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Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Now blogging at 10,000 words, but still keeping tabs here

Saturday, March 12th, 2011

When I started Meranda Writes, I wasn’t sure what it was. That is to say, what I wanted it to be and how to make it that. My early posts discussed everything from car trouble to job hunting. Over time, however, this site became pretty focused on journalism and my personal experiences and opinions. This worked really well when there were few other young reporters blogging about the same things. Today, everybody is (including several I helped encourage to start). Where once I felt like my voice represented an under-represented segment of the industry, today, it feels drowned out.

Beyond the proliferation of similar blogs, Twitter has also done much to eliminate the need to post the shorter posts or to debate in a more stream-of-consciousness method the questions or concerns I have about developments or pass along links others would be interested in reading. There were weeks in the first year or so of this site where I posted nearly daily, sometimes multiple times in a day. I had a lot to say and no other platform. But thanks to the myriad other connections I have with journalists today, including through Twitter, much of the steady posts I used to write are supplanted by 140-character tweets these days.

Finally, because I’m in a very different reporting and editing role today, my experiences are less relevant to the general journalism population. I’d love to talk about how I use Access and databases to find story trends and sources for my magazine articles, but nobody else has access to that proprietary information. That isn’t to say there aren’t some really interesting tricks of the trade and experiences I’ve gained, because there definitely are. Seeing the industry from a different niche in it has made me appreciate some things I didn’t notice before, and it’s also made me miss some things I underestimated. Eventually, I’ll write about some of these things.

For now, however, Meranda Writes has gotten to the point where I post sporadically. So I’ve been looking for a way to get back into the groove and have a reason to keep my head and heart in new media and journalism trends. That’s why I jumped at the opportunity to join an already established and respected site: 10,000 Words. As a contributor, not only will I get paid to write things I’ve been writing about for free here (although a modest amount that will likely cause more of a tax headache than any upward blip in my income), but I’ll also have a reason to keep writing because I’ve committed to at least a few posts each week.

My first two posts are already up:

I’m always accepting tips for blog posts you’d like to see me explore: meranda@merandawrites.com

I’ll still blog here from time to time — probably as often as I have been in the past year or so — but for more regular updates follow @10000words, and for my in-between musings, follow @meranduh.

A new camera needs a new project

Thursday, December 23rd, 2010

So, I haven’t updated. In a really long time. It’s not that I’ve been busy, because, I’ve been working far more normal hours than I ever did at the newspaper. It’s that, I haven’t had my pulse on the news biz. I don’t know what my place is right now. So I’m not sure what to say. I’m still writing and editing on a daily basis. Yes, I’m still reporting and talking to strangers daily, but in a far different and slower way. For the first time since I started college, I’m not out reporting in the field every day.

I’ve been thinking about what that means and how I feel about it. The truth? I miss it a bit. Maybe a lot. (I’m still healing, I think, from the years of breakneck speed as a cub reporter.) But I really like my new job and company, and I love the balance and stability it’s given my life. But I keep thinking, surely, there must be fun and interesting things I can do to get back some of the things I liked about that beat reporting role. I’m creative and outgoing and enterprising. I just haven’t been able to decide where I want to productively expend my after-work hours energy. However, I’ve had an inkling it should be something that allows me to keep two feet in digital media, because although its never been the primary role of my day job, it’s always been and going to be a passion of mine.

So, today, I got the kick in the butt I think I need to start formulating something that will keep me in both places. Otherwise, I’ll have a quite expensive paperweight hanging around my apartment.

Each year, my company collects the swag companies send along and holds a raffle/trivia competition on the half-day of work on Christmas Eve. (This year, everyone gets Christmas Eve and the half-day before Christmas Eve off to make-up for a weekend Christmas. That’s why this event happened today instead of tomorrow.) Well, at the event today, the top prizes included a Nintendo Wii, an iPad, and a Flip HD video camera. I wasn’t expecting to take home anything — because I suck at trivia and because my luck is never good. BUT, they drew my name for the Flip. So I’m the new proud owner of a 16GB Flip Slide HD video camera. (I should put a few exclamation points there, because I’m super excited about this! So !!)

Many of you probably already own a Flip, I know. But I don’t didn’t. I’ve ogled them and toyed with them and envied you all for having them. I’ve thought, that would be really sweet to own one. But I’ve never been able to justify paying $150-$250 for a device (it’s $199 on Amazon) that does one thing, and something that is a function already included on multiple other devices that I already own. I am a young journalist after all, and that’s a fair chunk of change that I could put to better use buying food or paying off student loans.

Also, I’m in the business of consolidating my technology to a single piece I carry daily — not adding. In my home office now, I have a digital camera (that records video), a USB audio recorder and an iPod Nano — none of which I’ve used in more than a month. (I haven’t used the audio recorder since I left the newspaper, and I haven’t used the digital camera since spring, when I realized my phone’s camera was more than adequate for snapshots.) I consolidated those former daily carry-on items into a single cell phone that fits in my pocket and decently does everything those single-function pieces can.

