National News

Covering D.C., With a Backpack Full of Technology

Posted May 9, 2018 4:02 p.m. EDT

How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Cecilia Kang, a technology reporter based in Washington, discussed the tech she’s using.

Q: What are your most important tools for covering technology policy?

A: Tech has become a big focus in Washington these days, which means I’m spending much of my time on the go, hopping around various agencies and congressional offices to cover news and to meet with sources.

I have on me — at all times — my MacBook Air, iPhone X, chargers, earbuds (one pair for my phone and another for my laptop), and many notebooks and pens. I put a lot of thought into what kind of backpack I would buy to carry it all because I’m often standing on buses or the Metro, and clocking lots of steps. I’m happy with my backpack from Knomo of London, which is sleek and light and has just the right pocket compartments to stay organized.

I rely on lots of communications apps. My contacts are very particular about how we communicate, so I have about half a dozen apps I use regularly for interviews. Some sources prefer encrypted apps like Signal and others like to email, text, direct message on Twitter or trade messages on Facebook. I have contacts who will only meet in person and insist that I take notes by hand. Once, a source called me and heard me typing, hung up and showed up in my office lobby to talk in person.

When I’m covering members of Congress or meeting with government officials, I like to record the conversations and rely on the Voice Memos app.

Q: The federal government is infamously bureaucratic about the technology its employees use. What kinds of restrictions do you run into when covering federal agencies, and how do you overcome those hurdles?

A: Last year, after filing a Freedom of Information Act request, I got a big document dump from the Department of Transportation — on a CD-ROM. Our New York Times I.T. staff in Washington had to search for a PC that had a CD drive!

And I recently ran into the bureaucracy of federal courts at the start of the trial over the Justice Department’s suit to block AT&T’s merger with Time Warner. I had let my congressional press pass expire, which meant I had to hand over all electronics at the entrance of the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia in order to get into the courtroom. (Only credentialed press and attorneys can take phones and laptops into the building.) Fair enough. But even when I got my credentials updated on day two of the trial, I still couldn’t bring my electronics into the courtroom.

Wi-Fi is the other big challenge. Ironically, the Wi-Fi at the Federal Communications Commission, the agency that regulates the airwaves, was totally unreliable until a few years ago. The agency’s livestream for monthly meetings still often fails. Q: How is tech etiquette different in Washington than elsewhere?

A: I feel like everyone is hunched over their phones in Washington, even more than other places. This is a news-obsessed town that is texting and emailing at all hours.

There seems to be a bit of a generational divide on use of communications apps. Younger staffers on Capitol Hill often use encrypted apps and direct messages on Twitter.

But even some of my older sources (my peers, really) can sometimes text me at all hours. It feels totally appropriate to call, text, or Signal late at night or during weekends. Many an interview is done with children heard in the background at a park.

Q: Outside of work, what tech product do you and your family currently love using?

A: My family is trying hard to not obsess about tech. We spend way too much time on our own screens. But we did get an Amazon Echo speaker and so far, I’m actually underwhelmed. I thought it would rock my world but it’s just marginally more convenient and helpful.

Q: Are you actively trying to get your kids to reduce their tech usage?

A: I just wish it was easier for my kids to unplug. YouTube, texting, and Facebook are just so compelling. I have rules and parental controls on their apps but the lure is strong.

Q: What are the biggest tech policy stories that readers should pay attention to in the coming years?

A: The whole attitude toward the tech industry has changed in Washington, with growing calls for privacy regulation and antitrust enforcement of giants like Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google.

The biggest stories coming up will be the lawsuits to restore net neutrality, which should begin late this summer. The Trump administration and the FCC have focused on the race for 5G networks and have acted to thwart competition from China, citing national security concerns.

And privacy is the big wild card. Even if stricter privacy rules aren’t introduced in the United States, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation set to take effect next month will most likely spill over in some way into American policy.