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Archive for May, 2010

QOTD: The future does not fit in the containers of the past

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

“The future does not fit in the containers of the past.”
— Rishad Tobaccowala

I came across this quote recently, and it seemed to make a lot of sense in the context of journalism. So I wanted to pass it on to my readers. I see its meaning similar to one of my other favorite quotes, which I posted awhile back:

“In times of profound change, the learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”
— Eric Hoffer

Reporter tip: Keep your cell phone number, use Google Voice to get a local one

Monday, May 10th, 2010

I briefly mentioned in my post on Saturday that I use Google Voice as a cell phone number for local sources to call. I realized I’ve never written about this great tip for reporters who’ve moved far from home but don’t want to give up their old phone numbers. I use it sort of like a forwarding e-mail address or a redirected domain.

Step 1: Get an invite.

I joined Google Voice in July 2009. I got my invite from Google a few weeks after after signing up on Google’s site. Users have a small number of invites also. So look around.

Step 2: Pick a new, local number.

I was able to scan through a catalog of numbers in Lafayette’s 765 area code. You can even search for words or, as I ended up doing, sequences of numbers. I picked 729 and chose the first option where those were the last three digits. My birthday is July 29, so it’s insignificant to anyone else but it was cool to me that I had some say in the number, so I wanted to take advantage of it.

Step 3: Forward calls to your real number.

You can forward calls to pretty much any number. I chose to send it to my cell phone, which has an Akron, Ohio, 330 area code. You can even send your calls to multiple phones to be answered on the first to pick up. I opted not to do this because at my office, we pick up other peoples’ ringing phone when they’re out of the office and take a message. But if you have your own office or other people don’t answer your desk phone, that may be an option for you.

Step 4: Customize your experience, preferences, etc.

You’ll want to set up your voicemail box at a minimum. But also look around at the preferences (e.g. do you want it to answer immediately, answer and give you a menu, etc.) and set those that work for you. For example, I set it up so my voicemails and SMS texts are e-mailed to me. This way it doesn’t use my phone’s texting plan and it transcribes my voicemail, so I don’t have to listen to them immediately or sometimes at all. (Note: Sometimes the transcription is humorously bad. Usually, I can at least tell who it is, though, and always I can go in and listen if needed.)

Step 5: Start disseminating your new number.

You could send it out as a mass note to your local sources. Or just start giving it out instead of your old number. You don’t need to explain Google Voice to anyone. Just start telling them, as I did, if you want to reach me on my cell phone call 765-xxx-x729. Eventually, they’ll start calling that. In addition to all the cool points above, the nice thing here is people no longer have to call an out-of-area-code number. It’s local, and local for those landline-lovers (and businesses with landlines) means the call is free.

Bonus: Get the Google Voice app.

Or at the least check out the nice mobile site. The app allows you to make calls that show up from your Google Voice number, without having to dial into Google Voice. With the Android app, it actually asks me at the start of every call whether I want to call from Google Voice or not. It also stores all those other messages in one place (though I’ve found it’s somewhat overkill to have e-mails of your sms/voicemails if you have the app).

The other cool thing about this service is if you move to another news organization in another community in the future, you can change your Google Voice number. It’s $10, but honestly, $10 seems a reasonable price to pay to keep your contacts, settings, etc. all tied together but front a new number.

So anyway, there are lots of other ways to use Google Voice, but this is how I use it. Any one else have some tips I missed?

‘If your mother says she loves you, check it out’

Sunday, May 9th, 2010

First, this post has nothing to do with my mom (whom I love and who definitely loves me). But I thought it’d be a good time to post on the topic of fact-checking since it is Mother’s Day and all.

So, raise your hand if you were told this phrase in j-school: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

The basic gist, in case you missed that lesson, is no matter how much you trust someone, don’t just take their word for it. Verify the information.