But here’s the thing: If I were going to deliberately record audio for a slideshow, I would go to the audio recorder to get the best quality. If I wanted to take a picture to blow up to a large size or to use in a specific situation, I’d go to my digital camera. And when I’m taking a road trip or (if I were inclined to go for) a run, I’d grab the iPod for a more in-depth soundtrack than I carry on my phone, where music competes with photos, audio and apps for space.

So, I’ve got this new camera. I wouldn’t have paid for it, but I’m super super excited to have it. And I don’t want it to be wasted on me. I consider it serendipitous. Now, I just need to think of a project that will allow it to shine and give me a reason to learn, use and carry it. I’m also hoping it will help me hone my video editing skills, which have grown rusty.

YOUR TURN: So, what’s your favorite video project done by an independent person? It can be journalism-related or not. I don’t see myself as much of a talk-show type of person, nor an artsy filmmaker. But I’m thinking something where I can showcase the place I live or places I visit and the people and animals I encounter. I have the other tools/skills needed: I recently purchased a new external harddrive, I know how to tell a story and what makes a good story, and I’m handy enough to build a new website or video channel to showcase my work. I just need to figure out what I want to capture and why.

I’m off work now until after the new year (did I mention how fabulous it is to not work newspaper hours/holidays?!). So I’ll be spending the next 10 days thinking about and formulating a use for this camera. Otherwise, I may as well list it on eBay today. I’m going to give it some time, though.

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?

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.

Why I’m going to give Google Buzz time

Thursday, February 11th, 2010

While I’ve been busy covering millions of dollars in budget cuts this week, otherwise known as doing my day job, the Internet has been abuzz itself, over Google Buzz. (Apologies for the pun.)

I haven’t had time to thoroughly check it out, but most of the posts from my network so far have gone something like this: “I am so uninterested in Google Buzz. I ALREADY HAVE TWITTER.” (That was my friend Kate’s buzz, which spurred a conversation that in turn has spurred this blog post.)

One of our mutual friends, Ben, replied to Kate’s post questioning the purpose of “making a crappy version of something that already exists.”

That is a valid point, but only to an extent. And I think it overlooks something that is fundamental not only on the Internet but in the world, at least the capitalistic system that governs most of the world we live in. That is, if you weren’t constantly improving on something that’s already been invented, then we’d all still be riding around in Model T’s. We’d have no cell phones. We’d have no iPhone or any iPhone competitors. That isn’t to say all these inventions were crappy revisions (obviously they weren’t), but it probably depends who you ask and on which features you measure.

And to bring it back more precisely to the Internet, as I did in my reply to Ben:

Ben by your same logic, however, the world wouldn’t have Facebook. Think about it, there was already MySpace for connecting with your friends. Or continue that logic to pre-MySpace… we’d all still be stuck on Friendster. Also, they’d never have invented GMail, because Yahoo and Microsoft beat them to the free Web mail game.

I don’t think this is a crappy version of Twitter. I don’t think Buzz is a game changer, not yet. But it has potential to do things that other social networks don’t, with the added benefit that it’s built into much of your existing network. Give it some time to grow. Everything is always hyped up or shouted down when first introduced. I still don’t “get” Google Wave. It’s stupid to me. But I’m testing it to see what it becomes. I did the same with Twitter and Facebook, which I stuck with, and plenty of other things that I didn’t.

I am probably much more early adopter than the majority of Web users. That’s why I was on Twitter 2.5 years before my company started seriously talking about social media (i.e. now). That’s why I’ve at least tested the waters of everything from FriendFeed to Tumblr to Four Square to Google Wave to Yelp to … a multitude of other lesser known sites. I don’t use those sites on a regular basis, but I have a presence there and know how they work and why they don’t work for me.

Part of being on the Internet, especially in an industry like media where the Internet and its tools are so vital, is learning to evolve with it. You can’t evolve if you dismiss every new potential tool as stupid because it does something some other product already does in a different (or even similar) way. If it’s a worthwhile tool, people will migrate toward it (e.g. MySpace to Facebook exodus) or the other tool will evolve itself to better compete (e.g. Yahoo Mail today is better than it was before GMail, though still not as good in my opinion).

So, yes, I think the buzz about Buzz is a bit much until we see how useful it actually proves to be. (Sorry that’s the second pun!) And yes, there are some valid concerns:

  • Do I really want my e-mail network to suddenly become my social network, particularly when there’s danger that my social circle and work circle don’t — and shouldn’t — overlap?
  • Do I want my flooded inbox gushing with trivial status updates from that collective network? (I already fixed this.)
  • Given my limited time in a day, how many social networks can I realistically engage in meaningfully? Does the world really need Buzz, or are we all stretched enough on existing sites?
  • How much of my online life am I truly willing to cede to Google, as it moves increasingly toward becoming Googlezon?

But I’m going to be playing around with it and at least giving it a spin to see if it really is worthy. Right now, I’ve already identified several things I like and several I don’t. But I could say just as much of any Web site, including Twitter and Facebook. So my verdict for now is it has potential. And that alone means it’s worth serious consideration.

