Improvising a Laptop Recorder and Chewing Gum at the Same Time

How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Davey Alba, who covers disinformation, discussed the tech she’s using.

You joined The Times in August. How does the tech setup in The Times newsroom differ from other places that you’ve worked?

One thing that’s unique about working in the Times newsroom is how security-focused it is. Not only does The Times give away webcam covers during orientation (along with stickers and swag), but the Slack culture in the newsroom is rather … quiet. I guess it makes sense if you think about all the unflattering chat and data leaks that have made the news in recent months, but it’s a change I have yet to get used to.

The upside is that this has prompted me to get coffee with other reporters and editors in my first few days here, and that’s been nice! Imagine that: a tech reporter who is used to communicating virtually and online being forced to meet colleagues in person to chat.

In terms of gadgets, software and apps, the usual suspects are standard at The Times. I use end-to-end encrypted messaging apps like Signal and WhatsApp to speak with sources securely. I use Dataminr to surface the news that’s starting to bubble up in social media. And I’m ashamed how long this took, but I finally set up an account with a password manager for all my online logins. I use 1Password — the company made accounts for journalists free on World Press Freedom Day, and I really appreciated that.

LinkedIn does the same and offers journalists the Premium tier if you go through its annual training. LinkedIn messaging has saved my butt several times while I was reporting.

What are your go-to tech tools for work?

Some of this is going to be embarrassingly low tech, but the best work hacks often are.

Every day, I make sure these things are on hand for me while writing and reporting: gum, stamps, AAA batteries, my voice recorder and telephone pickup microphone, the TapeACall app on my phone, and noise-canceling headphones.

I’m a gum addict. Chewing steadily helps me think while I’m typing away, but I also toss gum pretty quickly — as soon as it loses its flavor. So I’ve got to have a good supply right at my desk and at home, too. (Fun fact: Some of my ex-colleagues and I used to take turns buying packs of gum in bulk, and we worked on a spreadsheet of the best gum brands. Right now, my favorite is Ice Breakers Peppermint Ice Cubes.)

The stamps are for filing Freedom of Information Act requests. Maddeningly, there are still government agencies that don’t list emails for their public records offices, or don’t have online portals for them, and I’m a pretty impatient person. When I get an idea for a FOIA, I try to write, address and affix the stamps to the letters and send them off in the same day. (Government agencies can take a long time to respond to FOIAs.)

My AAA battery reserve (40 pieces), voice recorder and telephone pickup mic are a trio that always stay together. (I use TapeACall, the voice call recording app, as backup when I somehow forget these things at home.) One trick I learned a few years ago is that you can record audio webcasts from your laptop by putting the telephone pickup earbud in your ear while it’s connected to your recorder; then you wear your headphones over the earbud. Voilà — that lets you create an audio recording of anything playing on your laptop.

CreditCalla Kessler/The New York Times
CreditCalla Kessler/The New York Times

You cover disinformation. What is the difference between disinformation and misinformation?

Disinformation involves nefarious individuals — state-sponsored actors, or just online trolls — seeking to deliberately and maliciously spread harmful, false messages to a vulnerable public.

In my opinion, it is much more insidious than misinformation, the process by which false news spreads by accident, with people often unwittingly sharing fake or conspiracy content.

How big an issue do you expect disinformation to be in the run-up to the 2020 American presidential election?

Huge. It’s almost cripplingly terrifying to imagine the machinations being planned right now.

There will be things we expect, and things we haven’t even discovered yet. We’ll need a lot of people working on raising the curtain on disinformation in the next few months. And it won’t just be in the run-up to the 2020 election in the United States — this will happen all over the world.

One thing I always meditate on is how shallow my understanding of George Orwell’s “1984,” and the idea of propaganda in general, was when I was a kid. It was unfathomable to me that you could blast something on television, or inundate the streets with fliers, and people would unquestioningly believe the messages these mediums carried. Growing up, I’d think: Surely the internet, with all of its ability to deliver instantaneous fact-checking, would render the tactic useless, a relic of the past?

Turns out all you needed was Facebook to make propaganda as effective as ever.

CreditCalla Kessler/The New York Times

Outside of work, what is your favorite tech gadget or app or tool, and why?

Hurrah, a non-doomsday question!

Outside of work, I love spoiling my two cats, Vivienne and Laser Beam, with high-tech things. Don’t judge me.

I’ve got an automatic feeder (necessary), I have customized Popsockets with their faces on it, and I have bought this thing called the Mousr — a robotic mouse with a feather tail that you can drive with your smartphone. (Vivienne loves it, and Laser Beam is so afraid of it.)

You have family in the Philippines. What tech is big there, and what do you use to communicate with family there?

Oh, it’s all Facebook. And (the Facebook-owned) WhatsApp for instant messaging. My relatives, friends and everyone I met growing up have accounts on the platform, and without it I would never be able to keep up with family or reconnect with old pals.

I make sure I don’t upload my WhatsApp backups to the cloud, though. I’m not going to pull a Paul Manafort and have my messages subject to subpoena by the government — even if most of my WhatsApp messages are just silly texts to my mom.


Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


four × five =