Reviews

  • How to transcribe with Trint: An interview with CEO Jeff Kofman

    Buried in my desk drawer is a scratched-up relic — a mini-cassette recorder that I used all the time as a young reporter to transcribe interviews. Now it looks like a discovery at an archaeological dig compared to my high-tech smart phone, which lets me record interviews for hours and share files instantly.

    Realistic Micro 27 Model Number 14-1044 mini cassette recorderBut even with this new technology, transcribing interviews from digital files hasn’t changed from the days of my ancient tape recorder. Even if I use my phone or a computer, I still have to hit play, type a snippet of what I hear, hit stop, rewind a little bit to my best guess of where I left off, and repeat the painful process all over again.

    A new, fee-based service called Trint is trying to drastically streamline transcribing. And if you have quality audio, it does a pretty slick job.

    “Getting the content out of recorded talk is still stuck in the 1960s or ’70s,” said Jeff Kofman, Trint’s CEO and co-founder who sat down for an interview with me via WebEx at Trint’s office in London.

    In his former life as an award-winning foreign correspondent, Kofman was intimately familiar with the archaic, time-consuming problem of transcription. Working in television, Kofman often needed to grab just a few key soundbites out of a long interview, but it took precious time tracking down those quotes in his audio.

    “In my 30-plus year career, all the technology has changed,” Kofman told me. “The whole workflow has been transformed in ways that we could never have dreamed in the 1980s — except this one part of the journalists’ workflow, which is how do we get the content out of our interviews?”

    Trint tries to solve that problem by automatically generating a transcript of your recording. The transcript syncs with your audio. When you play the recording in your browser, you can follow the transcript “like karaoke,” Kofman says, and edit any transcription errors directly in the browser. No more ping-ponging between your audio player and Word document.

    Here’s how it looks:

    GIF of Trint in Action

    Proofreading an existing transcript can be a lot faster than transcribing from scratch. I used Trint to quickly find and snag key quotes from my interview with Kofman. I read the transcript and highlighted quotes that stood out for me. I listened to the recording to make sure the quotes were accurate. From there it was a simple matter of copying and pasting them into WordPress.

    Trint — a combination of the words “transcription” and “interview” — offers various monthly plans but you can sign up for a free trial to test the techie waters. Plans start at $15 a month for an hour’s worth of recordings. If your files are longer you can continue to pay a quarter per minute as you go, and any unused minutes rollover to the next month. Kofman said this is a competitive price compared to professional transcription services.

    “The whole point is to make it accessible,” Kofman said. “This is disruptive technology and it’s about making it easy to get a content and share.”
    (more…)

  • Review: Go back in time with Cogi to record fleeting moments

    When we watched the State of the Union address with our kids a few weeks ago, 3-year-old Sophie Sue was amazed at how members of Congress were sitting still and listening. They weren’t fidgeting, looking around or running off to play with Legos.

    “Wow, they’re doing a good job, right?” said the little Tedesco munchkin.

    It was one of those cute family moments when I wished I could go back in time and hit the record button.

    So I did.

    I tapped the screen of my smartphone and the Cogi Android app captured the last 15 seconds of our conversation. Cogi kept on recording until I tapped the screen again. And I repeated the process through the whole speech, capturing only the highlights of what our kids said.

    This is the genius behind Cogi — you only record what you want. And Cogi lets you jump back in time to capture that fleeting moment. Because by the time you realize you want to record something, it’s usually too late.

    “I don’t want to record everything,” said Mark Cromack, president and chief technology officer of Santa Barbara-based Cogi Inc. “But by the time I realize I do want to record something, I do need to back up a bit. That’s the cool part.”

    The app’s name is about capturing the “cogent idea” and it’s like a DVR for your life. Cogi could help anyone who attends long meetings, school lectures or court hearings. You can also get creative with it. I’ve started to use Cogi during car rides with the kids when they’re being funny. Cromack said bird watchers use it to record bird calls. Lifehacker called it one of the best recording apps for Android.

    Mark Cromack
    Cromack
    I interviewed Cromack last week to ask how the company came up with the clever idea for Cogi, discuss a couple things I see as limitations, and learn what new features are on the horizon. Cromack is an avid Cogi evangelist who said he, his co-founder and his son thought of the idea years ago before anyone knew how useful smartphones would become.

    “Imagine a world where you got, let’s say, a lapel pin,” Cromack said. “You could just tap it that moment when something interesting happens. Or better yet, it just magically knew that something was cogent to you.

    “Well, that’s an interesting dream. Roll that back to some degree of reality. What could we achieve nowadays?”

    Then smartphones became a thing. Today, the Cogi app is available on iTunes and Google Play. Here’s how the app works:

    You open Cogi and a button on the screen says “start session.”

