Saturday, January 28, 2012

Listen to your Readers

Every newspaper I've been affiliated with, at some point, had some sort of reader rant line. In Manteca, we called it "Tell it to the Bulletin." In Turlock and Merced, it was "The Red Phone." The idea was that readers could call a phone number and leave a voice recording, and eventually that recording would be reviewed and transcribed for the print edition. You can imagine, in the days before web sites and anonymous story comments, it was one of our more popular features.

A couple of years ago, we tried a web version of it on We called it "The Squawk Box."   We used a now-defunct service called PhoneBlogz to set up a telephone line that dumped mp3 files directly into our content management system, which were publicly accessible once I had a chance to screen the calls for vulgarity and slander. At the height of its popularity, The Squawk Box was receiving dozens of calls each week.

It was never a huge traffic driver, but it did generate a loyal audience. I liked that readers were able to respond to each audio message on the site using the Sun-Star's commenting system. If I had to do it again, I'd probably incorporate some sort of transcribe setting, similar to LiveJournal's "Voice Post" options. I'd also reverse-publish the best comments into print to give the feature maximum exposure among our print and online audiences. A reader of former McClatchy Newspapers VP of News Howard Weaver's blog wasn't so sure this was a good idea, but suggested using the audio clips in some sort of podcast. I like that idea too.

PhoneBlogz ended its service a while back, marking the end of our experiment. Still, there are other services, such as Evoca, which seem to offer similar functions. A free, though more time-consuming, alternative could simply mean setting up voicemail on an unused phone line and using a digital recorder to manually transfer messages to the website.

Let me know if you know of any newspaper or website that has tried an online reader rant line. I'm curious to see how it'd play in other markets.

1 comment:

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