Even with e-mail, Facebook, Twitter and other tools, phones are still the primary reporting tool for many journalists.
But with the exception of cell phones, reporting by phone today looks a lot like it did 20 years ago. And if the phones in your newsroom work anything like the ones in my newsroom, they can actually slow you down. Not having Caller ID and using voicemail boxes that make you listen to entire messages in order isn’t all that conducive to our work as journalists.
For that reason, many reporters choose to do most of their interviews by cell phone, but that comes with its own challenges. It’s not always comfortable taking notes while talking on a cell phone, and spotty reception can cause your call to drop out.
The new, free Google Voice service is a game changer for journalists. It gives you flexibility and control over who you talk to, and it can save you a lot of time. Google Voice is currently available by invitation only at google.com/voice. Product Manager Craig Walker said in a recent interview with me that if you request an invite today, the wait “shouldn’t be too long.”
To use Google Voice, you choose a new number that people will call to reach you. You can choose the area code, and Google even makes it easy to pick a number that includes your first name or other words, such as SCOOP or NEWS.
You then choose which phones you want to ring when someone calls that number. You can include cell phones, traditional landlines and VOIP numbers, and you can even set detailed rules about which phones you want to ring at certain times of day (i.e. have your office phone and work cell ring during the day).
You can organize your contacts into groups such as family, friends and sources, and then customize what happens when one person or group of people call you. For instance, if you want to make sure you never miss a call from the police chief, you can set all of your phones to ring when he calls. Or, if you can never get off the phone with a local gadfly, you can have his or her calls automatically go to voicemail.
Whenever someone who is not in your address book calls your Google Voice number for the first time, that person is asked to state his or her name, which is played for you when you pick up the phone.
Every time you answer a call you are presented with three options: answer the call, send it to voicemail, or listen in on the voicemail. Doing the latter lets you break into the message the caller is leaving to speak with them. When someone calls who is in your address book, a computerized voice announces his or her name when you pick up the phone.
This is a huge improvement for reporters like me who don’t have Caller ID on their work phones. Normally when I pick up my work phone, I have no idea if it’s a PR person trying to pitch me a technology product to review, a reader looking to rant about the digital TV transition, or a source I’ve been trying to reach.
When someone leaves a voicemail, it’s automatically transcribed as text, available to listen to online and sent to you as an e-mail. The transcription of words leaves a lot to be desired, but it does a good job getting phone numbers right. Being able to access voicemail messages from the Web saves a lot of time because you no longer have to call into your voicemail and sit through annoying prompts (“To listen to the message details push 1″). You can also e-mail voicemail messages, download them or embed them on your blog or Web site.
Since a record is kept online of every call placed and received, you don’t have to worry about callers hanging up without leaving a number or about losing important phone numbers or voicemail messages.
Many reporters use a digital recorder to capture phone interviews, but these generally only work with landlines. The batteries can run out quickly and the device’s hard-drive can fill up fast.
With Google Voice, you don’t need a digital recorder to save your calls. If a source calls you on your cell with a hot tip that you can’t write down because you’re driving or because the source is talking too fast, just press 4 and you’ll have a permanent record of the call that you can then access on the Web.
Since Florida and other states require both parties to consent to the recording, when you hit 4, both people hear a notification that the call is being recorded. After you hang up, a recording of the call appears in your online Google Voice account, which you can download, e-mail or embed on your site. Below, I’ve embedded a recording of a conversation I had with Steve Myers, Poynter Online’s news editor, about Google Voice.
When you record a call with Google Voice, I’d suggest noting the time of day at different points in your notes, or after key quotes. Since Google Voice shows you the date and time the recording began, you’ll easily be able to find important parts of the interview.
While recording calls is one of the best Google Voice features for journalists, it’s somewhat limited in its current form. You can only record calls you receive, which will hopefully change so you don’t have to tell a source to call you every time you want to record a call.
The recordings are not transcribed because doing so would put too much of a strain on the system, the company said. One important interview I recorded didn’t show up online until I asked my Google PR contact to look into the problem. The spokeswoman said a few other people have reported this issue and that when a user alerts Google, the company can manually restore the recording.
If you answer a Google Voice call on your cell phone as you are walking into your office, you can hit the star key, which allows you to switch a call to another phone, (i.e., your work phone), so you never have to tell callers “let me call you back on my landline.” You can only switch phones on calls you receive.
Google Voice can also be a great tool for readers to contact you because you can create an embeddable widget on your site that readers can click to place a call to you. They won’t see your phone number, and you can configure it so that they hear a special voicemail greeting and all their calls go to voicemail.
This could be useful if you were covering an election and wanted to have readers call in and report election fraud. Instead of giving out a regular phone number that you have to answer or retrieve voicemails from, you could embed a Google Voice widget and have the calls go straight to voicemail.
Then, if there are any interesting voicemails, you can download them, e-mail them to other reporters or embed them on your blog for other people to hear. When people click on the Google Voice widget on your blog to call you, they enter their phone number and name and then click to connect the call. Their phone then rings and connects them to you.
Calling overseas starts at about 2 cents a minute and can be done from any phone associated with your Google Voice account.
If you want to have a conference call, instead of having to set up a call-in number and access code, you can conference up to four callers together, provided that the phone you are using has call waiting.
How to use it
There are some barriers to using Google Voice, such as having to give people a new number (Google is working on number portability). Getting your Caller ID to show up when you call someone takes a little work, too. There are Google Voice apps for BlackBerries and Android phones, but iPhone owners are out of luck because there aren’t currently any Google Voice apps in the iPhone App Store. If you don’t have an app, you can get your Caller ID to show up by dialing into your Google Voice number to place the call, or by initiating it from your Google Voice account online.
I’ve started giving my Google Voice number out to sources that I want to make sure I talk to for stories. And while I don’t know if I will list it with my articles that run in the paper, I may list it in my e-mail signature.
Keep in mind that since the service is brand new, you will encounter some bugs. Getting used to all of its features takes some patience, but for mobile journalists who never want to miss a call, it’s a great tool.
Etan Horowitz is the technology columnist at the Orlando Sentinel. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/etanowitz.