Friday, January 13, 2012

Discovering the power of Google Voice

After some beneficial training from our colleagues in Journal Register Company, reporter Katie Nowak Roberts and I were given the task of using Google Voice to produce a crowd-sourced digital project on a local topic. After some initial trial and error, Katie's project became a huge success, gathering a whopping 170 responses.

Her final project - located here - has now been listened to nearly 160 times in just two days.

Who should fill the vacant Rensselaer County Legislature seats? by katieroberts

To illustrate how this happened and what she believed the benefits were, I asked Katie to write a few paragraphs on her experience. I encourage you to read what she wrote below and consider getting to know Google Voice as one of the most valuable tools in a digital journalist's arsenal.

Here's what Katie had to say:
"For my first Google Voice project, I asked our readers to share their New Year’s resolutions for 2012.
 I received zero responses.
 Dejected, I asked readers on Twitter for suggestions of other topics I could use that would perhaps get me the results I was looking for.
 Again, I received zero responses.
 Thanks to the quick thinking of our Digital Specialist, Tom Caprood, I was presented with perhaps the most perfect topic of them all: who people wanted to fill two vacant seats on the county legislature. There had been a lot of discussion and rumors floating around about who would get the jobs after former Democratic legislators Lou Rosamilia and Peter Ryan left those posts to become mayor and deputy mayor of the City of Troy, respectively. And it seemed almost inevitable that former mayor Harry Tutunjian would get one of the slots. (He did.) This seemed to be something people were passionate about, so I dutifully recorded my message on my Google Voice account and waited for messages.
 Almost immediately after we pushed out the question on Twitter, Facebook and our website, the calls started coming in, sparse at first, and then within minutes, sometimes seconds, of each other. By the end of the first day, I had 40 messages. By the time my Sunday deadline rolled around, I had 170.

The response was overwhelming to say the least. Of course, not all of the messages were useable, or worthwhile – I got some blank messages, some repeat calls from people unsure if their last attempt worked, and a couple pocket dials. One of the latter came from a group of people who, unbeknownst to them, could be heard plotting to call me back from different phones, using different voices, to cast their vote for a former City Council candidate to take the seat, presumably to make it appear as though he had the support of the entire community, not just a handful of scheming friends with little else to do. Then they did call me back – and though not from different numbers, they did use slightly altered voices, an unnecessarily strenuous effort I had to applaud. Another of said supporters called me two times in a row, obviously drunk, singing the person’s name. The project certainly had some hilarious moments, to say the least.
 Overall, the project helped shed some light on what people in the community were thinking, which is a valuable resource no matter what subject a reporter is tackling. Knowing what people are talking about, what makes them hopeful or irate or ambivalent, is beyond helpful when writing, if only to have some background to work with when staring at a blank page. Though I don’t think my project is perfect, and am confident that my editing skills and audio-selecting abilities will get better with time, I was proud of what I produced.
 Going forward, I think any political story we tell would do well to involve a Google Voice component in some capacity, whether it’s focusing on an election or political appointment, the passage of a controversial bill or law or localizing a national story. I think crime stories would also make a natural backdrop for a project, since families and communities on both sides of court cases and emergency occurrences are so emotionally invested in the topic, emotion that envelopes all our readers. When I was covering the Joseph McElheny murder trial last fall, I couldn’t believe how many people commented on my stories and replied to my tweets. I wonder how many more and varied responses I could have received had I also suggested people call my Google Voice account to talk about it.
 Collecting responses to scenarios like those above would also be a great opportunity for finding additional story ideas. With the pulse of the people (and their dial tones) at our fingertips, the possibilities are truly endless."

My own first project was done on whether people were in support of a new McDonald's in a highly-trafficked section of Troy. While I received only 10 responses, I was still very pleased with how the project came out and the potential for using this tool in the future. Click here to view my final project.

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