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‘The Effects Cannot Be Overstated’: When Tech Invaded Media

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How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Jim Rutenberg, media columnist for The Times, discussed the tech he’s using.

Tech and media have long been converging. What are the biggest effects on the media industry, and how has it had to adapt?

The effects cannot be overstated — and in some ways, everything is changing, which is what makes it so exciting to cover.

First there’s streaming, which has blown apart the television model that I started covering 20 years ago. The traditional networks are under siege, and that, in turn, is breaking up the longstanding Hollywood power structure — and the old boys’ network behind it — in welcome ways. The amount of quality programming is off the charts, and opportunities for newcomers with new ideas and backgrounds are unparalleled in the history of the moving image.

The question is what the new power structure will look like. Will it be more reflective of America and continue to tell better stories about it? Or will it be meet the new boss, same as the old boss?

In journalism, it’s a mixed bag. The giant sucking sound you hear is Silicon Valley vacuuming the digital ad dollars out of the news business, badly hurting small and midsize newspapers across the country. This is now a given, but I’ll say it again anyway: As newspapers fall, leaving important local issues uncovered, the social media companies contributing to their deaths are helping to fill the content void with unverified, and at worst patently false, information. Solutions are not coming fast, though smart people are working on it.

At the same time, the digital transformation has introduced supercool ways of telling stories and given the industry a new dynamism from a new talent pool. At the end of the day, though, the basics still rise: penetrating, holy-smokes reporting in stories well told.

How do you consume media now? Which gadgets or tech services do you use most often?

I am so addicted to my iPhone that my fingers hurt. My distal interphalangeal joints — the ones toward the tips of my digits — take it particularly hard, though they are probably so strong by now they could lift a VW Bug. I’m a 6s-type person, and if I didn’t have the iPhone battery case I’d be dead in the water by noon every day (especially when dealing with sensitive sources via battery-eating encrypted apps).

Most of my iPhone time is spent on Twitter, far more than I want to admit. I use Twitter far more to consume than to tweet myself; I prefer to save my best thoughts for my column, though I am constantly reassessing that as I watch many of my colleagues make wonderful use of the platform to report without cutting into their more traditional dispatches.

That said, I’ve balanced my follows such that Twitter and, secondarily, Facebook still do a fairly good job of serving up content I wouldn’t have otherwise noticed (So I won’t delete my accounts — yet). With friends who are less social media oriented, I remain an evangelist for a well-curated feed, though I include a trigger warning: The dreck that inevitably works its way into the stream can ruin your day (or your democracy), as the world now knows. I find that Instagram is a good antidote, and I keep mine personal, and away from work.

I start the morning on my iPad, where I peruse Flipboard and the traditional newspaper apps: The Times’s, The Wall Street Journal’s, The Washington Post’s and those of various local news organizations (The Palm Beach Post, The Texas Tribune, Philly.com), especially when I’m traveling.

I’m using Apple TV more and more, and am constantly toggling between my content on Apple, Amazon Prime, Netflix and the cable box. I’ve yet to figure out the remotes; I just push buttons until stuff turns on.

Spotify is a constant in my life, and it’s what I usually use on my Sonos home speaker system as well.

What could be better about the tech tools you rely on most for your beat?

Among all their downsides, the news algorithms of Twitter and Facebook do a lousy job serving up items that aren’t directly in the trending hurricane du jour. It would be great if they could be more like Spotify, which has developed a very good formula for finding songs and bands you have never heard of but will probably like — with curveballs thrown in that run counter to your taste, in case you’re up for expanding your repertoire. It may be easier to do with music, which calms the savage beast, than with words and pictures, whose power to enrage has only grown.

Also, the platforms simply have to do a better job of identifying and eradicating bots whose sole mission appears to be to inflame and harass. Yes, they target all sorts of users, but in some cases (and in the parochial terms of my beat) they’re aimed at journalists — either to sway them or to just attack them, in another affront on democracy’s fourth estate.

Don’t get me started on misinformation. I have too many columns ahead to fill on the topic.

What tech product are you personally obsessed with?

I’m going to cheat and talk about two. And it won’t be pretty.

Let’s start with Nest. The device — at least ours, which we got two years ago — has a mind of its own. At times, it makes me feel as if I’m in the “Jetsons” reboot episode in which the robots all turn against George. My wife and I are often away from our house for long periods, so we keep the heat low. The Nest allows us to warm it from afar hours ahead of time so we don’t come home to an icebox.

But then, for no apparent reason, the Nest will set the heat back to low when we’re in the house so it is suddenly freezing again. This has happened in exceedingly cold weather when there are pipes to worry about. The device is running on an algorithm that we can turn off — I get that (theoretically, at least; my m.o. with tech is to figure out the minimum that will serve my needs and leave it at that). And I’m sure there are other ways to fix it. The other day I hit up against a new and unforeseen problem — it went totally dead on me just as a cold snap kicked in. I forgot to pay the internet bill. I know one thing: My old thermostat was immune to my own idiocy, didn’t play games with me or jeopardize my plumbing and I didn’t need to pore through a manual to figure it out. We are giving it one more chance before we ditch it.

Ditto Sonos. The stereo speakers are wireless and portable, so you can play music throughout your house from your iPhone, without having to hire a contractor to embed speakers in your walls or sell you some fancy and expensive system.

But often — usually when we’re throwing a dinner party — the speakers will stop playing as the app goes on the fritz for prolonged periods without obvious reason. (And customer support isn’t all that supportive.) That never happened with my old Sony hi-fi. One more ruined playlist during a party and I’m out.

What’s one app you can’t live without?

Surfline. It’s not the only app to give you surf conditions and predictions, and it’s not the only good one. But its easy-to-digest ratings — “good,’’ “fair,’’ “poor” — are great for committed surfers with the unfortunate affliction of a day job.

The app offers plenty of data and has a wealth of surf cams from breaks around the world, so you can see the swell before you go — or stare longingly at your home break when you’re in another meeting and your editor’s all, like, blah, blah, blah. Cowabunga.

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