How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Nicholas Fandos, a reporter in Washington who covers Congress, discussed the tech he’s using.
What are the most important tech tools for doing your job?
At its simplest, reporting on Congress is about creating a record of what the people’s elected representatives say and do when it comes time to make laws, question witnesses and confront crises facing the country. So the most important tools as I chase after senators and representatives are simple voice recorders. I usually have two on me at all times to be safe. One is my iPhone and the other an old-school Olympus Voice Recorder WS-852 in silver. That way, if I need to, I can have the Olympus recording in one hand while I type a quote or even a tweet on my phone in the other.
My fellow congressional reporters and I are also swooning over Otter, which is technically a voice recording app. It transcribes in real time what is being recorded and sends both the audio and the transcript to the cloud. I can then log in on my computer, easily grab a quote out of the transcript and pull it straight into a story.
With 535 members of Congress, two chambers, dozens of hearings a day and a fire hose of possible stories, a lot of energy goes into being in the right place at the right time to get the material I need. I also rely on a few built-in resources to help wade through the mess. For one thing, the House and Senate each operate press galleries that will send reporters vote and hearing schedules, transcripts of leader remarks, and the text of bills under consideration — a daily godsend.
But in the House, the majority leader’s office operates a nifty app called Dome Watch. It has schedules for the day and week, gives live updates on what is happening on the House floor — including a vote tracker and video feed — and will send you push notifications when votes are called once or twice a day.
Washington reporters often say the best tech is no tech: A face-to-face conversation with a confidential source is the most secure form of communication. But to play devil’s advocate, aren’t you just as likely to be followed around as you are to be digitally surveilled?
The beauty of reporting in the Capitol complex is that there is both a high level of built-in security and always plausible deniability. So when, say, I’m able to pull aside a congresswoman or her aide to confirm a secretive detail about an investigation into President Trump, no one really thinks twice. Everyone on Capitol Hill, it sometimes seems, is locked in a hushed conversation.
So I spend a lot of time — sometimes hours — roaming the tangled hallways of the Capitol basement or attached office buildings just to get in the right position to run into someone and ask that key question. Luckily no one follows me.
I suspect that may not be as easy for my colleagues who cover institutions less accessible to reporters than Congress. And I, like them, still do make use of encrypted messaging apps, like Signal, to exchange sensitive information.
When you and others reported this year on the Mueller report, which was hundreds of pages long, what tools did you use to comb through it so quickly?
Processing a dense 448-page report in real time — after almost two years of detailed reporting and exhausting anticipation — presented a huge logistical challenge. Luckily our team of editors had an idea built around the principle of divide and conquer.
They worked with our in-house developers and designers to build the right platform and work flow that allowed reporters to pull out key excerpts from the report as soon as the Justice Department released it, paste them in a Slack channel, add our commentary and analysis and then race them onto The New York Times’s website, where readers could quickly assess the key takeaways. To make things go faster, the editors assigned each reporter a smaller section to comb through and helped produce a version of the report that we could easily search for key figures or terms.
At the end of the day, there is no way around reading a blockbuster narrative report like this one in full for yourself. For that, there’s nothing preferable to fat ink-on-paper printouts.
What tools do lawmakers use the most? And which lawmakers are the early adopters of tech?
In Congress, the technology gap can be as gaping at the age gap. Some senior senators can barely operate their smartphones — or, in the case of Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, take pride in exclusively using a flip phone. Others routinely fire up Facebook Live to take questions from constituents back home.
It seems most lawmakers, like most of us, use technology for two simple purposes: to pack more into their 14-hour days and to connect with people they care about, namely their constituents. Most members of the House and Senate, for instance, now have Instagram accounts in addition to Twitter and Facebook accounts, where they can post pictures of themselves meeting with constituents or making fiery speeches. (Senator Angus King of Maine shoots all his own pictures and has quite a knack for it.)
Senators Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Chris Murphy of Connecticut are big Twitter aficionados, typing out their takes on the news in 280 characters and peppering their work in Washington with politically charged quips. Senator Mike Lee of Utah, who conducts a lot of business on the phone while on the move throughout the Senate, was one of the first people I ever saw using AirPods.
Less visibly, of course, Big Data is reshaping the ways campaigns are waged and won.
What tech products do you love when you’re off the job?
I am a committed Luddite in my personal life. Let me put it to you this way: My current tech obsession is a standard iPad that my girlfriend recently received as a gift. I feel a lot of kinship with older people as I punch away with two fingers at night and flip through articles I didn’t have time for during the day.