tabbloid sample


Allows you to track and edit your RSS feeds, share links and embed ads in your feed. No earth-shattering, but provides far more control over RSS feeds.

• See: Feedburner

Google Docs

Put e-documents online, quickly, easily and – er – freely.

• See: Google Docs

Google Alerts

Track a developing story, stay abreast of any news concerning particular companies or trends or steal a march over others on breaking news relating to your chosen keywords.

• See: Google Alerts


Again. See above for details


There are a hundred ways to tell a story these days. Use images, videos and music to bring yours to life.


There are half a dozen good apps out there that will allow you to upload and share videos, but for simplicity’s sake I’ve gone with Youtube.

Youtube as a platform is only really as good as your videos, but as a tool it’s probably more versatile than you’d think.

Most obviously it provides some fantastic, free, embeddable multimedia content. If you can’t do something with that you’re probably in the wrong job.

Insight actually provides some useful metrics – the one measuring the attention span of watchers per video for one – while playlists, audio beds and annotations allow for some personalisation.

Add a customisable channel page and Youtube becomes a valuable tool in branding and hosting.

Live Stream and Vimeo may be more obvious, and going forward will come into their own, but for ‘quick and dirty’ Youtube is good enough for most.

• See: Youtube
• See also MotorTorque on Youtube


Please be aware of what Flickr is not – a free image bank. If you’re going to use Flickr to source images you need to have a thorough understanding of Creative Commons licences, and some form of contact with individual authors.

Also, Flickr is not a link-building tool. Any links are nofollowed and business accounts are frowned on.

With that in mind Flickr can be invaluable for finding good quality images to accompany articles and is also a pleasantly simple image storage and presentation tool.

Image sets can be presented as embedded slide-shows, which can be a great visual dimension to a story alongside a static image.

Flickr can also be used to create links within photographer communities and can be used to promote photographic work.

Again, its largely self-policed by one of the more righteous online communities, so ensure you know what you’re doing.

• See: Flickr
• See also Robin on Flickr


Essentially an online Photoshop but cheaper (free actually), faster and simpler. Great tool that’s good enough for most photo manipulation.

• See: Pixlr

MPEG Streamclip

Good tool for video file conversion and some very basic editing features. Plays virtually anything. Can also be very good at capturing online videos if that’s your thing.

• See: MPEG Streamclip


Weren’t expecting that one were you? But any new free app should be considered for the possibilities it provides.

A few brands have flirted with playlists, and I’ve done a couple of articles involving playlists to accompany articles.

There may not be a huge amount more scope than that, but Spotify is a free resource that offers free access to millions of tracks. Who saw that coming a couple of years ago?

• See: Spotify
• See also Crucial Three article on Liverpool Culture Blog

Morgue File

A good free image-bank site. The value of a good image to accompany an article can make all the difference. If you have access to a free image bank you’ve really no excuse. Remember to add a credit and check licenses though.

• See: Morgue File

Stock Xchng

Another great free image bank, with a premium level.

• See: Stock Xchng

Mash-up and added value apps

Add value to your content with embeddable mash-ups and media that complement your content.


Great for building timelines for events that can be embedded. Connect up RSS feeds to feed a topic or add manually.

The added value it can bring to a running story is not to be underestimated – it’s shiny and it’s useful, especially if you’re using your own content to build timelines.

• See: Dipity
• See: Dipity US car industry timeline

Google Maps

Google Maps should be subtitled ‘not just maps’. Any amount of mash-ups can be created with the API, but it’s just as easy to create interactive co-operative maps using the site itself. Also works well with Google Earth.

As with Dipity, you can add value to content and tell another dimension to a story. A no-brainer for travel reports and write-ups.

• See: Google Maps
• See: Half Map Half Biscuit

Cover It Live

The ability to cover an event live on a self-hosted platform can be invaluable. Cover It Live allows administrators to host guests, guide discussions and moderate reader comments.

While Twitter may be a more obvious platform for micro-blogging, Cover It Live can be embedded into a web page, customised and managed in terms of who can contribute. Images and video can also be embedded in the stream.

Again, it can add another dimension to traditional coverage and bring live events to life.

• See: Cover It Live

Xtra Normal

A tool that allows you to convert to text spoken by an animated character may be gimmicky, but it can be fun.

Any blogger worth their salt should be able to think of something at least funny to do with it.

If Xtra Normal had been around 20 years ago we could have had animated reports of Gerry Adams speaking to the UK via an animated avatar.

• See: Xtra Normal
• See: Worried about acid erosion? on AdTurds


Encourage user feedback and drive user-generated content with a poll – it can provide valuable insight or be used to drive original content itself.