About a week and a half ago, this ingrained fact-checking mantra stumbled on something that seemed incomprehensible to me. That’s where my story begins:

A local school district called a press conference in the days leading up to a tax referendum vote. The point of the event was to tout several recent awards/recognitions for their students and schools. I was already aware of most of the items announced. The only thing that seemed newsworthy to me was their pronouncement that BusinessWeek had named them, for a second year, the top academic school in the state. I sent my editor a note from the press conference telling him that was the upshot of the event. I was going to post it on Twitter as well, but I decided since it wasn’t breaking news I would wait to get back to the office to find the link online to share. So I talked to a few students, board members, superintendent, etc. and then went back to the office expecting to spit out a quick story.

But when I went to the BusinessWeek site, there was nothing promoted about the “recent announcement.” That seemed strange. I tried searching the site for the award and could only pull up the 2009 rankings. I tried Googling it — with all my Google-fu skills — and tried looking for it on the Great Schools site, because Great Schools had partnered with BW in 2009. Nada.

I tried to call the editors at the magazine. It was already 4:30 p.m., so I wasn’t sure I’d reach anyone. After being forwarded through several people, I ended up leaving a voicemail for an education reporter there. She called me back about an hour later and said she hadn’t heard anything about the project being repeated this year. However, she wasn’t involved the prior year, so she suggested I contact the projects editor. I left him a voicemail and e-mail.

Meanwhile, I e-mailed the superintendent to ask if he had any documentation. I also e-mailed the Education Writers Association listserv to see if anyone else had heard about the announcement. I assumed other reporters would be working on similar stories about their own local schools. But no one else on the very active list replied, which is unusual. The superintendent replied with a link to the 2009 rankings, which while not specifically dated on that story page, were linked to a story from 2009. The format of the URL also indicated to me the page was posted in January 2009. I pointed that out to him and asked how he heard about the award this year. We talked on the phone and he said he was going back to his office to try and find the e-mail he received a few weeks ago, which he would forward to me — and to the night editor because I had to leave soon.

It occurred to me maybe this was a print exclusive story or a package with a delayed online posting. I didn’t have access to a print copy of BusinessWeek at the office. And I didn’t have time to go to the library a few blocks away, but I did call their reference desk where a not-as-helpful-as-he-could-be clerk told me it wasn’t in this issue.

At this point, I needed to file something, but I couldn’t confirm the entire point of the story. I had been working since about 9 a.m. that morning, and I was scheduled to start at 6:30 p.m. that night at my part-time job. I wrote a story with all the information I had at that point, contact info for people I’d been reaching out to and told the night editor I’d forward the note from the superintendent when I got it on my phone. But when the note came in, it was really vague and not at all clear. My editors made the right decision to hold the story a day, even if it meant TV ran with the story and our news would be a little older than the press conference.

Long story short, it turns out this award wasn’t re-issued. The pages haven’t been updated. But between the still unexplainable e-mail the district officials received and the lack of a date stamped on the page, confusion had arisen that made them assume this was a new recognition. I found this out definitively the next day when I was able to reach the magazine projects editor. The story that ran in our paper ended up being the superintendent’s mea culpa for claiming a recognition that didn’t happen. As I pointed out, the district is still the top-ranked school in Indiana, but it hasn’t been recognized a second time.

So, here’s the lesson:

If they had just mentioned it to me and hadn’t called a press conference attended by several dozen community members, I probably would have just let it go and pointed out the mistake. It might have been mentioned on my beat blog, but just as likely not. I went into the story looking to validate not disprove the information. It hadn’t occurred to me until I was on the phone with the magazine reporter that the information could possibly be wrong. I just assumed I couldn’t find it. Instead, both I and the district got a lesson in the importance of fact checking and were able to set the record straight about what I believe was an honest mistake. (The TV station seemed to completely ignore this information, but then, their as-yet-uncorrected story was wrong to begin with because they said it was “Business Weekly” offering the honor.)

