The Essentials for Covering Silicon Valley: Burner Phones and Doorbells

How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Jack Nicas, a technology reporter for The Times in San Francisco, discussed the tech he’s using.

You write about Apple and other Silicon Valley companies. What are your most important tools for reporting?

Reporting is not typically sexy. We spend a lot of time sending emails, leaving voice mail messages, chasing dead ends and trying to persuade people to tell us stuff they shouldn’t. We don’t have any shiny gadgets you see in spy movies. Some of my most reliable reporting tools are a pen and paper.

Arguably my most interesting gadget for a time was a flip phone I bought from Target. Burner phones are great for talking to paranoid sources, contacting unsavory characters or trying to reach people who are screening my calls. But now, of course, there’s an app for that. It’s called Burner and it lets you make calls and send texts with different phone numbers. I can even pick the area code so my subject thinks I’m calling from nearby, just like the spammers! (We have a lot in common, some people say.) For sensitive communications, I still use Signal, the encrypted messaging and calling app.

I’m also a prolific screenshotter. The internet is an ephemeral place, so when I see something online for a story, I make sure to capture it immediately. The technique has been crucial for documenting fake Facebook accounts, dark YouTube recommendations, wrong Google answers, bizarre Google Maps neighborhoods. I use the FireShot plug-in for Google Chrome and my iPhone’s built-in screenshot and screen-recording tool.

I record some interviews with TapeACall Pro, an app that requires dialing in a third number that records the call’s audio. But because that can store the audio in the cloud, for sensitive calls I revert to a tangled setup that involves a decade-old Olympus WS-400S voice recorder, headphones and an auxiliary cord. That keeps the audio on a recorder that never connects to the internet. For particularly sensitive conversations, I ditch all of that and try to meet in person.

I typically bike to meetings and am an avid user of San Francisco’s shared-bike programs. I do not ride scooters, thankfully, because otherwise I know this article would have ended up with a photo of me on one.

If I had to choose one favorite old-school reporting technology though, I’d pick the doorbell.

When has going door to door helped with your reporting? And when did it not work out so well?

When I covered crime in Boston and Florida, I typically knocked on doors to find families and friends of victims. That often led to harrowing but fruitful interviews. Now I’m usually trying to find people who don’t want to be found — and that sometimes means I’m not well received.

That was the case on one of my first door-knocking experiences. My professor at Boston University, Dick Lehr, a longtime investigative reporter, took me under his wing to examine a 30-year-old questionable arson murder conviction. We showed up to the apartment of the man we suspected had actually started the fire in question. He was home, and appeared to be on drugs. We were invited in and, as we questioned where he was the night of the crime, we eyed a large knife on his table. When he became belligerent because I began writing, we left.

In a past life you covered Google. Now you cover Apple. So, iPhone or Android?

I’ve had both and have a controversial opinion: They’re basically the same. (Apple will not like this answer.) The top phones for either operating system are excellent, easy-to-use devices with virtually the same features and apps. The biggest difference is the business model.

How so?

Apple makes money by selling consumers expensive iPhones. Google makes money by giving away its Android software and services — and then charging advertisers for access to the billions of users it attracts.

Google’s approach has given it enormous data about the world and its inhabitants. Google is well positioned to use its mass collection of personal data for new products, like artificial intelligence, but it also draws new scrutiny to the company.

Apple’s less data-focused approach has allowed it to take the high road on privacy. That strategy has potentially insulated the company from regulations and public scorn, but it also could leave Apple with dumber products than its rivals.

Internet trolls have targeted you for your coverage. What happened and how did you fend them off?

I wrote a series of articles when I previously worked for The Wall Street Journal about problems with YouTube’s algorithms that led the company to make changes that affected some YouTube video creators. One YouTube star accused me of doctoring evidence, and thousands then descended on my Twitter account and flooded my email inbox with hate mail and death threats.

While Journal security and I monitored the attacks for any credible threats, I found a very effective approach to frustrating the trolls: ignore them. Their oxygen is attention, so when they realized I wasn’t going to respond or get upset, they moved along.

Outside of work, what tech product are you and your family currently obsessed with?

In a shameless plug, I am a fan of the NYT Cooking app. I recently used it to make doner kebab in the oven, an old favorite from late nights in Berlin, where I lived before on a journalism fellowship. While I hail from a long line of chefs, and my wife is an excellent one too, I’m not. The app provides a terrific mix of elegant-but-doable dishes. I just wish it would let me input the ingredients I have on hand and return a recipe I can cook without a trip to the store.

My wife and I have also become frequent users of our voice-controlled speaker, the Google Home, for music, news and weather reports. I constantly test it with questions and am often pleased, or puzzled, by the answers it returns. My wife, a self-described Luddite, initially teased me for talking to an inanimate object. Now she excitedly, and a bit ironically, greets it when we return home from a trip.

“Thanks,” it replies. “I’m happy to see you, too.”