Twelve new tools for a reporter’s hectic life

Bob Ortega

Robert OrtegaHere’s a brief roundup of new (and new-ish) Internet-based communication tools that are likely to be useful to any reporter – or, at the very least, worth fooling around with. For the first few, I’m indebted to Shawn Smith’s New Media Bytes. Smith writes about online journalism, blogging and new media, and is well worth checking out.

Flip emails to your phone allows you to have (short) emails forwarded to your phone as text messages, as well as to send a text message from your computer to any cell phone in Canada. (Those who receive the messages do have to pay their carrier’s standard text-messaging fees, if any.) While Teleflip’s website states that they’ve ended public beta-testing of this service,  they continue to make it available.  Of course, most cell-phone providers offer Internet email and browsing capability; but this free service offers a quicker way to send a text message when you’re at your keyboard.

The program is exceptionally simple to use: Just type (using the actual area code and number) in the address line  (or in the forwarding line) of any email. Keep the subject and message to no more than 160 characters.  Hit send, and you’re off.  I’ve tried it with Hotmail and Yahoo, and Teleflip says it works with any email program.

Fax through email

There are at least 25 different companies that now provide you the ability to send and receive faxes through email. Many of these will provide you with a local-area-code telephone number (or, for a fee, a toll-free number) that you can give to people; the faxes then show up in your email inbox. While all of these providers charge a monthly fee (typically $10 to $15) to use their service on an ongoing basis, several, including eFax, MyFax, RingCentral and Rapid Fax (among others) offer a free 30-day trial for which you can sign up online instantly – which can be very useful if you’re on the road and desperately need to have a document faxed directly to your laptop as a PDF file. Just make sure you cancel before the fees start, if you decide you don’t want to keep using the service right away. Also, most of these companies limit the number of free pages you can send or receive; so check the terms of service if you’re getting more than 20 or 30 pages faxed to you. FaxCompare offers a side-by-side comparison of the details, terms, etc., of the various fax plans.

Turn your cell phone into a scanner

There are also at least four competing services that now offer free ways to convert cell-phone photos of documents or images directly into readable, taggable PDF documents – in effect, more-or-less, turning your phone or digital camera into a mobile scanner.  Take a picture of a document, article, whiteboard, your own notes, etc., and you can convert and send it through these services to yourself or anyone else. Qipit and Scanr both offer free online accounts, and convert the images on their own servers before sending them to your email.  Snapter requires you to download software, because it does the image processing on your computer. It offers a free 14-day trial; after that, while the software still works, Snapter places a watermark and tagline on all images unless you buy a license for $20. Be aware that sending these files through your cell phone can run up your charges, as one file can run a megabyte or more. Comombo, an alternative service, converts and compresses the image files directly on your phone before transmission, reducing the volume of data sent (and the size of your bill) considerably. 

Turn voicemail messages into text

SpinVox offers another service that may be handy, at a price. It uses voice-recognition software (and human transcribers) to convert voice-mail messages into text files that it sends to your inbox or as a text-message to your phone, among other options. (If you opt for SMS messages, each one has a maximum of 160 characters; longer voicemails will be broken up into up to three SMS messages.)  Obviously, this saves having to transcribe phone numbers or directions from a voice-mail. The British comedian and tech-geek Stephen Fry says on his blog:

“What is so magical and satisfying about the whole process is how astonishingly good the SpinVox engine is at rendering into accurate, grammatical, punctuated text even the most slurred, heavily accented or rapid-fire speech…. I have found it spot-on when transliterating phrases like “I’ve sent a message to their centre where they’re collected. Its accuracy is great, it’s amazing.” It works out the difference between “they’re” and “their”, and “it’s” and “its”, and can distinguish by context such homophones as “sent a” and “centre”. It even got “He went out into the mist and missed” spot-on. Now that’s clever. It might not immediately strike you as useful, but once you have experienced a day where you don’t have to dial in to listen to messages, but can just glance at them, you will never want to go back.”

In Canada, SpinVox is available to RogersTelus and SaskTel cell-phone users. Rogers offers a free 30-day trial. After that, it charges $15 a month for the service.  It can convert voice-mail messages up to three minutes long in English, French, Spanish or German. Telus offers the same service, also for $15 a month, but only in English and French. However, Telus offers another option: pay-per-use at 50 cents per voice-to-text message. You have the option to turn the conversion service on if you’re, say, going into a meeting, or going out of town for the day. Sasktel also offers the pay-per-use option, at 40 cents a pop, or unlimited use for $5 a month, also in English or French. 

Turn your voice message into an email. 

Finally, Dial2Do  and Jott each offers a free service (Dial2Do’s is currently in beta testing) that allows you to call a local phone number and leave a voice message that it converts into an email or SMS message. Dial2Do will send these to one of your contacts. (It allows you to enter up to 100 contacts; you can import contact lists from Outlook or Gmail, among others.) You can leave yourself a reminder that it will send to your own email. And you can verbally post updates to your Twitter or Jaiku stream.  (These are both free micro-blogging services that lets you send and receive read text-based posts of up to 140 characters, from your cell phone, as text messages, instant messages, emails, or RSS feeds. Twitter also lets you do this through Facebook, Twitter’s website, or using Twitteriffic software; Jaiku, which is owned by Google, offers some additional alternatives.) 

This video explains how Dial2Do works. Jott offers many of the same options. Its free, ad-supported service limits the voice messages to 15 seconds. It also has services for $3.95 and $12.95 a month that offer longer messages and more options.

If you’ve used any of these services, please let us know in comments whether you’ve found them useful. And please share any others you think are worth discussing.

Robert Ortega is a former
Wall Street Journal reporter. He is currently a journalism professor at Ryerson University in Toronto and editor of the J-Source Tools for Reporters section.