Easy to configure and embed, you can stick it in the middle of an article one day and write a follow-up the next day based on the results.

• See: PollDaddy
• See also: Ten worst adverts of 2009 on AdTurds

Metrics, web editing and SEO

If you’re running a blog or website you want to be able to track its performance over a number of metrics. A basic understanding of SEO will benefit any journalist too.

Google Analytics

Or any decent analytics package that allows you to track, compare and dig down into various metrics.

Analytics will do all of that and more – you can’t seriously run a large website without something at least as powerful and detailed as Google’s statistics tool.

Analytics can be used at a very basic level for tracking your traffic and website performance, or can provide intricate details into what’s going on in the deepest reaches of your site if you drill down.

Makes a great pairing with Adsense.

• See: Google Analytics

Webmaster Tools

Webmaster Tools allow you to get your hands a little more dirty with the intricacies of web design and SEO.

If there are any obvious problems with the navigation and accessibility on your site, Webmaster Tools should flag them up, along with some SEO information on backlinks and keywords than may give you a different perspective on how your users – or search engines – view your site as opposed to how you view it.

• See: Webmaster Tools


Making money from a blog or website can be something of a double-edged sword. I don’t have Adsense on any of my personal blogs, but do use it on other sites.

Simply put Adsense offers the ability to make money from your blog or site with a few clicks.

Style your ads, decide on what keywords you want to include on your ads, settle on placements and Adsense will generate code for you. Stick the code in your blog, verify your account and watch the cash roll in.

Don’t expect vast sums unless you’re doing thousands of impressions a day, and bear in mind the downside of changing your blog to a money-making device.

• See: Adsense

Google Trends

Stuck for blog topics or want to research a trend? Google Trends is a good way to track what’s popular, although Twitter Trends can be used in much the same way.

Comparing two or three different terms can be instructive if writing about brands, TV programmes or pop bands.

Trends also pairs up well with Insight, an advances search facility currently in Beta, which allows you to drill down into search data over different periods of time or by region and country.

Both are probably of more use to marketers, but keyword searches and tracking can also be useful for giving a fresh perspective on an article, creating unique content, driving Adwords campaigns or simply finding out who is currently winning out of Doctor Who and Star Trek.

• See: Trends
• See also: Who is winning out of Doctor Who and Star Trek?

Website Grader

A good all-in-one tool that will grade your site against others in terms of traffic, search engine placements, page rank and a dozen other metrics.

Can provide a good introduction to basic SEO and an insight into what you may be doing correctly or incorrectly.

• See Website Grader


If you’ve not made the leap you’ll need a platform on which to host your blog or site. Make sure you pick a good one.


So far in front of other blogging platforms it’s not even funny. WordPress hosted or self-hosted is easy to figure out, has an interface so intuitive it’s almost beautiful, good support and a peerless range of plug-ins.

If you’re a journalist you need a blog. If you need a blog, use WordPress. That is all.

• See: WordPress


Ultra-simple blogging platform that makes the easy-to-use WordPress look like quantum mechanics.

Tumblr’s simplicity and efficiency is its greatest strength, so if you need something that works out of the box and don’t need the extra bells and whistles, look no further.

• See: Tumblr
• See also: Robin on Tumblr

Promoting yourself

Much as it pains me to say it, you need to be a brand these days, and that means at least providing people with the means to browse your skills and experience.

I use this blog to do that, but there are a couple of other tools around the web worth a look.


I’m not actively searching for freelance or seeking a new job, so I’ve not got much out of LinkedIn so far.

If and when I do I’ll no doubt investigate further as this is what everyone uses. I’m not clear how much business actually gets done on LinkedIn, but for now I’ve got a page on there with the basics on.

• See: LinkedIn
• See also: Robin on LinkedIn


Unsure about ReTaggr at the moment, but it does what it says on the tin – essentially an online business card.

• See: ReTaggr
• See also: Robin on ReTaggr

• Image by Noodlepie on Flickr via Creative Commons

NB. There are 38

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11 thoughts on “30 invaluable free web tools for online journalists

  1. Pingback: Robin Brown: 38 invaluable free web tools for online journalists | Journalism.co.uk Editors' Blog

  2. Pingback: Kataweb.it - Blog - Cablogrammi di Massimo Russo » Blog Archive » Giornalismo digitale, 30 strumenti gratis su web

  3. Robin

    Thanks for this, excellent tips and advice. Some things I already knew, but other things have given me some good ideas and thoughts on how I can develop my blog.

    Thanks again


  4. Pingback: news:rewired, 14 January 2010, City University, London » Blog Archive » Robin Brown’s 38 ‘invaluable free web tools for online journalists’

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