Staying Plugged In (for Hundreds of Miles) on the Campaign Trail

How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Sydney Ember, a politics reporter for The Times, discussed the tech she’s using.

You now cover politics after writing about media for years. What tech do you use to follow politics, and what tech do you take with you on the campaign trail?

Covering politics is totally different from covering the media. I no longer get to talk to other journalists all the time. But on the upside, I’ve gotten to leave my media bubble. And I get to travel a lot more.

There are some really good websites that I’m always checking to see information about elections that are coming up, and how analysts are weighting certain districts. I read The Cook Political Report to see which way House districts are leaning. I also really like a website that looks as if it’s straight out of the late 1990s: The Green Papers. It is really easy to navigate and has extremely comprehensive information on every race across the country.

When I’m out on the trail reporting, I’m actually pretty low-tech. I use a backpack so I can keep my hands free. I carry around a lot of reporting notebooks and pens. I have a small Olympus recorder that I got years ago. It has a USB that connects to my computer, but it’s so old that my computer can no longer play the recordings I transfer over. It seems to have something to do with the format of the recordings, but it’s still something of a mystery to me even after copious Googling. I also record a lot of videos on my phone so I can remember what the atmosphere was like at a campaign event, for example, or how candidates looked interacting with voters.

Drives on the trail can get long. I recently drove from Kansas City to Wichita, Kan., and back, then went on to St. Louis, a journey of roughly 700 miles over three days. Most cars these days seem to have a USB port, so I make sure to plug in my phone as soon as I start driving.

I rely on the Google Maps app for directions and would never be able to find my way to the right place without it. That’s all to say I spend a majority of my time on the road thinking about how to make sure my phone stays charged. I have a pink Mophie external battery in case the situation gets dire.

How has tech changed the way politicians are campaigning for the midterms?

Politicians are using technology much more to speak directly to the people. They are increasingly streaming rallies and conversations online. At campaign events, there always seems to be someone Facebook-Living speeches.

Representative Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat running against Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, is streaming his campaign live on Facebook. A number of politicians, like Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, a Democrat, have started podcasts. And more politicians, particularly the group of insurgent progressives taking on the establishment this year, are not afraid to express themselves on social media in more personal ways.

The goal of this direct-to-voter messaging seems twofold: They can more easily shape their narratives and appear more human while also bypassing difficult questions from the media.

While candidates are definitely still buying television ads, there also seems to be an emphasis on digital ads this year. Some candidates, particularly first-time Democratic candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, are using online videos to share biographical information and personal details that are inspiring voters who often feel underrepresented in Washington. The Los Angeles Times had a good article this summer about how these videos, some of which have gone viral, are reshaping campaigns.

What’s the deal with those pesky robo texts?

If you haven’t received any of these robo texts yet, count yourself lucky.

As my colleague Kevin Roose wrote in a recent article, both political parties are sending out text messages, often personalized, using mass-texting apps that allow them to send hundreds of texts a day without breaking anti-spam laws.

If you, like me, don’t enjoy when your phone buzzes with unsolicited text messages, there are a few things you can try. Per a handy guide The Times published, you can forward the text message to SPAM (7726). On iPhones, you can also report some text messages as spam by clicking on the Report Junk link that shows up under texts from unknown numbers. You could also try just texting back the word STOP. If anything, it might make you feel better.

Does switching beats change how you use technology to report?

When I covered the media, I spent every waking hour on Twitter. (That’s at least how my husband felt.) If media news broke, I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss it. Now, I try not to spend all day looking at Twitter — it seems less necessary — and check in only every few hours. This sometimes feels more like an aspiration. But I’m trying.

I actually feel it’s easier to get people to talk on the politics beat than it was when I covered the media. Believe it or not, it’s hard trying to get other journalists to say things on the record! On both beats, though, I find that picking up the phone and calling people is often the best way to get them talking.

You’ve covered the rise and fall of many print media empires in the digital age. For the ones that are succeeding, what do you think they are doing well?

Companies that are doing well have figured out a good pay wall to make up for losses in digital advertising and print subscriptions. The cost has to be low enough that readers can justify it, but high enough that it helps support the journalism the companies want to offer.

In the end, though, the companies that are succeeding are consistently producing great, unique stories that can’t be found anywhere else. Readers will pay for good journalism.

Outside your work, what tech product do you use a ton?

As unoriginal as it sounds, I really love my Apple Watch. I’m a big runner, and I originally got it because I wanted to use it as a running watch. But I’ve found other reasons to love it.

In a weird way, it gives me some freedom from my phone. Before I had it, I’d pick up my phone for every email, text or alert, then get sucked into the vortex of social media. I could lose hours this way. Now, because I can look at my watch to see what’s going on, I can leave my phone alone, sometimes even in another room, knowing I still won’t miss anything important.

I also really like that I can read and send text messages from it. When I’m stuck on long drives on the trail, I can glance at my wrist to see a text, then respond simply by saying something out loud. It doesn’t transcribe perfectly, but it works when I can’t look at my phone.