The other lesson in this is probably lost on BusinessWeek and other news entities, but I want to point it out anyway. Although there’s value in “evergreen” features, there’s also a real chance of danger in keeping something up too long and especially in not time/date-stamping it. Not everyone is as Web savvy as I am, and following the trail on this story it was very easy to see how someone would have misinterpreted the pages and information. It could get recrawled by Google and come across as fresh news, as has happened before. Or at the least, it could lead to confusion or blunders, such as the one I wrote about.

Why I didn’t buy an iPhone (I got the HTC Droid Incredible instead)

Saturday, May 8th, 2010

When the first iPhone came out, I wasn’t tempted to purchase it because its price was too rich for my blood (or rather my underpaid, young reporter checkbook). I settled for a BlackBerry Pearl instead and stuck with T-mobile.

When subsequent upgrades were released, I found other reasons not to take the plunge. Its network sucked, especially in my office where I always had full bars on T-mobile. I didn’t like the idea of a virtual keyboard. It was still too expensive. Even when the price of the handset with a new contract plunged, the substantial monthly cost was a deciding factor.

In particular, the cost factor was hard to swallow not because of the upfront handset cost but because the network I was on gave me unlimited monthly calling for >$50 and unlimited data for $20. With texting and taxes, my monthly bill came out around $81. It was still a lot of money to fork out monthly for a girl with plenty of debt to pay back (thanks college). But it was, and remains, the cheapest smartphone deal out there from a major carrier.

Last month, as my more than two years old BlackBerry started malfunctioning and its battery life depreciated significantly, I knew purchasing my next phone was a decision I couldn’t put off. For more than a year, I had been talking about the need to upgrade and visiting cell phone stores to check out the latest, greatest phones. I haven’t been under contract in more than two years, so that was never a factor. I knew I had to buy a new smart phone because I used mine constantly for my work and play; honestly, once you go there, you can’t go back. It also had to look nice and include a few key items:

  • a network that worked well in the places I spend my time most, including my cave-like office and the rural areas that surround my city,

  • the ability to use Google Voice (which I use to set up a local cell number for sources to call me back),
  • the ability to take decent quality photos,
  • the ability to work with my gmail and my work e-mail on IMAP,
  • the ability to install apps ranging from Twitter to Google maps, and
  • the ability to use more than one of these programs at the same time.

Those were minimums, and they were minimums based on my most-used programs and functions from my existing phone. I also wanted to add to that, in a non-dealbreaker category, the ability to take video and watch it on the Web, a handset that wasn’t bulky and that looked nice and one that would allow for some strong personalization.

I truly thought about buying the iPhone. For the most part, it does what I want it to do. I like Apple products. I own an iPod nano. I’m writing this on my MacBook. And I use a Mac at work as well.

However, one thing about all the hype that really concerned me: I’ve never had anyone recommend AT&T to me, not for their coverage, costs or customer service.

The other thing that bothered me equally as much was the App Store-approved requirements. My boyfriend develops computer software for a living. He hasn’t created apps or anything. But it still annoyed me that Apple denies legitimate applications from being offered for its phone. It’s not that they won’t place it in the store because they have that right. Bricks and mortar stores make decisions every day to offer or not offer products. But in the real world, if you can’t find something you want at Best Buy, they don’t stop you from getting it somewhere else. Apple does that by closing off its handset to anyone without their stamp of approval. I don’t think they have the users best interest in mind (protecting them from malware, etc.) but instead their own bottom line and seemingly random acceptable interests.

Still, neither of those were complete deal breakers. After all, every phone/network has limitations. But they did mean I wasn’t going to be an Apple fanboy and pony up my hard-earned cash without looking around.

I initially thought I would stay on T-mobile. They have by far the best prices per month for smart phones. Their customer service has always been great. Their network has served me not imperfectly but well enough since 2004, when I moved off my parents Verizon family plan and onto my own plan. They also have a lot of smart phones to choose from, including Google’s Nexus One. The downside to sticking with them, however, was for existing customers even with upgrade pricing their phones are not competitively priced. What motivation do you have to stick with your company when they want to charge you $200 for a two-year contract but you can get a comparable phone/contract for practically free on another network? However, the Nexus One was the most competitive iPhone competitor. And after handling one that belonged to someone I met at a recent tweetup, I was ready to go for it. But then I looked into the pricing. As an existing customer, I had to pay almost $100 more for the phone upfront, and I also had to switch to a much much less favorable phone plan than my existing one.

