Tech We’re Using: An Arsenal of Skype, Voice Recorders and FOIAs

How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Emily Bazelon, a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine, discussed the tech she’s using.

What are the most important tools that you, as a magazine writer who does investigative reporting, rely on?

Honestly, the vital tool in my work is people’s willingness to trust me with their stories and to patiently explain to me what I don’t understand. That’s what I need to do my job.

Everything is a means to that end. Talking to people face to face is still the best, and when I can’t meet someone in person, Skype is my substitute. When I Skype from my laptop, it looks like I’m calling from my cellphone number. I use a software addition called Call Recorder to tape calls (after asking people’s permission). It pops up when the call begins, which makes me remember to hit the button, and then it saves the calls in Ecamm Movie Tools. From there, it’s easy to export the files and play them.

When I say easy, I mean it, because when a tech tool isn’t easy to use to the point of being self-explanatory, I can’t get myself to use it. I don’t say that with pride. It’s a handicap to be bad at solving tech-related problems. But when I can’t figure something out quickly, I don’t think, “Hmm, this is an interesting puzzle — how can I solve it?” I just get frustrated and mad.

Another tool I rely on is my Zoom H1n digital voice recorder. It’s light and hand-held, and it doesn’t obviously look like a tape recorder. It even comes in a little case that looks as if it could be for eyeglasses. The sound quality is good, especially for its size.

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Ms. Bazelon, who lives in New Haven, keeping in touch with Mr. Plotz from the Yale recording studio she uses for Political Gabfest.CreditSangsuk Kang for The New York Times

I do think the design could be updated: For example, you need an old USB cable to export files onto your laptop, and then I have trouble remembering how to find them.

One more tool: Freedom of Information Act requests. The state and federal laws that allow citizens to request information from the government are a great friend. (There’s a caveat: Some agencies take a long time to respond, so if you’re on a tight deadline, you may be stonewalled.)

I’ve done investigative projects based on a relatively small number of documents, but if I ever have to sift through a huge data dump, looking for patterns and smoking guns, I’ll use a software program called Everlaw. It lets you browse quickly without worrying about what format a document is in. (For example, you can switch back and forth between text messages and a PowerPoint.) I like the options it offers for organizing material. Full disclosure: My nephew Zach Sabin is a software engineer who helped develop this product.

You are also a co-host of Slate’s Political Gabfest podcast. What does your podcast setup look like?

When David Plotz, John Dickerson and I started taping the Gabfest more than a dozen years ago, we worked together in an office in Washington and sat down in a studio there and just talked into microphones.

Then I moved to New Haven. For a while, I used a tie-line box, which is a kind of magical connection I won’t try to explain. Later, I switched to an app for my iPhone called Report-IT Enterprise Edition. This one is dummy proof. It has a Report Live feature, which connects you in much the way the tie-line does, or so it seems to me.

The studio became Ms. Bazelon’s recording home after a security firewall prevented her from using an iPhone app, Report-IT Enterprise Edition.CreditSangsuk Kang for The New York Times

Report-IT also offers Record a Report. For this option, you place a regular telephone call and then tape yourself talking into your iPhone. When the call is done, you upload it and send it off to some server in the sky.

I have screwed up Report-IT only once, and that was because I forgot to turn it on. Last year, though, it stopped working because of a security firewall in Slate’s Washington office. So I started taping at the Yale Broadcast Studio, where the engineers are super nice and competent and all I have to do is stay on mic.

As a pretty active Twitter user, you get a fair amount of feedback from readers, good and bad. What’s your advice for dealing with the hate? 

My advice is to be thick skinned about hate but open to thoughtful criticism.

Of course, I don’t always take my own advice.

Last summer, I wrote an essay for The Times Magazine about the term “white people,” which launched a thousand neo-Nazi trolls in my Twitter timeline. Actually, I have no way of knowing if there were a thousand trolls or five trolls and 995 bots, but lots and lots of accounts were tweeting anti-Semitic garbage at me. Other Jewish journalists have experienced this to a greater degree than I did, and journalists of color regularly have it much worse, as do women who write about misogyny. I didn’t enjoy my turn at being trolled, but I feel defiantly attached to my essay.

An active Twitter user, Ms. Bazelon said, “My advice is to be thick skinned about hate but open to thoughtful criticism.”CreditSangsuk Kang for The New York Times

The danger of hateful feedback (in addition to the possibility of actual danger) is that to repel it, you risk numbing yourself to constructive criticism. I try to deal with this by giving myself a little time, after I publish a story, before I look at emails from readers or comments online. With distance, I can process criticism and funnel it into making my work better.

I have a book coming out in April, and I am really going to have to remember this when it comes out.

Outside of work, what tech product are you and your family using a lot?

Pity my children. Five years ago, when they were in elementary school and middle school, I published a book about bullying in which my basic advice to parents about technology was to delay access to it. Especially smartphones.

My sons got flip phones in seventh grade and iPhones in ninth grade (the older one) and eighth grade (the younger one). They would tell you that they missed out on certain social interactions, especially group texting, because their parents were dogmatic. (Also, in my own case, hypocritical — I have trouble unplugging.)

I will say, though, that I still think setting limits is crucial. I like the mantra “People sleep upstairs. Phones sleep downstairs.”

These days, my family bonds more over my tech ineptitude than any tech product. (It would be better if the gender dynamics in this story were reversed, but so it goes.) In particular, I’m mocked for not being able to turn on the television. There are four remote controls, with cryptic prompts for activating four different boxes. I can’t keep it all straight. I get to pick the shows sometimes, though.

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