    Cogi Start Session Screen

    Tap on that and start a new session. A session is when Cogi is listening but not actively recording. The button now says “tap to highlight.”

    Cogi Tap to Highlight Screen

    When you hear something you want to keep, tap the highlight button. Cogi then starts to actively record, and it goes back in time to record the previous audio it was listening to before you hit the button. You have the option to go back five, 15, 30 or 45 seconds in time.

    Cogi Capturing Screen

    You can repeat this process as often as you like. When you’re done with the session, hold down the button. Cogi lets you add notes, tags and photos to each session. You can upload sessions or audio clips to services such as Evernote.

    That’s all free. Cogi makes money by offering a monthly membership service that allows you to record phone calls and receive transcripts of recordings for a fee.

    While you could use it to record an entire interview and soak up every word, Cogi really shines when you only want to capture the highlights of long conversations or events.

    One problem with Cogi is that it only records in Windows .wav files. The quality is great but the large files hog memory. Cromack said Cogi will soon add options to record in other formats.

    “That’s coming out within probably the next public release,” he said. “It has to.” Cromack said the company knows users want that option but it’s one item on a long list of improvements the company is working on.

    “We’ve known about it,” he said. “The issue was just one of, ‘Let’s get something out there that works and it’s solid and has that cool experience.’”

    Another quibble: When the screen is off or when you’re using other apps, Cogi no longer passively listens during a session. (If you’re actively recording, Cogi will still capture audio.) The screen dims after awhile to save battery life. But if I’m taking notes or something I don’t want to accidentally brush the screen and screw something up. Or maybe I’ll need to use another app during a session.

    By the time I realize I do want to record something, I do need to back up a bit. That’s the cool part.”

    Cromack sounded receptive to that critique but declined to discuss details about whether it will be addressed in upcoming updates, or whether Cogi will branch out beyond audio into the world of video. He later sent me an email saying the company is developing a version of the app that lets users record sessions even when the screen is off.

    “Based on your input and questions, we already have implemented a private version of the app that continues to record/monitor when the screen is off,” he wrote. “Control is passed to the volume keys and feedback to the LEDs (on Android). This not only provides a more subtle way of triggering Cogi, but it dramatically improves power savings achieved as compared to the current dim screen feature. As such, we’ll be delivering this ‘power user feature,’ no pun intended, in a future release (soon). We still have some things to work out with this feature, as this proof of concept version was to just see how it *might* work.”

    Cromack said that later this year Cogi will offer cloud services to members. This would enable users to share highlights, notes and photos with others who could view that material in a web browser.

    “All of that is part of Cogi cloud services,” Cromack said. “It’s not available today but it’s going to be out.”

    If demand increases for Cogi’s transcription services for members, Cromack said the company plans to include other languages and translation services. Cogi is also going to be updated to support enhancements for larger devices, such as tablets and iPads. “There’s a long laundry list of really exciting capabilities,” he said.

    For me, Cogi offers a way to capture fleeting moments not only for news stories, but for the times with my kids when they say something funny or insightful. Parents think they’ll remember every moment of their children growing up. Cogi can help make that happen — even for the moments we miss. Just hit that highlight button, upload your session, and make a family journal.

    Now you’ll never forget that time your daughter watched the State of the Union address.




  • Review of the SteadyTracker UltraLite and tips from company owner Rene Kropf

    I have kids. Which means I own a video camera. Which means I chase my kids around with my video camera, trying to catch them in action. And the footage always looks shaky and horrible.

    So I’ve read more than my fair share of reviews about stabilizers, Glidecams and Steadicams. They rely on gimbals and counterweights to produce smooth, dream-like shots. But they’re often expensive, and some customers complain it takes forever to balance these contraptions.

    About 15 years ago, Rene Kropf and his colleagues were experiencing the same frustration as they worked in his garage trying to design a tool that could help stabilize shaky film footage for light cameras.

    “We went down the same route of counterweights and all that,” Kropf told me. “And we saw that as a nightmare. It’s like, the sun went down and we still haven’t balanced it, so forget that.”

    The SteadyTracker UltraLite doesn't rely on a gimbalKropf, the owner of Cobra Crane, a camera gear company in California, abandoned the gimbal system altogether. Instead, he helped devised something called the SteadyTracker Ultralite, a crowbar-like device with two adjustable weighted ends and a balancing pad in the middle that rests on top of your hand.

    I recently bought the SteadyTracker UltraLite on Amazon. The SteadyTracker is touted as a simpler, inexpensive option compared to other stabilizers. I’ve been using it for a few weeks and produced some sample shots in this video review. When I called Cobra Crane with a few questions about the SteadyTracker, I was surprised to get a call back from Kropf, the company’s owner. He offered insights and tips that aren’t in the instruction manual.