The same person who let me handle his Nexus One recommended, if I could, that I wait to see the HTC Droid Incredible when it came out the next week. (The previous strangers’ powers of persuasion were helped a lot by knowing he was graduating soon and going on to develop mobile phones for a major company.) I started researching that phone, and from the specs it sounded better than I hoped for.

However, when I ran out the cost of ownership of the Incredible on Verizon against the cost of the iPhone on AT&T, they came out dead even. (This was before I realized I could get a corporate discount, but even with that the costs would be about the same.) So I was faced with the dilemma: Who wouldn’t want an iPhone? It’s a culture icon and status symbol. And if I’m going to pay that much anyway, why not?!

But then, I looked back at what I wanted and my reservations.

I previously had used Verizon when I was in high school and early college. I was never anywhere I didn’t have reception. My mom is also on Verizon, which would make calls home fall outside my minutes. I also know, on the flipside, many people with AT&T who get spotty at best reception in the newsroom, so it was a concern. In short, the Verizon network won in that battle.

After poring over specs and reviews of the Incredible, I decided I needed to handle it. I had some concerns about it, including notably the back cover design was sort of ugly and the lack of keyboard (something missing from all of my finalists, actually). So I went to the Verizon store on Monday and asked to use one of their models without strings. It felt light in my hands and fit comfortably. The keyboard, even on my first use of the phone, was responsive and accurate. And, wow, the phone was fast. It flies through tasks and bumps from one thing to another without hesitating. Its camera has a surprising number of features close at hand. Its internet browser was speedy, displayed full pages and even handled some flash.

I was sold.

Then the sales rep asked if I was interested in buying two — for the price of one, after mail-in rebate. I’d initially thought I’d buy the phone online from one of the stores selling it for $150. But two for $200 was a better deal. So I got the details and went home to talk to my boyfriend (who is also exploring an upgrade to an Android phone from a very low-tech phone that’s currently connected to his parents family plan). A family plan, we realized as we ran out the figures, would be cheaper to split than an individual plan, and that wasn’t even factoring in the 21-percent corporate discount I got for being a Gannett employee. We decided to go with that. On Wednesday, I went back to the store, signed up for a new contract. I was told the phones were (understandably) on back order because they had just been released and to expect them by May 12. It was no big deal. So it was a pleasant surprise when I got the phones from FedEx the next day: A week sooner than I’d prepared myself for.

My new phone

I plugged the phone in overnight. Then, I ported my number over (I plan to keep my 330 cell number forever if I can) and spent Friday morning downloading all the applications I need and want, setting up my e-mail accounts and linking my phone to my other networks (the social media aspects are so intertwined in the phone system it’s remarkable) and playing with it. The calls I took on it all came across good, except one cell phone call I took from a source who was on their cell phone in Florida, so I don’t know if it was her phone or mine that was degrading slightly. It was fun to use, very easy to get going and ridiculously quick.

One of my iPhone-toting bosses had jibed me over Twitter: “@meranduh is there an app that turns your phone into an iPhone?” To which I replied, “I’d rather have an app that turns your network into Verizon.”

Even so, It didn’t hit me until about 11 p.m. last night how certain I was of my purchase. I was on the phone chatting with my boyfriend on speaker phone, playing a LabPixies game, searching for phone accessories on the Web (using my home wifi network on the phone) and then an e-mail came in that I was able to switch to and check. I was doing all of that all at once when it hit me: You can’t do that with an iPhone. The upcoming iPhone4G might change the field, but it wouldn’t eliminate some of previously stated hesitations. I know I’m still in the honeymoon period with my new phone, but for right now, I’m loving it. I’d definitely recommend checking it out.