Who really loses in a News Corp./Bing deal?

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

I’m not a business person. That’s obvious. But I’ve read recently about how News Corp./Rubert Murdoch are in talks with Microsoft to have the new Bing search engine be its sole way of searching for content from the Wall Street Journal etc. Here’s the most recent Business Week article for a summary.

What’s so silly about this arrangement is I doubt it will hurt Google. But it’s almost certain to be bad for the WSJ.

Here’s my non-MBA-holding thought that seems to be overlooked: Most people who find news through Google are looking not for news from a certain outlet but for news on a certain event/topic. If I knew which outlet I wanted to read already, I would go to that Web site directly. Instead, I’m surveying the field of all or most possible news stories to decide which to glance at and how deeply I want to drink on that topic.

Partnering with a lesser-used search engine is only going to remove News Corp. holdings from the well of stories I might otherwise read. It’s not going to get me to switch to a new search platform just so I can read those stories. Sorry.

I think if, as the business week article mentions, more news companies formed alliances this might be harder to stand my ground. Certainly my survey would be less complete. But it would be kind of like the old XM vs. Sirius debate. (Only a Microsoft/Google merger is, um, not gonna happen.) You want to listen to something on both but you have to pick one or choose both, which would be inefficient. I don’t think I’d search for “explosion & Indiana” in both engines, for example. And I’m pretty well set in my ways using Google. Its dominance in the search marketplace tells me I’m far from alone. Therefore, I think it’d hurt the news providers switching to Bing more than it’d hurt or help either search engine. One bonus, however, is it would help other news outlets rank higher on Google with one of the biggest papers out of the way.

A list of 100+ education reporters on Twitter

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009

For months, I’ve had in mind finding all my education reporter peers across the country on Twitter. I decided this afternoon it was time to finally put together what I’ve gathered and to see how many more I could find. What follows is a somewhat comprehensive list of education reporters on Twitter. I say somewhat because there are a few exceptions:

  • Anyone who hasn’t updated in 2009. For all I know they’ve been laid off/fired/quit/changed beats/etc. and abandoned the Twitter account. Who wants to follow someone who hasn’t updated in seven-plus months anyway?
  • Anyone with protected updates. I can’t tell when the last update was. Besides, it’s obviously a private feed not about advancing their work if they’re not letting the world see. That’s fine, but not really useful to this purpose.
  • Anyone who doesn’t state they are an education reporter in their bio. In some cases, I know the person so I included them anyway. But mostly, there really isn’t a good way to find someone who doesn’t put this in the bio short of cross-referencing staff lists with Twitter, which isn’t worth my time.
  • Also excluded were group/organization Twitter accounts and those for an agency not a news organization.

It sounds like a lot of exclusions, but they didn’t add up to many of the ones I actually was able to find.

Aside from suggestions by my own followers, I compiled this list largely by scanning the search results on site:twitter.com “education reporter”. I have updated this list to include individuals who identified themselves as belonging here.

So what is the purpose of spending several hours on my day off putting this together? Honestly, it was kind of selfish. I think it’s interesting to see what other peers on this beat are covering. In many cases, we’re writing about the same things. We struggle with the same FOIA-ignorant officials and try to wrap our heads around similarly incomprehensible state test data. And I figured extending my own network to include more of those folks could help me with ideas, trends to look into, and just some camaraderie.

Oh yeah, and I was curious how these people were managing their Twitter feeds and whether I shouldn’t modify my own tack. (For those who don’t follow me @meranduh, I tend to veer from posting about mundane or insightful thoughts on current stories/meetings/topics to the strange things I see on the streets of Lafayette to pictures of my nephew to details of my mundane days.) Unsurprisingly, there was wide variance in how reporters handled their Twitter account. Some were just an RSS feed or a list of links. Some didn’t include a single education-related post. Some had few posts of any type. Some included lots of links to their sites, and some offered none. All of them used real names, if not in the username (which many did) then in the name field. Most identified their news organization, but many left off the URL or their own site’s link. Many were like mine, a mix of the biz and life. Others were clearly representing their company as part of the overall brand. I even came across one that had both a personal and business Twitter account. The takeaway? There’s no right way to Tweet your beat, but there are lots of different ways to do so.

One more unrelated trend I noticed: We all stink at coming up with original beat blog names. Every one linked from a Twitter profile (my own included) is some cliche/pun on something school related. Not that it matters, but it amused me.

OK, so behind the cut is a location-based list of the 120+ education reporters I found on Twitter. (I realize the link still says 90, but so many people had already linked it, I changed the title but not the link.) Location is by state/country, and then it’s alphabetical by username. Also, if the user didn’t provide a link to a resume/site/employer, I tried to provide a link to the organization where he or she works. Finally, if I added other details to fill out a lacking profile, I italicized that change.

If I missed you or your education reporter, send me a message @meranduh and let me know.