    “It’s relatively inexpensive,” Kropf said. “It’s pretty easy to use. And the biggest thing, the number one thing that people comment on, is it’s a super-quick set up, so you don’t miss shots.”
    (more…)

  • Handy Android apps for journalists and bloggers

    Android apps for journalists and bloggers

    You don’t need a smart phone to be a good journalist. But it can be a useful tool, just like a notebook and pen. You can rely on it in a pinch if you don’t have the gear in your man purse satchel with you. And a few apps might radically change the way you find, organize and share information.

    Here are some cool Android apps I’ve been experimenting with:

  • For notes: Evernote is a free app that lets you take notes, pictures, and audio recordings. Your files are synced with Evernote and can be accessed from your desktop computer. Evernote is also useful for taking pictures of documents — it automatically scans the image and recognizes the text. You can search those keywords. Tech consultant Shawn Miller wrote a detailed review of Evernote and how he uses it for just about everything.
  • Police scanner: Scanner Radio checks for live streams of emergency channels in your area and lets you listen to police scanners on your phone.
  • Voice recorder: Google offers an app to record face-to-face interviews.
  • Live stream video: You can record free, live videos with Qik, Ustream, and Bambuser. Very handy if you’re at the scene of a compelling story or covering a speech. Here’s an example of a Qik video taken by Express-News police reporter Eva Ruth Moravec when she was at a school where authorities detonated a dangerous substance:
  • The audio and visual quality of these videos usually aren’t the greatest, so I’d recommend using a good camera with an external microphone, and video editing software for stories that don’t have to be broadcast right that instant. But for breaking news, live stream video can be crucial.

  • Photo editing: You can crop and edit pictures on your phone with Adobe Photoshop.
  • Reference: Dictionary.com has an app that gives you a mobile dictionary and thesaurus, and Wapedia offers a simple interface to look up information on Wikipedia. There’s an app for CIA Factbook to look up profiles of every country in the world. Yellowbook puts the yellow pages on your mobile phone, allowing you to look up local businesses.

    For political junkies, the Sunlight Foundation made the Congress app. You can look up bills and profiles of U.S. senators and representatives, read their tweets and check out their YouTube videos, and contact them.

  • Bookmarking tools: When you find a cool Web page on your cell phone, apps for Diigo and Delicious let you bookmark the page and look it up on your desktop computer.
  • Google Voice: Etan Horowitz at Poynter offers a nice review of Google Voice for journalists. Google provides a free phone number that can be assigned to multiple phones — even a land line. Your original phone numbers will still work. In the Google Voice app for Android, when someone leaves you a voice mail, Google transcribes (somewhat accurately) the message, so you can quickly read it and get the gist of what the person wants without even listening to it. When someone calls your Google number, you can press 4 to record the call — another handy tool if you’re caught without a recorder. You get an e-mail of each voice mail and audio recording, and you can embed them on Web pages. Lifehacker looked at the pros and cons of Google Voice.
  • Feel free to share other handy apps. I’ll update this post with your suggestions and other discoveries I find later.

    Update: Poynter’s News University hosted a Webinar on June 17 about tools for mobile journalists. Here are some more smart phone apps and tools:

  • Audioboo: For instant podcasting — make a recording on your phone and upload it straight to the Web. Simple.
  • Yelp, Foursquare, and Gowalla: Can be used for researching businesses and finding customers.
  • Eye-Fi: Smart cards for cameras that create WiFi connections and let you upload photos. Awesome.
  • Dropbox: Handy file-sharing system.
  • (Photo credit: Johan Larsson)


  • New blog: The Art of Access

    The Art of AccessIf you’ve ever had to deal with a government agency that tried to withhold public documents from you, check out Steve Myers’ interview with one of the authors of a new book and blog, The Art of Access.

    Instead of focusing on the intricacies of open-records laws, David Cuillier and Charles Davis write about the social dynamics between people who ask for records, and the gatekeepers who decide whether to release them. Cuillier says:

    It’s crucial to understand the constraints agencies work under to be more effective in getting what you need. Those folks don’t come to work with horns and cloven hooves. There is a whole bureaucratic world that thinks differently than requesters. Understand that world, and you’ll navigate around it much better.

    One technique the pair discuss on their blog is checking the job postings at government agencies to understand the agency’s attitude towards open government.

    By coincidence, the same week I learned about this open-records blog, there was local news about BexarMet’s ousted gatekeeper T.J. Connolly, who pleaded guilty to campaign-finance violations. We had written many stories about Connolly, one of which detailed his efforts to delay an open-records request at BexarMet. “I want to be as uncooperative as possible … without being obvious,” Connolly wrote to BexarMet officials.

    How did we learn about these stonewalling tactics? After Connolly and his supporters left the agency, we asked for their e-mails under the Texas Public Information Act. Under the new leadership at BexarMet, the agency was eager to appear more open, and handed over thousands of e-mails.

    So the authors of The Art of Access are making a very important point: The culture of an agency plays a huge part in determining how much access you get.

  • Good read: ‘Telling True Stories’

    tellingtruestories

    Brian Chasnoff, one of the best writers at the San Antonio Express-News, started a new blog about the craft of reporting and writing, and it reminded me of a fantastic book for anyone who cares about long-form journalism.

    Telling True Stories” is a collection of essays by the most thoughtful and talented people in the business. It’s essentially a how-to book written by giants like Tom Wolfe, who wrote the “The Right Stuff;” David Halberstam, who wrote “The Best and the Brightest;” and Gay Talese, who wrote legendary celebrity profiles such as “Frank Sinatra has a Cold.

    There are chapters by Katherine Boo, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her stories “Invisible Lives,” which combined investigative and narrative journalism to reveal shocking abuses of people with mental retardation who were trapped in Washington D.C.’s privately run group-home system. Here’s how her first story started in the Washington Post:

    Elroy lives here. Tiny, half-blind, mentally retarded, 39-year-old Elroy. To find him, go past the counselor flirting on the phone. Past the broken chairs, the roach-dappled kitchen and the housemates whose neglect in this group home has been chronicled for a decade in the files of city agencies. Head upstairs to Elroy’s single bed.

    “You’re in good hands,” reads the Allstate Insurance poster tacked above his mattress — the mattress where the sexual predator would catch him sleeping. Catch him easily: The door between their rooms had fallen from its hinges. Catch him relentlessly — so relentlessly that Elroy tried to commit suicide by running blindly into a busy Southeast Washington street.

    How do reporters find stories like this? Well, in the book, Boo tells you:

    A friend once told me that I find my stories because I never learned to drive. It’s true. I take the bus. I walk around. By being out there — not the driver of my story but the literal and figurative rider — I have the opportunity to see things that I would never otherwise see.

    I found the group home story because I missed a bus in a housing project. Someone gave me a ride home. He had to stop at a group home because he was having some disagreement with the staff there. I entered the group at eight in the evening. What I saw there led to my story.

    “Telling True Stories” is full of gems like that one.

  • Top five books every student journalist should own

    The best way to learn journalism is by doing it. But some journalism books so deftly explain the nuts and bolts of the craft, they should be read by every student, and re-read every few years when those students become working journalists. Here are my top picks:

    The Art and Craft of Feature Writing,” by William E. Blundell.

    Organizing and writing long, in-depth stories in a way that keeps readers engaged is a challenge. And it’s a challenge writers of the Wall Street Journal consistently overcome.

    Blundell, who worked at the journal, shows you how they do it. He breaks down compelling stories to their raw elements like a scientist, analyzing what approaches work and don’t work. It’s a great how-to manual.

    The Word,” by Rene J. Cappon.

    Find telling details … weed clutter from your prose … grab readers and never let go … these are the simple messages preached by Cappon, a retired editor for the Associated Press. Students should read this wonderful book to learn how to get a story right. Journalists should read this book as a refresher course to break any bad habits they’ve picked up.

    On Writing Well,” by William Zinsser.

    Similar to Cappon, Zinsser preaches the value of the concise sentence and the precise word. Zinsser is a nonfiction author but his message still rings true for all writers: Make the reader’s job easy, or lose the reader.

    Super Searchers in the News,” by Paula J. Hane.

    A great book for journalists in the Internet age. Hane interviews journalists who adeptly navigate the Web to find sources, information and documents to strengthen their stories. It’s a Q&A format with tons of references to useful sites.

    The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook

    When I was cutting my teeth at the school newspaper in college, I got to know the education writer at the daily newspaper, the San Antonio Express-News, and he suggested this book. He said it helped him learn about digging up records and finding sources.

    Man, was he right.

    I can’t think of any other book that affected the way I approach news stories. “The Reporter’s Handbook” is a lesson in the power of documents — where to find them, how to get them, and what to do with them. Public documents help you circumvent the many spin doctors you’ll encounter throughout your career. They help you find out what’s really going on.

    Right after I devoured this book, we got a tip that laboratories in the Science Building on campus were in such disarray, the San Antonio bomb squad had been called in a few times to clean up some dangerous chemicals — the kind of stuff that goes boom if bumped.

    Instead of calling up a dean and asking whether this was true, I sought out former employees, police reports and other records to write an in-depth story about a hidden problem almost no one on campus knew about — all thanks to “The Reporter’s Handbook.” By the time I called the dean, I already knew the tip was true. I just needed his comment for a fully documented story.

    “The Reporter’s Handbook” has gone through many revisions to keep it up-to-date. The most recent edition is called “The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook,” by Len Bruzzese, Brant Houston, and Steve Weinberg.

    Those are my picks for the best journalism books. What are yours?